Vans Doug Palladini on how to ‘scale’ business outside of California & retain culture | Why ‘less is more’ US Open strategy is paying off
With one of the most well-recognized surf contests under its belt for another year, Vans announced last week that senior industry veteran Doug Palladini had been appointed as global brand president. Wrapping up at the beach in Huntington, Palladini took a few minutes to sit with TransWorld Business, explaining where the ever-growing business is headed. Palladini has been with Vans for the past 12 years, most recently serving as North America GM.
Growth and expansion is a major focus for him moving into his new global role, especially within interactive and experiential consumer platforms, like the brand’s continued commitment to the US Open of Surfing for the past four years. Drawing on a diverse background of nearly 30 years in the action sports industry, with roles at Surfer and Skateboarder Magazines, as well as Swell Inc., Palladini steps into the new role with the right balance of communicating Vans business strategy and the creative passion that lies behind its ethos. Implementing what he's learned from growing the business in his former VP/GM role, Palladini will apply these learnings to the global brand strategy, helping encourage individual regional growth.
Doug, congrats on the new role. It sounds like a top priority for you will be growth and expansion. What are some of the key pillars of the business where you are looking to implement this?
Thank you, Kailee! Brand growth and geographic expansion have been part of the Vans strategy playbook for more than a decade now, so it's less about implementation than it is about sustaining success. Vans has to think about our business at a different scale as we move toward $3B than we did at $300M, and in more than 100 countries as opposed to primarily the State of California. The main objective Vans has is to retain our brand culture and focus at this much larger size.
What are some specific ways you are looking to drive consumer engagement?
One of my Vans mantras is transactional + experiential, meaning that we have to inspire our fans and potential fans at all points of sale as well as when we aren't selling anything at all: at events, on social media, etc. And we need to retain the agility to generate so much inspiration at the smallest, hands-on, grassroots RV stop to the largest virtual platforms, such as Snapchat. From what I know about Vans, we are uniquely qualified to make this happen.
In what ways is Vans innovating and getting creative with the overall shopping experience? What are your thoughts on direct to consumer and balancing that with support for core specialty retail?
One of my favorite things about Vans is the equilibrium we are able to create between key account partners across all channels on the wholesale side of the business and our full-price, outlet and e-commerce channels on the DTC side. When it is working well, both sides feed off of one another, and all of it is fueled by our product segmentation strategy that allows us to be meaningful at all levels of distribution.
My three years in the regional chair afforded me an amazing opportunity to go deep with our wholesale and retail teams, get underneath critical functions from supply chain to finance, and gain a better understanding of our pathways to success in both Canada and Mexico.
What are some key takeaways you’ve garnered in your role as North America GM and how do you hope to apply those learnings in this new role?
It's been really interesting and educational going from a global to a regional and now back to a global role. My three years in the regional chair afforded me an amazing opportunity to go deep with our wholesale and retail teams, get underneath critical functions from supply chain to finance, and gain a better understanding of our pathways to success in both Canada and Mexico. I believe the other regions in EMEA, APAC and CASA will find me much more empathetic to their challenges and understanding of their objectives having gained a regional perspective.
What are some of the strengths / opportunities the brand has at the moment, and how have you seen that evolve throughout the years in your tenure with Vans?
I am incredibly proud of what Vans has achieved since VF bought us in 2004, which is when I started at Vans as well. While there has been stunning progression in our business, with the addition of hundreds of talented, dedicated and passionate people, the team's discipline around a singular consumer archetype, four cultural pillars of art, music, action sports and street culture, and a market model predicated upon product segmentation by sales channel, suggests that what has NOT changed is perhaps more powerful than what has.
…The VUSO provides us an incredible platform through which we can put hats, tees, etc. on literally millions of people in 10 days.
What are some of the key metrics Vans looks at when gauging whether the Vans US Open was a success?
We signed on as the title sponsor for the Vans US Open of Surfing four years ago for the same reasons we believe in the event today: We are committed to protecting our own backyard, meaning that we need to honor our SoCal roots and keep them strong; we have the space at this event to share the breadth of our multi-faceted brand with our fans, as we view four pillars all based on creative individual expression as a competitive advantage. The VUSO is much more than just a surf contest; Vans seeks to be a leader in apparel and accessories, not just footwear, and the VUSO provides us an incredible platform through which we can put hats, tees, etc. on literally millions of people in 10 days.
Vans [has] purposefully and rightfully returned the event's focus to its true heritage….and, as a result, we have found that we are welcoming fewer guests, but guests who are much more deeply engaged in the events themselves…
In terms of digital and social engagement, what were specific strategies you brought to the table this year to drive awareness of the event? How effective were they?
Vans is a leader among all sports brands in the interactive space, and that was on full display throughout the VUSO. From leveraging Facebook Live for interviews, to our Snapchat stories—it never ceases to amaze me just how interactive our fan base is. We are incredibly fortunate to get both quantity and quality on all of our interactive platforms.
In terms of traffic and attendance, was Vans looking to grow its numbers at the beach this year? If so, how were you driving that?
The feedback we continue to receive from our partners in the city of Huntington Beach, local businesses, athletes and VIPs, and the fans themselves, is that our "less is more," family-oriented approach has gained traction and is now in full effect. Vans, along with our partners IMG and WSL, have purposefully and rightfully returned the event's focus to its true heritage in action sports—surfing, skateboarding and BMX—and, as a result, we have found that we are welcoming fewer guests, but guests who are much more deeply engaged in the events themselves, the creativity workshops, and even the merch!
Was there a particular demographic you were hoping to zero in on and capture more thoroughly this time around? If so, which demo and what were some specific strategies used to speak to them?
Vans is much less about an age than it is a state of mind. If you are inspired by creative individual expression, then you are a potential Vans fan. We had Ray Barbee giving guitar lessons. You could watch Chris Russell skate one of the best built-to-spec park courses on the planet. And the surfing going on throughout was simply outstanding. Our only strategy was to bring our brand to life on the beach and welcome people in to share those experiences with us.
Our friends at Jack's and HSS have informed the assortment, as has our own retail team, and each year of the event we have comped up as a result.
Did Vans update anything around the retail space at the beach, and if so, what was new / different? How were comps year over year around the event?
A good retailer learns something new about his or her business every single day, and that is absolutely the case with our VUSO merch program. Our friends at Jack's and HSS have informed the assortment, as has our own retail team, and each year of the event we have comped up as a result. This year was no exception. Again, fewer people, but more sales.