Marketers ramp up activity in Canadian skateboard scene

Across Canada, while some kids are attacking curbs, handrails, and stairways to perfect grinds and ollies, more and more of their less extreme counterparts have adopted skate brands as a lifestyle badge. The market no longer solely incorporates the hard-core skater, but has stretched out to include those youth who have never stepped onto a board with four wheels.
As Toronto-based youth marketing consultant Greg Skinner puts it: 'Twenty per cent of kids do the skating, and 80% buy into it. There's an aura of coolness that goes along with wearing the brands.' This point hasn't gone overlooked by marketers, as mainstream brands, from athletic wear giants like Nike and Adidas to cola manufacturers like Cadbury Schweppes and Pepsi-Cola, are now targeting the demographic.

Across Canada, while some kids are attacking curbs, handrails, and stairways to perfect grinds and ollies, more and more of their less extreme counterparts have adopted skate brands as a lifestyle badge. The market no longer solely incorporates the hard-core skater, but has stretched out to include those youth who have never stepped onto a board with four wheels.

As Toronto-based youth marketing consultant Greg Skinner puts it: ‘Twenty per cent of kids do the skating, and 80% buy into it. There’s an aura of coolness that goes along with wearing the brands.’ This point hasn’t gone overlooked by marketers, as mainstream brands, from athletic wear giants like Nike and Adidas to cola manufacturers like Cadbury Schweppes and Pepsi-Cola, are now targeting the demographic.

Skateboarding has become a phenomenon in Canada, with 900,000 kids engaged in the sport, according to online magazine Transworld Skateboarding Business. From its base in Burlington, Vt., Skateboard Parks.com lists 64 parks in Canada, although it is only an informal list.

Video-game maker Activision grossed US$425 million over the last three years on the sales of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, a game based on an icon of the sport. Here in Canada, the Tony Hawk game franchise was one of the top three game choices of teen males aged 14 to 17, according to our recent Strategy/Uthink survey. Vancouver-based animation studio Mainframe Entertainment plans to build further on the now-retired pro boarder’s following, with Tony Hawk Feasters, a 3-D animated action sports series planned for a fall 2003 broadcast.

SBC Media, of Toronto, which produces SBC Skateboard magazine, as well as several other extreme sports titles, is reaping the benefits of skateboarding’s rise. The high-gloss pub debuted five years ago at 80 pages; the summer 2002 issue is 244 pages thick. With a circ of 34,300 it also enjoys a 50% sell-through rate on the newsstands – and that number has improved every year. ‘It took 10 years for [our] SBC Snowboard magazine to reach a circulation of 60,000; we predict Skateboard will reach that in six years,’ says group publisher and president Steve Jarrett. ‘Skateboarding has grown from being considered a standalone sport to becoming a new lifestyle that’s been adopted by a whole generation.’

Part of the appeal to kids, he says, is that skating is the antithesis to traditional, more structured activities like hockey and soccer. ‘It allows expression and style. There are no rules or rigidity,’ he says, noting, ‘it’s the street hockey of today.’

Even Canadian Tire, traditional retailer that it is, rolled Dukes skateboards into its floorspace three years ago, and has since seen double-digit growth in the skateboard category, according to Jennifer Sexton, manager of public relations. As of last year, the retailer also ramped up advertising efforts, running contests and featuring the boards in Toronto-based teen mag Fuel. ‘Participation rates have [more than doubled] in the last three or four years for board sports,’ explains Sexton, who adds that Canadian Tire hopes to expand its skateboard offerings. ‘Given that Canadian Tire is the number-one sporting retailer in Canada in just about every other category, as the sport becomes more popular, we want to be there.’

And seeing how Burlington, Ont.-based retail chain West 49 has been riding the skateboard wave, it’s no wonder that mainstream retailers want a piece of the action. West 49 unveiled one store in Toronto in 1996; it had 21 locations by the end of 2001, and 49 as of last month. Three more venues will break ground on Canadian soil by the end of July and further expansion in the U.S., where the company already has a trio of shops, is possible next year, according to director of marketing Cindy Mielke. ‘[The sport]‘s definitely expanding – in Western Canada, almost every small community has a skateboard park, and the fever is spreading east…Brampton, Ont. has plans for five.’

West 49, which has its own 20,000-sq.-ft. park in St. Catharines, Ont., advertises on TV and radio, in magazines and through billboards. Each of its two TV ads, which run on MuchMusic, YTV and ESPN, among other stations, features a teen at a doctor’s office. When the doc looks into his ear or her throat, images of kids performing skateboard tricks flash by. The doctor is shaken and disheveled as a result of the imaginary ride, and stamps their foreheads with ‘West 49.’

But West 49 has built its name via grassroots events too, says Mielke. For instance, the recent ‘School’s Out Forever – West 49 Premium Wood Tour,’ saw the chain’s skate team, consisting of professional boarder Pierre-Luc Gagnon and six amateurs, visit its three U.S. shops for demonstrations and autograph signing. The West 49 World Cup of Skateboarding is annually hosted at its park, and is Eastern North America’s largest skateboarding event. For 2002, the competition will be held indoors for the first time, with a cash purse of $70,000.

According to Mielke, many brands are interested in grabbing some sort of associated cool through a partnership with the chain. ‘I get calls from the Cokes of this world every day,’ she says. ‘It’s a great leveraging opportunity, but sometimes we don’t want to get involved with these brands, despite the millions they bring with them, because it becomes too corporate and not core enough. Then we become the Gap of skateboarding.’

Still, not all corporate brands are off limits. Recently, the retailer hooked up with Pepsi-Cola’s Mountain Dew brand for The Mountain Dew All-Star Skateboard Tour, a 10-city national trip taking place this August. It will showcase an all-star team, include a guest DJ, and prizes. Five amateur skateboarders will compete for an ‘honorary’ all-star membership, and interested teens apply by submitting a video of themselves doing their thing to West 49 stores. In 2001, the retailer latched onto two Canadian punk bands, Jersey and Grade. They tour Canada and the eastern U.S. with a logoed truck, handing out free clothes and stickers to their fans.

Rob Hindley, president of Thornhill, Ont.-based The Marketing Channel, was able to arrange a cross-promotion between West 49, and Hawaiian Punch, the juice drink owned by Cadbury Schweppes. Hindley says the objective was to position the beverage, which launched in Canada last fall, quickly, through a sport that was ‘broad enough from an involvement perspective.’

‘Five years ago, we wouldn’t have done this because skateboarding was much smaller,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t what I perceive to be the mass market at that point in time.’ And, he adds, it wasn’t as culturally relevant to teens as it is today, from an image perspective. ‘Kids now wear skate imagery, without knowing it. Casual streetwear is basically an evolution of skatewear.’

Hindley says he partnered with West 49 because it ‘reeks credibility’ in the marketplace and Hawaiian Punch was looking for the ‘associated imagery of young and slightly attitudinal, but not to the point of extreme.’

It also became the first title sponsor of the West 49 World Cup, which was to occur last fall, but was cancelled due to Sept. 11. The event had been promoted via ads in magazines like SBC Skateboard and Concrete Powder.

At retail, Hawaiian Punch sampled the drink and offered free T-shirts, while at West 49′s skatepark, vending machines selling the bevvie were adorned with images of guys performing skateboarding tricks. ‘We tried to integrate the whole relationship through retail and the skatepark, which is the core of users’ involvement, where you gain that credibility,’ explains Hindley. ‘If you’re going to reach and resonate with kids, you have to have credibility and we borrowed it through our relationship with West 49.’

Like West 49, SBC Media’s Jarrett has also noticed that marketers are increasingly keen about the skateboard demo. However, he cautions them to tread carefully, warning an ingenuine effort will turn kids off. ‘It’s difficult to turn yourself into a skateboard brand, or include skateboard creative in ads,’ he says. ‘It’s more important to talk to the age demo on their level, and have fun with it. Be irreverent.’

If a company does portray skateboard imagery in its advertising, it needs to gain integrity through someone with expertise in the sport. ‘So many make the mistake of having a traditional agency do the creative, and they don’t research the market.’

Nike, for one, is venturing into the skateboard scene, but not in its typical flashy way. In February it purchased Hurley International, a skate/surfwear brand based in the mecca of board culture, Orange County, Calif. (It also has financially backed the smaller skate shoe manufacturer Savier.) The Hurley deal – Nike plans to allow the company to run separately, according to a Canadian spokesperson – is a 360-degree turn; it comes after Nike was much more obvious in reaching out to skate kids. In 1998, for example, Nike supported the sport with its ‘What if All Athletes Were Treated Like Skateboarders?’ campaign, featuring a teen using skateboard skills to avoid a gladiator.

SBC Skateboard editor Brian Peech says only time will tell if the athletic wear giant can pull it off without Nike-izing Hurley. ‘Nike woke up and realized they can’t just muscle their way in. After five years of trying to crack the market, they’ve bought their way in, and they’re not waving the Nike flag. They’re trying to distance themselves from these credible brands.’

Adds youth marketing consultant Skinner: ‘Nike should keep their nose out of Hurley’s business. Give them the marketing might, but don’t mess with the brand.’ Still, the 411 on Hurley among those immersed in the skateboard crowd is that it isn’t niche enough for hard-core skaters to be horrified by Nike’s affiliation to the brand.

However, both Nike and its competitor Adidas are attempting to validate their affiliation to the sport by sponsoring pro-level riders, who don the gear in their print and TV ads. Peech says for the most part it’s working: ‘If they can affiliate with some well-respected athletes, it legitimizes what they’re doing.’

Adidas-Solomon ventured into the skate market in 1997, with its first skate shoe, the Norton, which sold two million pairs, says Sally Murdoch, PR manager at the company’s Portland, Ore.-based U.S. headquarters. Murdoch stresses that Adidas didn’t ‘jump into’ the scene as original skateboarders used to wear Adidas tennis shoes in the 1970s. However, she adds that a recent explosion in participation did propel the brand to directly cater to the demo in the late ’90s.

‘In the mid-nineties, the skate market fell out and there was no reason to have a signature shoe named after skateboarders because the scene was changing and evolving – it wasn’t quite there,’ she explains. ‘Then skateboarders became superstars and branded as their own entities, so it made more sense.’

The company has three skate shoes named for members of its skate team: Mark Gonzales, Lance Mountain and Matt Beach. ‘Chances are people will see them one-on-one, or on TV,’ she says. ‘At Slam City Jam in Vancouver last month, Gonzales, who is pretty much retired, came out and competed in his shoes. That was broadcast on NBC and ESPN.’

Ads featuring the athletes ran in magazines like Thrasher and Nylon a couple of years ago, and Murdoch says a new batch of ads is likely in the next year.

Event sponsorship is also an integral part of the mix for Adidas, and it has been involved with the Xgames for the past three years, as well as the Concrete Challenge in Oregon.

Certainly the Xgames, an annual action sports event held in Philadelphia, which drew 235,000 spectators last August, has a healthy roster of sponsors, including Taco Bell, AT&T and Pontiac, among others. North of the border, Slam City Jam counts Ford Ranger, EMI Music Canada and Mountain Dew among its supporters. And in Calgary, Shaw Millennium Park – constructed in 2000 and the largest skateboarding park in the world at 91,500 sq. ft. – is financed by Shaw Cable.

Wakestock, a summer wakeboarding competition run by SBC Media, which also incorporates skateboarding, has counted Coors Light, Nintendo and Motorola among its sponsors. For Coors Light Canada, the sponsorship ‘fit the active lifestyle of the product,’ when it started pursuing a younger 19-to-24 demo, explains director of marketing Susan O’Brien. ‘We used to target 25 to 35, but extreme sports is more relevant to our new target.’

But while many marketers are hanging banners at events or parks, it may not give them ‘much juice,’ warns Tania Koster, CD of youth guerilla marketing firm Ground Control Marketing of Toronto. ‘I come from the school of thought that you shouldn’t do what everyone else is doing,’ she says. ‘Come up with a new idea…because kids are media savvy and know how sponsors infiltrate their scene.’

For instance, Koster says Shaw would get more bang for its buck if it linked the skate park to a cable program which highlighted the talents of local stars. ‘That would give something back [to the community],’ she says. ‘If it’s just a title sponsorship, kids will say ‘whatever.” In other words, marketers would be wise to take a cue from the skater and polish their routines before heading to the skatepark.