Thursday, May 1, 2014

Surfers, Branding and the Long View

In my last post I explored Kelly Slater's decision to leave Quiksilver to sign with Kering, a non-endemic brand (I elaborated on this topic in an article for The Inertia). In brief, Slater's decision wasn't financially motivated but rather an opportunity to further build his brand and forge his legacy. While Slater's decision made big news, he isn't the first surfer to look beyond surfing in building a brand. There are other surfers doing this today and they're doing it quite successfully.  

Big Wave Laird
I mentioned in my previous post Laird Hamilton and the fact that he seems to be doing just fine after leaving his long-time sponsor Oxbow. Laird of course needs no introduction. He is revered the world over for his bravado and age-defying physical prowess. He's probably best known for his big wave exploits and personality - both of which were displayed masterfully in Stacy Peralta's 2004 Riding Giants documentary - however Laird is not easily categorized. His surfing career has evolved over time but has always been characterized by innovation and non-conformity. For example, he is an accomplished all-around waterman, excelling at shortboarding, longboarding, windsurfing, prone and stand up paddle boarding and kitesurfing. Keep in mind he did all of these at a time when most riders typically focused on one and dismissed all others. Along with Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, Laird also pioneered tow-in surfing, and in doing so revolutionized the jet ski, surf exploration and big wave surfing. To that end, he introduced the giant wave Peahi, or Jaws, to the surfing world. He also re-introduced stand-up paddle board surfing, aka SUPing, to the world, which essentially hadn't seen the light of day since Waikiki beach boys ruled the South shore of Oahu. And now he's blazing his own trail once again with foil boarding. 

Foil Board Laird
Laird designs SUPs, is a fitness and nutrition expert, markets exercise and nutrition plans online, and counts movie actor, model, and author to his credentials. He even has his own tag line: "Blame Laird," which means he has basically ruined surfing for surfers all over the world. How? For starters, he upped the big wave game (including safety, training and preparation), re-defined what it means to be a modern day waterman, showed surfers, their wives and girlfriends what a surfer should look like (read: ripped) and is essentially the Duke Kahanamoku of SUP'ing, igniting a world wide craze. In total, he has a strong, marketable and successful brand.

Another surfer who isn't quite as far along as Laird in building a brand but is surely built to last is Bethany Hamilton. Like Laird, Bethany is known the world over and is a source of inspiration to millions. Unlike Laird, her emergence was sparked by a tragic accident. Incredibly, she has taken back what a 14 foot tiger shark tried to take away: love, hope, vitality and courage. Her competitive spirit and unshakable faith led her to paddle back out and start surfing again less than one month after losing her arm. Keep in mind, she had to re-learn how to paddle, duck dive, pop up, turn, etc. As you can see by the pictures below, Bethany and her surfing isn't a novelty act. She surfs better than most surfers with four limbs and in fact just won an ASP 1-star event, the Surf n Sea Pipeline Women's Pro.

Boosting airs and cranking turns is hard enough with two arms...
An amazing role model

In addition to being a professional surfer, she heads a non-profit organization, is an active advocate for faith, endorses several products and non-profit ventures (what organization wouldn't want to be affiliated with an inspirational story like Bethany Hamilton?), has a signature sandal line, cell phone accessory (enabling single hand use), is a public speaker and humanitarian. Only 23 years old, she has written several books, including her autobiography which led to both a documentary and cinematic depiction of her life. Lastly, she is active on social media and has an extensive, media rich website

Bethany's brand is characterized by the term "soul surfer," using it for the title of her autobiography and the subsequent movie. As evidence to the strength of Bethany's brand, she re-defined this long-established term and made it her own. In her words, "soul surfer" wasn't about eschewing competition but rather "just being passionate about the ocean and surfing." This defines most surfers however Bethany has built a successful brand around her philosophy. 

Throw Kelly into this mix and you have three accomplished surfers who, despite having very different paths and profiles, have built extremely successful brands that are built to last. There will undoubtedly be others and it will be interesting to see who they are but also how far they can take their personal brand.

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