Vice is everywhere (the cool kids are – from Montreal to Baghdad, from street to web to screen)

International lifestyle brand Vice is a prime example of how fearlessness, combined with fresh thinking and staying in tune with its demo, can keep a brand one step ahead of the competition. It began in 1994 as a modest Montreal-based magazine and has since snowballed into a multifaceted youth-culture media empire boasting, among other things, its own film company, record label and broadband channel.

International lifestyle brand Vice is a prime example of how fearlessness, combined with fresh thinking and staying in tune with its demo, can keep a brand one step ahead of the competition. It began in 1994 as a modest Montreal-based magazine and has since snowballed into a multifaceted youth-culture media empire boasting, among other things, its own film company, record label and broadband channel.

In a feat of synergy, Vice Films’ highly acclaimed feature-length documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which follows the plight of Iraqi heavy-metal band Acrassicauda, premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, then was picked up by Arts Alliance America and had its U.S. premiere last month at Austin, TX.’s SXSW Film Festival – the first magazine-to-web-to-film project to make that leap. The North American DVD and theatrical release in June will be preceded by 12 university campus screenings across Canada.

By staying relevant and constantly coming up with new ways to communicate with its youthful consumer, Vice has expanded into 15 countries, with a global magazine circulation expected to reach one million by the end of the year. In Canada, it distributes 55,000 copies of each issue, and the two websites garner around 100,000 unique visitors each.

Now based in New York, the free magazine targets the urban 21- to 34-year-old trendsetter, with a skew towards males. Topics range from pop and underground culture to environmental and political issues.

Much of the company’s success can be attributed to honesty, according to Shawn Phelan, director of sales at Vice’s Toronto office. ‘There is an authenticity to the dialogue we have with our readers,’ he says. ‘We are going to call things as we see them, and if that gets us in trouble with advertisers or scares some of them away, so be it.’

In March 2007 Vice delved deeper into the world of youth culture with the launch of vbs.tv, an advertiser-supported broadband site that streams original content 24 hours a day. Within three months of its launch, vbs.tv had already surpassed Vice magazine in popularity. The latest big documentary to hit the site is The Vice Guide to North Korea.

Despite its often controversial content, vbs.tv manages to lure many blue-chip advertisers hoping to reach the lucrative youth market, including Honda and Toyota as well as telecoms like Nokia and CPG companies. Marketing partnerships with online networks like YouTube and MySpace allow advertisers to reach a broader spectrum of Internet users.

‘We are selling ads to companies that we’d never have dreamed of selling to five years ago,’ says Phelan. In fact, he says vbs.tv is often an ‘easier sell’ than the magazine, due to customized content, created by Vice in partnership with the client, and the use of geo-targeted advertising, which delivers the brand directly to consumers in the right location.

Vice also partners with brands to throw parties for young consumers, such as last September’s Festival Ball in Toronto in partnership with CKIN2U and Rimmel London, and last month’s showcase for Vice Records label duo Justice at Toronto’s The Great Hall, hosted in collaboration with Rogers.

And the original magazine website, Viceland.com, still manages to attract a vast audience with its forums, contests and opportunities for reader comments. ‘Communication is essential. We’re never shy about talking to the consumer,’ explains Phelan.

Books including Vice Dos and Don’ts (2004) give yet another arm to the brand. And in partnership with MTV, Vice also produces original long-form DVDs, including The Vice Guide to Travel.

Vice also benefits from its own marketing and creative services agency, Virtue, founded two years ago by Spencer Baim, formerly of global agency Fallon. The New York-based agency specializes in brand strategy and creative work for Vice as well as for outside brands looking to tap into the Vice mindset. ‘The Vice brand is so interesting and real. We help other brands connect with that,’ explains Baim. The agency now has six offices, including one in Toronto.

Even Vice’s ad hook-ups are different. When Adidas re-released its Adicolor LO shoe collection in 2006 (originally launched in 1983), the brand partnered with Vice to create a limited-edition version. The sole and detailing on the P3 Century Low Vice is the same magenta colour as the magazine’s headlines. The Vice logo is written on the tongue, and the stitched wording on the sides reads ‘Old Blue Last,’ which is the name of a Vice-owned pub in London, England. The two brands also collaborated to produce a viral video featuring the Adicolor shoes and music from the Atlanta-based rock group Black Lips, a Vice Records band, thus adding value to another arm of the Vice brand.

Since Adidas partners with the It-list of art, fashion and design on this custom trainers program, it’s a seal of cool approval that Vice has evolved from media brand status to a broader, more amorphous pop culture standing. That unique identity helps explain why the brand’s appeal ranges all the way from teens to vintage hipsters.

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