Forever Cool: How Vans Maintains a Foothold on Youth Culture

In the late ’70s, my older brothers were typical American teenagers: long hair, Farrah Fawcett posters on their bedroom walls, and Vans #95 sneakers (the classic low-top, lace-up skate shoe known today as the Era) on their feet and tumbling out of their closets.

I started wearing Vans in the late ’80s and never stopped. Waiting in line at a movie theater last week, I noticed a teen boy sporting the same fade-out gray Eras that I happened to be wearing. “Nice shoes!” I said, pointing at our feet. Uncomfortable silence. “So, what do you like about Vans?” I finally asked, awkwardly seizing an opportunity to include field research in this “listicle” about how Vans, over nearly 50 years, has succeeded at capturing multiple generations of devoted followers through experiential marketing. “They’re…just cool,” he deadpanned, as if it I were living in a square-shaped parallel universe.

Thanks to experiential marketing wizardry that has evolved a collection of on-the-fringe skateboarders into an avid community of content creators, the one thing boomers and post-millennial (Gen Z) teens can agree upon is that Vans are (still) totally awesome. Here’s the recipe for Van Doren’s secret sauce:

Establish a Powerhouse Event

The Vans Warped Tour, a rap and pop-punk music festival the sneaker company has sponsored for two decades, evolves with the tastes of its core demo (ages 15-25) with a lineup of 100+ emerging indie artists, relatively low ticket prices, and interactive elements like The Entertainment Institute, where attendees can take a music lesson from the artists on the tour.

Provide a Blank Canvas to Your Target Audience

The Vans Custom Culture competition gives high school students a chance to fund art education at their school by designing four pairs of all-white Vans based around four themes. In 2015, almost 3,000 high schools participated in the six-year-old contest, where the winning design has the opportunity to be sold in select Vans stores and online.

Stay True to Your Roots

Skateboarding has always been the pulsating heart and soul of Vans. This year the company released its first feature-length movie, Propeller, which shines a spotlight on what the culture of skateboarding looks like in 2015. And they launched a huge world tour to promote it. And they made it available for download on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox Video, M-GO and Vimeo. And it’s currently rated with five out of five stars on iTunes. And…you get the picture.

Skateboarding is here to stay. Don’t even get me started about the Vans Pool Party, a huge event bringing current skate pros and legends together.

Empower the People to Empower Your Brand

All of these experiential marketing activities — and we’ve only scratched the surface — have a few things in common. They celebrate creativity, individuality and authenticity, tapping into the company’s four brand pillars: action sports, music, art and street culture. It’s not about selling a product. It’s about fostering, nurturing and championing an entire culture—and recognizing that a culture is made up of the creative sparks that come from unique individuals.

Amplify Authenticity Through Social Media

Who’s tagging along on this year’s Warped Tour? Five YouTube bloggers serving unique content to local promoters to feed social media channels. What has over 85,000 likes on Facebook? The Vans Custom Culture page. “Some brands got away from experiential marketing for a while, but they’ve come back to it because of the emotional connection,” said Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman in a recent Adweek article. “When they create a hybrid activation, with social media to amplify it, that’s a winner.”

Ultimately, the secret formula to exuding perpetual youth and coolness through experiential marketing is quite simple. As company founder Steve Van Doren once said, “It was never about waving the brand like a flag, it was always about the people.”

Next, discover how Patagonia stays true to their roots using authentic marketing.