Highlights from Stance CEO Jeff Kearl’s SIMA Surf Summit keynote address

Cocktail hour at SIMA Surf Summit’s opening night. Photo: STEELE

The 20th annual SIMA Surf Summit kicked off Wednesday evening at the Marquis Los Cabos hotel.

Stance President John Wilson opened the evening with the 8th annual toast to late SIMA Chairman Emeritus Dick Baker.

Wilson said that if Baker were here today, he would likely advise four things: "Be bold and take risks, stay committed and passionate to surfing and the industry that surrounds it, embrace change as opportunity, and you guys better have fun."

Stance President John Wilson led the 8th annual toast to Dick Baker. Photo: STEELE

Stance CEO Jeff Kearl delivered the keynote speech. He posed a question that no doubt will be a theme of the three-day summit: Why are so many brands suffering when surf participation is seemingly at an all-time high, and millennials have some of the strongest purchasing power in history?

Kearl's discussion was wide-ranging, offering several case studies, including that of Stance itself, as well as insight from Steve Jobs' marketing philosophy and from brands outside of surf, such as Bonobos.

Kearl largely credited Stance’s initial success to asking one question: "What category can be made interesting? Where is there room for differentiation in a homogenized genre?” In Stance’s case, the answer was socks, but Kearl still sees opportunity in other categories. He cited the examples of Under Armour and Lululemon, both of which also started with a “hero product,” and did not diversify their product line until 8-10 years in.

Jeff Kearl offered several case studies, including his involvement in the founding of Stance. Photo: STEELE

Kearl then moved on to marketing, citing a transcendent speech by Steve Jobs when he launched Apple's "Think Different" campaign. "The best brands stand for something more," says Jobs. "We have to be really clear on what we want the world to know about us." Jobs offered the example of Nike, which sold shoes, but never mentioned shoes in its marketing, instead honoring great athletes.

Kearl then posed the same question to brands within the industry. "What do our brands stand for?" he asked. And perhaps more important, even if a brand knows what it stands for, have they successfully delivered that message to the consumer?

After marketing, Kearl turned to the issue of retail. There is a widespread assumption that e-commerce is destroying retail, but Kearl pointed out that a.) 68% of e-commerce in 2016 was from Amazon, skewing the statistics on actual growth and b.) while traditional and multi-brand retail may be suffering, innovative retail ideas are thriving.

He cited the examples of Bonobos, which uses "guideshops" to direct consumers to buy online, and Shoes of Prey, which uses retail presence in Nordstrom for brand awareness, despite being rooted in online purchasing.

Among many other thought starters that Kearl posited, the one that perhaps seemed most crucial to him is for the surf industry to catch up to the youth’s changing buying behavior.

"We are not in the flow," Kearl said, referring to the way a typical 17-year-old finds brands and makes purchases. The industry must adjust to social media-integrated purchasing as well as an expectation from the youth culture that purchasing be as convenient as pushing a button on their mobile phone. He made references to Stance's plans to put more focus on Instagram as a growth opportunity.

Though the list of areas where Kearl saw room for industry improvement was long, he was also optimistic. The surf industry is made up of people "who created careers doing the thing they loved," he said. That lends itself to a continuous source of creative inspiration, which can be capitalized on when facing the challenges of the digital age.

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