Friday, April 4, 2014

Kelly Slater and Building a Brand

Kelly Slater Inc.
Kelly Slater's announcement that he was parting ways with Quiksilver after 23 years was big news this week. Naturally, Kelly showed lots of class and humility in announcing the amicable split. Ultimately, Kelly wants to do something different, namely develop a brand that combines his love of "clean living, responsibility and style." Whether Quiksilver didn't share or support his vision is unclear. What is clear however is that his new partner, Kering, does support his vision. In Kelly's words, "they share my values and have the ability to support me in all of my endeavors." Motivations aside, Quiksilver's handling of the departure was somewhat mixed, part "thank you," part "good luck," and part "you can still buy Kelly's boardshorts here." Regardless, Quiksilver will survive, as it pivots and promotes its other -- and some would argue younger and more marketable -- sponsored riders, namely Dane Reynolds, Jeremy Flores and Craig Anderson.

All that said, the big news here isn't so much the split but what the split represents. And that's brand. Kelly was a Quik product and part of the Quik brand. But Kelly is a brand too. The World English Dictionary defines brand as "a particular product or characteristic that serves to identify a particular product." Everything Kelly does impacts his brand. Surfing, competitive success, eternal youth, wholesomeness; these are all attributes of Kelly's brand. It's reflected and reinforced in his public appearances, interviews, facebook page and Instagram account. Kelly in this regard is not unique. Like it or not, we all have a brand and everything we do strengthens or weakens that brand. 

Kelly is a smart guy. You don't build a successful, sustainable brand by being stupid. He is very aware of his celebritydom and the clout that comes with it. He has a publicity and marketing team that represents and counsels him and ensures he maintains his unique brand. Why? Rather than parading around like a Kardashian or some other vacuous narcissist, he's choosing to leave a more indelible mark, to have more than 15 minutes of fame. Consider some of his work outside of surfing. While he took an enormous amount of heat for it, his small role on Baywatch, a global phenomenon in the 1990s, was an early effort in his broadening his reach beyond surfing. Since then, he's written two books, recorded an album, and earned a Master's degree. He is an entrepreneur, investor, environmentalist and social activist. Given his stature in surfing and, more broadly, action sports and popular culture, it can be argued that Quik was part of Kelly's brand rather than vice versa. 

It's evident Kelly did more at Quiksilver than show up for photo shoots and cash paychecks. He saw first hand what goes into marketing a product and building a brand. Now, the haters will point to his VSTR brand that he launched under Quik's tutelage that met an untimely demise amid strategic changes at Quik and a $3.5 million trademark infringement violation, however VSTR's failure wasn't the result of any decision Kelly made or didn't make. That said, you can bet your bottom dollar that Kelly learned from this experience. He started the Komunity Project shortly thereafter where it can be assumed he has more business and creative control. Signing with Kering seems to be an evolutionary step in which he can further develop the Kelly Slater brand. 

Kelly's decision isn't an isolated event. World class surfers on and off the tour surely took notice and wondered, "if Kelly can do it, why can't I?" So, who's next? Will it be Dane? Rob? John John? These guys have unique brands and the opportunity to grow them and monetize them. Whether they have the inclination or motivation remains to be seen. Whoever follows Kelly's path, they too will have endless possibilities. Signature surfboard models and fins are just the tip of the iceberg. What's next? Cologne? Sports drinks? Golf clubs? What about non-profits? Venture capital firms? Technology companies? Surfing has a rich history of artists and dreamers who have passions outside of surfing. Kelly is one of the most prolific which reinforces his brand. There are many others. Kelly's pivotal, precedent setting decision is just the beginning. It may take a few years however we will feel the ramifications of his decision for years to come.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.