BRANDS’ NEW PLAN: UNDERCOVER

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Athletic companies are trying to show teens they know what’s up.
In an effort to be more in the know and less in your face, activewear makers are brushing up their images with a low-key approach. The aim, of course, is to attract ever-fickle teenagers who are less interested in labels than their elders are.
In other words, “Kids don’t like to be walking billboards,” said John Shanley, senior vice president of First Security Van Kasper.
Action sports brand Vans earns high marks from him for making a point of not using its brand name distinctively in advertising and marketing. Quiksilver, which hasn’t lost its edge despite the tidal wave of surf-inspired brands, also picked up an honorable mention from Shanley.
On the other hand, Nike and Reebok have been too heavy-handed with their sport-specific marketing featuring high-profile athletes, executives said. That strategy does not compute with the kids in the skateboard park or riding BMX bikes, who favor individualism instead of team sports, they added. Playing up a lifestyle instead of a brand is more in sync with Gen Yers’ mind-set, Shanley said.
“Retailers are really fostering the change, by asking manufacturers to be less obvious. Teenagers don’t want overplayed logos on their apparel or shoes,” Shanley said. “What they’re really doing is taking a potshot at the Nikes of the world that believe the brand name is first and the product and lifestyle are secondary.”
Through a new three-year deal, NBC Sports will air the Vans Triple Crown Series, an action sports competition, for the first time. This year, 10 hour-long programs are scheduled to run from May through the end of December. The event will feature skateboarding, wakeboarding, surfing, snowboarding, BMX, freestyle motocross and supercross.
Vans solidified its ties to the birth of skateboarding, when the documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” picked up two awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Stacy Peralta, the film’s director who won the Documentary Director Award, used to be a Vans-sponsored athlete. Vans helped finance the film.
Sean Penn — who’s character Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was known for his black-and-white checkered Vans sneakers, as well as his classroom pizza deliveries — narrated the film. Peralta’s reaction to the documentary’s success echoes Vans commitment to the formerly outcast action sports market.
“I am completely blown away by the audience’s response to the culture we presented in the film,” she said. “Here we were, a bunch of losers that stuck to what we believed in, and are getting rewarded for it down the road.”
Gary Schoenfeld, president and chief executive officer of Vans, said the company’s support of the film “further distinguishes its unique heritage.”
When working on its debut apparel line, Salomon designers opted for embossed and tonal logos placement, said Lisa Vinciguerra, apparel category manager. The collection ships to stores this fall.
“The idea was not to scream Salomon,” she said. “We wanted it to be a discovery. When someone says, ‘Nice jacket,’ they can say, ‘Oh, it’s Salomon.”‘
Big mountain skier Jonas Soderqvist, a Salomon-sponsored athlete, said his friends seek items they can wear walking down the street or right off the hill. He also said several people have approached him and said, “Where did you get that? It’s sweet.”‘
Janet Freeman, co-owner of Betty Rides, a snowboard label, said the best way to be cool is to be true to your brand.
“There is no strategy to being cool here,” she said. “We advertise in snowboard magazines. That’s it. We’re a small company. We do what we do. Small, independent ski stores are the backbone of our company.”
Freeman speculated that Nike’s decision to pour millions of dollars into athlete sponsorships and hefty advertising budgets has come back to “haunt” them in the form of consumer backlash.
The real trick is to appeal to women on different levels, since they have such varied interests.
Emily, a label produced by San Francisco-based Cosmic Debris, is popular with skate shops and goth shops, said Matt Reed, co-founder. The latter refers to stores that specialize in gothic-type apparel such as drapy black skirts and long velvet coats. Emily, an image of a brooding dark-haired girl who favors black and has a posse of cats, is imprinted on T-shirts with such sayings as “Disobey,” “Problem Child,” “I Want You to Leave Me Alone,” and “Be All You Can’t Be.”
Skateboarders, snowboarders, surfers and other action sports athletes relate to that attitude, since they enjoy what used to be sports dominated by boys, Reed said.
“Emily represents this attitude lifestyle that can’t be pigeonholed,” he said. “That appeals to girls, not just skaters and goth girls.”
Emily stands to gain more fans once Chronicle Books publishes an “Emily” book in August. Miramax Films initially approached Cosmic Debris about making an Emily action film, but Reed insisted on an animated one, so talks fell apart, he said.
For back-to-school, Hot Topic will run a major program with Emily, plugging the apparel, accessories and new book.
A few seasons back, New Balance followed the recommendation of a buyer from The Sports Authority and scaled back its logo placement and the reception has been “terrific,” said Judson Van Corps, apparel product manager for New Balance. The company expects women’s apparel sales to increase by 150 percent this year, he said.
“Consumers didn’t want to be screaming a brand name,” he said.
When its used, the New Balance logo is about two inches instead of three. The use of heat-applied reflective logos or embroidered ones lend themselves to smaller sizes, Van Corps said.
In addition, women are wearing more revealing single-layer items like bra tops and tanks to work out, and they don’t want logos that draw attention to their chests or hips, he added.
Even Nautica has taken a more low-key approach with logos on its Nautica Blue swimwear. For the first time this year, the company designed an image of a sailboat to use on the line. Tonal logos are also used more prominently instead of on the brand’s name.
Lynn Koplin, president of swimwear firm Apparel Ventures, the maker of Nautica licensed swimwear, said, “It’s a little more understated. We don’t want to blast the name on anyone.”
Deemphasizing logos makes sense, since most teens shop for fashion first, according to Kevin Umeh, president of Element, an online service that tracks teen trends.
“If you’re not on trend, you’re losing the battle and no amount of advertising or marketing will compensate for that,” he said. “Teenagers have their own style and they want to own it.”