Innovator Interviews: Vans’ Nick Street

Few brands have the relevance that Vans has. It has grown from a California-born brand for skateboarders to a global name that’s synonymous with not just skate culture, but youth and street culture, fashion and music. At 54 years old, the Vans brand is as popular, if not more, than it’s ever been, and that’s because of its multigenerational, multicultural and global reach.

Few brands have the relevance that Vans has. It has grown from a California-born brand for skateboarders to a global name that’s synonymous with not just skate culture, but youth and street culture, fashion and music. At 54 years old, the Vans brand is as popular, if not more, than it’s ever been, and that’s because of its multigenerational, multicultural and global reach.

One of the people who’s helped Vans grow to its current scale is Nick Street, VP of global integrated marketing, who has been working with Vans since the early 2000s. Now based in Costa Mesa, Calif., he oversees integrated marketing across the globe -- a natural fit given his experience with Vans across multiple continents.

“As a global brand, there are things you believe to be the truth, and then there are things where you have to understand what's happening elsewhere to understand how the brand fits,” says Street. In a role like his, where he is tasked with helping ensure Vans’ marketing strategies are executed in a way that fits local markets, “you have to understand what the similarities are and what the differences are” when it comes to Vans in the U.S. versus Vans in, say, China. 

Up until relatively recently, “skateboarding wasn’t that popular in Asia and China. As recently as 10 years ago, kids in Shanghai would get stopped by people asking what they're doing. There’s been a grassroots level of growth, but in the last 10 years it’s really grown exponentially.” Part of that growth, he says, is due in part to skateboarding being included as an official sport in the 2020 Olympics, which have, of course, been delayed to 2021. In China, “It’s moved out of being an obscurity and became a sport.”

California is Ground Zero for Vans, so Street relocated to the U.S. to work in a global role in 2016. But he began his path to Vans in 2002, when he was an events and promotions coordinator for the UK and Ireland for Eastpak, owned by clothing giant VF Corp. which in 2004 acquired Vans. In 2006, he began working on Vans, later moving to Switzerland to work on Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and then to Hong Kong, where he became marketing director for Vans in the Asia-Paficic region, before heading to California.

From a marketing perspective, Vans is perhaps best known for its music programs, including its sponsorship of the Vans Warped Tour, the popular touring music festival featuring a punk-heavy lineup that ran for 23 years until 2018. With the launch of House of Vans in 2010, venues that feature skate ramps, artists’ galleries and live music shows, Vans continued to support music, expanding its horizons by bringing in more musicians from the soul, R&B hip-hop and electronic genres. (One of its current global ambassadors now is funk musician and record producer Anderson .Paak.) House of Vans Brooklyn Brooklyn closed in 2018 in favor of roving popups, but its Chicago and London locations remain. 

“We want to be a brand that empowers and enables artists to be seen,” says Street. “While it's easier for artists to put music out there these days, it’s becoming harder and harder to live off of it, and we want to provide that platform that helps artists thrive.”

Brand Innovators caught up with Street from his home in Southern California to talk about the enduring relevance of Vans, how marketing the brand in the US differs from other markets, and his career path from his early days photographing skateboarders to helping build Vans in Europe and Asia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You've been at Vans in the US since 2016. How has working for a U.S. brand in the U.S. differed from your overseas roles?

I would describe myself as a builder, kind of like a mechanic that comes in and fine-tunes things. A lot of the things that the brand does in the U.S. are established, whereas in Asia, you’re building it. When you’re building the brand globally, you have to explain what the brand is and what it represents in California, to the point where everyone knows where the brand originates globally. 

When I lived overseas, before moving to California, I used to come to sales meetings in the U.S. and that would really help me understand how strongly the brand is positioned. It’s just a much more mature brand here in the States.

I came to California to establish a global operation. I moved to Europe and Asia to establish those regional operations. When I joined here, the brand had been on the path to become a global brand. Before, a lot of it was the US doing the marketing and the other markets adopting that. Now we're doing more to make it a truly global brand.

Skateboarding, of course, is the core of the brand. But there are things we want to do in a globally consistent way, and there are things in Asia, for example, you’d do slightly differently. In Asia and China, we do a skateboarding day to celebrate it, whereas here in the U.S., you don’t need to do that because it’s been around so long here. 

House of Vans was a unique way to bring the brand to people in a way that felt authentic and tied it to skateboarding and music. What is the future of House of Vans in light of COVID? Is there a way to make a digital experience, or is this really more of a physical thing?

We have no idea what will happen in, say, two years, or how people can come together. My hope is that we can gather in a safe way for something like House of Vans. The special aspect for us and who we are as a brand is important. The cultural element is born out of being with the community. It's interesting to see how that has shifted to digital over the last six months, and how we’ve shifted with it. 

We’ve always had a digital component to a lot of what we do. We were one of the first brands to livestream our events. So we’ve always thought about what we do for a broader audience when they can’t be at events. 

What might the future of supporting music look like for Vans, now with House of Vans on hold and with Warped Tour ending a couple years ago? 

Music continues to evolve, as do all our brand pillars. The reason Warped Tour ended was because there are things that have a life for many years, but tastes changes and youth culture changes and we’re a brand that lives off that. Skate is what keeps the brand as young as it is, and music is a part of that. You'll see us continue to support artists that are authentic and part of our community. 

A lot of artists we’re supporting now, like Anderson. Paak, have a natural connection to the brand. He worked in a Vans store when he was younger. We continue to look at what's happening and  the seismic shift the music world has had. Touring and events existed to sell albums, but that whole model has shifted. So we need to make sure we can support the up-and-coming and be a platform for artists that might not be able to get a leg up otherwise. 

What other platforms are you turning to in order to reach your audiences now?

In the West, YouTube is still a big one, that’s where people are consuming and where we put some of our long-form stories like the “This Is Off The Wall”  campaign. 

We have the latest version of that coming out in early September. We’re featuring a Chinese-born American rapper who created his own path in hip-hop. It’s about identity and what it means to be self-made and to be creative. It couldn't be more right for the times.

Instagram is still important for us, too. Twitch is an interesting one where we’re experimenting with livestreams. Snapchat performs well. In China we use WeChat a lot. 

We’re always at the forefront of new media. And we’ll continue to look at what that means. TikTok is one, and we’ll see what happens there. We’ll move where our consumer is and where it makes sense. It’s never been about impressions or likes. Instead we talk about weak ties and strong ties. Are we getting in-depth engagement like reshares and comments? Or just likes and impressions?

Vans announced the Foot the Bill initiative to help small businesses struggling due to COVID-19. How did that project perform, and will you extend this as many small businesses struggle?

Really the idea for Foot the Bill came from supporting companies close to us and part of our community. It wasn’t a tough sell internally. It was very much a “Hey, we have our friends that are hurting right now, and those that are hurting are independent businesses” like skate shops, music venues, artists, restaurants. We looked at what we can do as a brand to help them through this hardship. Very quickly, within a week’s time, the team turned this capability around. It shows you who we are as a brand.

We focused on supporting small businesses that were closest to us as a brand, who have supported us. But also to have something that we could invite our fans and fans of local businesses to get involved in. We used our customization platform to offer the net proceeds to go back to that business.

Recent VFCorp earnings said that Vans brand revenue was down 52%, not unexpected given a recession and lockdown of many retail outlets. What is Vans doing to increase ecommerce sales while so many stores are closed?

When COVID struck, the reality is that usual channels that we have as a marketer shrunk overnight. The toolbox you have as a global marketer, and all the plans, very quickly narrowed down to the digital channels, our owned channels and those of our partners, to social media, and any other digital avenue like the loyalty program. 

But we were very quickly going back to being very creative, but within that creativity we were also confined, which is limiting, but also really exciting. We have one common enemy, which is Covid. We very quickly moved and jumped in on the digital opportunities we have. Lucky for us, we started D-to-C, and we've built a lot of digital capabilities out. We moved to being much more reactive and had to rebuild a lot of our plans in real time. And supply chain issues affected us as well. A lot of our plans were 18 months out, and we really had to adapt. 

We continue to lean into this digital transformation part. You really have to listen to what the consumer is telling you. 

Vans joined the Stop Hate For Profit campaign, where brands committed to not advertising on Facebook and Instagram during July. What were the results from that for Vans? Did you find not advertising on there affected your advertising reach negatively?

It really depends on what stage you're at as a brand and where you are. It depends on who your audience is. What that means for a youth culture brand is that we’re going to be where our consumer is and we’re going lean into that. We’re also a brand that wants to create good environments for our customers. Mental health is something that’s near and dear to us because of who we are and who our audience is. And that social media platform in general isn’t necessarily healthy to be on. We put that money  that we’d use on Facebook to support Black communities directly. It’s interesting because we’re in direct conversations with Facebook. They know there’s more work to be done and we’ll work with them to help that and change over time. We’ll continue to change and amend our media mix as needed.

Would you continue to boycott those platforms?

We’re back on the platform, but we’re back with the view of allowing our business to do what it needs to do. We are taking learnings on a weekly basis and adapting what we’re doing

Steve Rendle, President-CEO of VF Corp., said recently that “racism is another virus to eradicate.” What are some initiatives that you and Vans senior leadership have introduced? How is VF Corp. empowering its brands to work on this?

As employees, we’re empowered to do what we need to do, and we’ve been working on this for some time. When you look at our athletes and our diversity we began that work years ago because there was a need to do that and we wanted to do it. When we’re working with casting, that has been top of mind, for instance.

We put an internal agile working team together to make sure we’re bridging the divide, listening, hearing what is going on internally and identifying opportunities to be more diverse and acting on that. We continue to work through what’s coming out of the agile working team.

We have a lot of the autonomy to do what we need to do as a brand. That goes beyond marketing. Our legal dept took 40 pro bono hours to participate in legal initiatives for justice and inequality. 

We also diverted the cost of our store window displays for the month of July in the U.S. and Canada to uplift and empower the black community and we donated $100,000 to the NAACP and $50,000 to the GSA Network.

We also worked with Anderson .Paak on this front. Vans donated $75,000 to .Paak House in an effort to continue to support programming that combats racial and social injustice.

Maureen Morrison is a strategic advisor and editorial consultant for Brand Innovators. She is the founder of consultancy Irving Park LLC, based in San Francisco.

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