Nike attacks the tough snowboarder demographic

Nike may be able to 'Just Do It' in nearly every category it touches, but some youth marketing experts believe the sports apparel giant will find it difficult, if not impossible, to build credibility among hardcore snowboarders....

Nike may be able to ‘Just Do It’ in nearly every category it touches, but some youth marketing experts believe the sports apparel giant will find it difficult, if not impossible, to build credibility among hardcore snowboarders.

Not that that’s stopping the Beaverton, Ore.-based company from trying. Over the past few months, the company has gone to great lengths to capture a significant share of the snowboarding market with its All Conditions Gear (ACG) brand.

Nike ACG – which includes apparel, footwear and accessories – targets outdoor enthusiasts 16 to 24 who participate in beach, snow, trail or river sports.

This year, the five-year-old label will expand distribution to 110 retail partners across Canada, including Sport Chek, Forzani’s Locker Room and Athlete’s World, up from 70 stores now.

In December, Nike unveiled an ACG-branded shop in Whistler, B.C., and hopes to add two more in Mont Tremblant and Banff, respectively. (Nike has no plans to market these standalone locations, the company says. It will rely exclusively on high resort traffic to draw shoppers.)

Also last month, the brand boosted its marketing activity in Canada by signing a three-year deal as official apparel supplier of the Canadian Snowboard Federation, the national governing body for competitive snowboarding in Canada. That builds on an endorsement deal signed in 1999 with Canadian boarder Mike Michalchuk, who is featured in a print campaign running in niche magazines such as Heckler, Stuff and Snowboarder.

In February, ACG will launch a television campaign created by Nike’s longtime agency, Portland, Ore.-based Wieden & Kennedy, which will run on U.S. stations with spillover into Canada.

ACG’s decision to back Michalchuk, along with other big names in the sport such as Barrett Christy, Rob Kingwill and Jimi Scott, is part of a strategy to win over young outdoor enthusiasts.

‘You’re talking about the cream-of-the-crop riders in the world, who are certainly not going to endorse something they don’t believe in,’ says Vitalis Gomes, category marketing manager for ACG at Nike Canada’s Thornhill, Ont. offices. ‘For us to have them speaks volumes about where the brand comes from and where it’s going.’

Gomes says the athletes came on board to participate in the development of ACG products, and therefore, will have a direct impact on the line.

Max Valiquette, executive director of Toronto-based youth marketing firm NRG Solutions, says the athletes were probably underfunded and needed the cash. Nevertheless, he says signing such high-profile spokespeople is an ideal way to gain credibility in this category.

‘When the next Ross Rebagliati goes to the Winter Olympics and wins in Nike gear, and publicly thanks them for sponsoring him…that’s going to be huge,’ he says, adding that ACG can ‘buy authenticity’ among snowboarders through grassroots marketing.

But Gregory Skinner, executive director of Toronto-based youth research firm MINA questions ACG’s strategy, saying hardcore riders may reject such efforts as insincere.

‘People are going to see Nike jumping into the fray rather than having been a participant [that grew up] with the sport,’ he says. ‘They don’t have the same credibility as those smaller brands.’

Corey Wade couldn’t agree more. Wade, the self-described ‘dictator’ of a boarding site called The Skate Snow Network (www.thessn.com), says Nike ACG’s attempts to market apparel for ‘real riders’ has failed miserably so far.

On his site, Wade rails against the athletic wear giant, which rakes in roughly US$9 billion in worldwide revenue, for sponsoring an indoor snowboard and music festival in Los Angeles last fall. The massive affair featured controversial rapper Eminem and offered US$75,000 in prize money, the most ever awarded at a quarterpipe event in the U.S.

‘They have spent a lot of money sponsoring pros and advertising heavily, but most snowboarders scoff at the cheesy designs and hamfisted attempts to gain credibility,’ he says in an e-mail interview. ‘They don’t come across as anything but imitators.’

Wade contrasts the ACG approach to that of trend-setting snowboard manufacturer Volcom. The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based manufacturer, which positions itself as ‘youth against establishment,’ according to its Web site (www.volcom.com), is considered one of the coolest brands in the snowboard market, Wade contends.

Started by riders Richard Woolcott and Tucker Hall in 1991, Volcom sponsors pro snowboarders, skateboarders, and surfers. It also backs live rock shows featuring underground bands and produces its own snowboarding movies.

‘While there are token advancements in technology every year, none of them really matter,’ Wade says. ‘Snowboarders mainly look for the intangible ‘coolness’ in whatever they buy – this may mean graphics, reputations or professional riders on a team.’

Nike’s Gomes, who won’t release figures or comment on ACG’s performance in the category, says Nike realizes there are skeptics who reject corporate America’s association with snowboarding, but believes the company can win over at least some diehards.

Besides, he says, Nike ACG isn’t targeting zealous snowboarders, but rather ‘weekend sports enthusiasts.’

While that may be the case, Richard Talbot, president of Talbot Consultants International in Toronto warns that Nike ACG still needs to focus its marketing on hardcore riders. ‘You need to hook in to the people who are walking the walk in order to talk to those who just talk the talk,’ he says.