Catching Up With Vans New Global Vice President of Marketing Fara Howard
After being named Vans new Global Vice President of Marketing, Fara Howard started her first months on the job traveling extensively to meet with brand leaders across several major regions like Europe and Asia Pacific. Her main objective: to get a better understanding of where the brand is and where it’s headed in the future, by listening closely to those who surround the brand, both internally and at the consumer level.
The executive draws on an impressive background in both the digital e-commerce and youth markets, with tenures at large companies like Gatorade and Dell, and says that while her resume at first glance may seem a bit atypical for the action sports industry, that some of the specific lessons she’s garnered over the years have already aided her in her new role with the Southern California based footwear company, which she has a particular affinity for having grown up in the brand’s backyard.
During a recent trip to Vans Cypress, California headquarters, we had an opportunity to sit down with Howard and hear about the diverse initiatives she is tackling, her take on Vans’ position internationally and its strategy for growth in key regions, and her ideas behind inspiring creative marketing.
First, here’s a look at the tour through Vans expansive office space:
What are the biggest initiatives you are tackling moving into this new role with Vans?
My first goal was to spend as much time as possible with the team, both locally and in other regions, and things started strong in that regard. My first week on the job I was in Japan and Korea with the entire organization, both our regional leaders and our regional leaders from abroad, EMEA and Asia Pacific. Making sure I know the people in the organization, their strengths, and how they work is critical as we start to think about what comes next. My first month was absolutely dedicated to that.
The next thing that's a big focus for me is really building out and growing the global team by understanding what our collective initiatives are, where there are variances outside of North America, and what we can do about it. We have grown into a global company for certain, but we will have significant growth both in North America and in regions outside of North America. So having the right construct to serve those regions from our Cypress headquarters is critically important. For me, that has to start with relationships first. To know the leaders, and to know the business, and to know what's working and what's not. I need to know their perceptions about how Vans corporate has served them in the past.
As I step back and look at our marketing, it's been clear to me based on feedback I've gotten both from our consumers and from our employees, that there is a stronger appetite to increase our product marketing as well, which is my third initiative. Vans does a beautiful job telling rich stories about our people, which our consumers relate to. But we've heard from our consumers and people around this building that we have phenomenal products as well, and we need to give those products a voice, too. You saw at Agenda how diverse our product line is and we have some amazing stories to tell there. Now that I'm in my fourth month in the role, I’m spending a lot of time with our team, and of course our regional partners outside of North America, saying okay, what are those key stories and how do we tell them in a Vans appropriate way? Those are the biggest initiatives I'm tackling right now.
With such a diverse offering, what are you identifying around the product as key stories, and how do you go about narrowing down which you are going to tell and in which channels?
It's definitely working with the team and identifying what's worked in the past, but it's also looking at what's coming for us in the future. A huge benefit that Vans has is our number one product style today, the Authentic, was our number one product style in 1966, and that's such a tremendous story. Very few brands have that kind of heritage in their testimony. What I've been doing in conjunction with the broader team, not just marketing but product and sales, is stepping back and saying – what are the stories that are uniquely Vans and how do we tell those stories consistently in the market place. All our silhouettes, from Authentics, to slip-ons, to our Skate Hi, and many others I could list, were created over 20 years ago and have remained very true to form. What we are trying to do, when we look across footwear and apparel, is figure out what are those key stories and how many can we actually tell in the marketplace. When you go into our retail stores and our merchandise partners, you can expect to see a whole lot more from us. It's thinking about things like Star Wars, which is not Star Wars for Star Wars sake, but Star Wars done the Vans way. When you look at slip-ons, which are trending significantly right now with women in North America, those are two stories that you'll see from Vans this season. Star Wars has been a big push for us for back to school. We're really proud of how it's been received in the marketplace. You'll also start to see more slip-on communication in the market, positioned largely at women, recognizing of course both genders. That's another amazing component about the Vans portfolio is that our products work for both men and women, and all ages. But slip-ons specifically you are seeing them everywhere from the runway and Celine producing leather slip-ons to, I could list 42 other brands. What we want to do is assert the fact that we are the original slip-on and that we are doing slip-ons the Vans way.
It feels like a lot of brands are zeroing in on the women’s market and looking at it in terms of an area where they can expand their collections. Is this true for Vans?
We are and will continue to focus on women, and do so in more of a clear fashion in our communication. We know for women, it's not just the heritage of the product that's important but its how the product helps you express yourself, your fashion sense, and who you are. The new slip-on campaign will utilize the verbiage "Be the Original," and it's really just talking about the double entendre that women want to be original but we as a brand want to help reinforce their originality and our originality. That campaign is focused on women and will be making investments with media houses where women go to learn more about fashion. That will continue to be a theme for us as we move into next year. Not just with slip-ons, it's important to note. We also have a strong apparel story. It’s important that we are making sure we really know what matters to women and what's Vans approach when we think about the Vans woman, and I think there is a huge upside opportunity for us. Women are huge buyers of our product.
Certainly the color and fit are huge in speaking to women. Even if it’s just making the men's products scaled down to women's sizes. I'm wearing the Star Trooper Authentic right now, which is highly positioned toward men with the way it is assorted at our retail stores and the size that many of our retailers, both Vans and wholesaler retailers, carry. So it's making certain that it's not just marketing that will influence women to know that Vans is for them, it's also partnering with merchandising, partnering with sales, and making sure when women walk in to our retail stores that they find things that are right for them. It doesn't have to be a curated assortment —and it will not be a curated assortment—of just pinks and purples. Because we know that the Vans woman is so much more than that.
I think we also have a fantastic kids business and we know that women tend to be the key buyer of kids products. Having a relationship with women today will help us in the future as well.
What lessons have you taken from working with brands like Dell and Gatorade?
Both of those brands— Gatorade in a very healthy place, Dell going through some changes post-privatization—bare some similarity to Vans in the sense that they have long legacies. What I've learned about working with brands that have long legacies is that it's really important to know who you are, and to be really clear about that and be true to it. With Vans, there is such incredible heritage here. There are very few brands in the world who have been selling the same style successfully for decades. Having clarity of purpose like that is incredibly important. For me as a new leader at a company like Vans, where there is incredible tenure because it's a great place to work, one of the big lessons I brought with me is to spend a lot more time listening right now both to our employees and our consumers, understand who we are as a brand, and respect it.
What ways do you see direct correlation between those markets and the action sports and youth culture markets?
Action Sports and Gatorade are both targeting youth. If a nine year old builds an affinity for Vans there is a much higher propensity that at 18 years old, they will still be a brand advocate. When I think about the parallels in my past, there is a lot around engage them early, engage them often, and engage them while they are young, and build a fan for life. Specific to how we [Vans] think about our consumer approach has some commonality. Dell, which I think has less commonality to the action sports world, taught me a tremendous amount about how you use digital to engage your audience. At Dell, 80% of sales happened online. With lifestyle footwear and apparel, you wouldn't expect that same level of e-commerce transaction but you would expect the same level of digital engagement. Knowing how to use digital vehicles and social platforms to connect with your audience is incredibly important and has been for me for the entirety of my marketing career. I think that fortunately here at Vans we have a great foothold in utilizing digital as a platform to communicate with our audience and it's something we'll need to continue to do. Action sports specifically, because so many things happen at events locally, being able to take that and amplify it globally—I inherited a team that does that quite well. Things like the Triple Crown and the US Open, with very rich webcasts that are brought to people around the world. That's another thing that is important for us to think about—how do we bring that action sports culture and experience from events to the rest of the world on a global platform.
What untapped opportunities exist for brands and what challenges will the brand face over the coming months? Are there any areas of the business you think could be strengthened?
When we think about who we are as a brand and how we communicate with our consumers, the connection to those stories and how we talk about product is going to be very important. We can't just push product marketing out via media if it's not connected to a larger story. Vans is about creative expression and the messaging in the market today is about “Living Off the Wall,” with our DNA being about letting people be who they are, expressing themselves, and embracing that. That needs to connect, in turn, to how we talk about product. The other untapped opportunities that exist for us at Vans are tied directly to our global growth. With a deep history here in California where we started in 1966, many people in the building have grown up with the brand and have been with the brand for well over a decade. When you look at other countries, Vans history may be only several years old. I do think a big opportunity for us is to ensure that there is clarity across all our leaders around the world, using common vernacular and language around our brand. We do a great job today with consistency of our brand around the world, and we have a very consistent consumer, which is great. But that's something we have to work at everyday. It's an opportunity in a sense. When you are growing at the pace we are growing, we need to be cognizant to not lose sight of our roots, and be certain that as more and more people join our employee family, that they too are cognizant of who we are and are propagating that same message in the market and engaging with our consumers in very similar ways around the world. And that in my opinion is the biggest opportunity for us.
Specific to your creative background, what has been the biggest influence on you personally in your career? Are there any particular people who have inspired you to move in a particular direction or take risks?
I am a constant consumer of advertising. I spend more time with Ad Week and Ad Age than I do with CNN. I think as a marketer it's a good thing to be connected. Certainly seeing what' s happening in the marketplace is a big influence for me. There were a few people in my career who I worked very closely with who inspired me. One was an executive director who constantly stressed what he called "The Red Thread," or the consistency of creative messaging as you engage with the consumer. He constantly pushed me to push my team, because I led creative teams in the past, on what's that "red thread?" as you are telling a brand story and you are showing up in retail. What's the consistency – how have you carried consumers through that journey in a way in which they see you in that channel and say "aha, this is exactly the reason why I came, this is what you've been telling me about all along." And that's something I always think about.
What ideas do you have to drive and inspire the creative team at Vans?
I know there is incredible talent in this building; people who have been with the brand for a really long time and who know the space really well, and represent us really well in the market with tone and voice. Ways to inspire this team include asking them to step back and look at our history, seeing the work we've put in the market in the past and providing critiques of that work and how it was received—in short, leverage the history and expertise of our brand and the team in an insular way. But that cannot be enough. The second part is making sure that not just the creative leaders in the organization, but everyone in the organization, knows the consumer. That's everything from really utilizing the research and great data we have, but more important, getting out into the market. Attending the US Open, going out to the Warped Tour, going to other regions that are growing at a rapid clip and trying to understand why. Spending time in our retail environments, watching our sales force and watching our consumers to get a better sense of who is engaging with Vans and why, so that we can be empathetic. I think there is a big source of inspiration there. Our consumers express themselves everyday through actions sports, and art, and music, and I think the closer we can get to that and spend time with them, the more we can learn.
This summer was the fifth year we ran something called Custom Culture, which is much more than a contest, but is a way we engage high school students across the country to get immersed in the arts through designing Vans products. The 2,000 schools that participated this year were narrowed down to 5, and the 5 are brought out to New York and one wins. Of them, three get some level of financial support for their arts program and the winner gets a sizable grant that goes back into the school system to make sure the arts program continues. That's another area where I think my team can get incredible inspiration and a great chance to really see our consumers in action. That event was so inspirational to me.
The third way would be look at other great brands and get out and talk to them about how they go to market. Our art department will spend some time in San Francisco later this year meeting with some other big brands, engaging with agencies to see what good looks like outside of our business, so they can bring those systems back to how we work. I think the combination of those three things: know who you are and look within yourself, talk to your consumer, and then get out in the market and see what else is happening, are key. Often the biggest benefit you could bring to your consumer or the biggest innovation you could bring to the market may not come from your own industry. So, it's looking outside of our immediate world to try to understand what could be coming next for us.
I really like how much emphasis you've placed on listening—listening to the consumer, listening to your employees within the building, and keeping that level of communication open. I know it's often challenging to keep those lines open as the company grows. What are some of the ways you encourage your staff to communicate, amongst each other and with you and other team leaders?
As a leader one of the things I think is most important is to be transparent; to let people know what you are thinking and where your head is at. In addition to listening, don't just take the information in and derive a strategy on your own and push that back out. Also, make certain, as a leader your team and your peers know that you welcome the feedback and the inquiry. Said in a less positive way—create an environment where conflict is acceptable. I know based on my tenure here, I'm not going to know all the answers. But sometimes at big corporations you see hierarchal behavior happen, people will defer. They will walk out of the meeting and rumble in the hallway when I'm not around. You know Fara told me to do this but I don't really agree with that. That's the worst thing that could happen within a company. I think it’s important to create an open and honest culture, and let people know that when you say you want feedback you really mean it and are absolutely comfortable with conflict. Also, empower people to bring ideas forward. I used to have on the walls in my office the saying, "Don't oppose, propose." If things aren't working, I'm down with that, but I want to know, and I want to know what are we going to do about it. Then you are encouraging a listening culture, but also a culture that is not so deferential and just waiting to be told what to do. The good news is, this company has passion-based employees; people around here have strong opinions on things, and that's great. I want to be able to harness that. As a team we talk a lot. I meet with our leadership team several times a week so that we are addressing things collectively. My team is comprised of not just an art department and marketers, but we are also responsible for environmental design, so the stories we tell, the products we market, we have to be organized so we present a unified front to the consumer—they expect that from us.
Have you faced any particular challenges as a female in your career working in male-dominated industries?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this question because I get asked it often and I have had multiple women seek counsel on this from me, about how they can be successful in business as women. I rarely think about my gender at work because I try to approach problems from a black and white perspective, and I always try to put the consumer at the center of my decisions. But I will say, having given counsel to a lot of women in my career, I think it's incredibly important to provide your perspective and assert yourself. That's not saying you need to be more assertive, or be some archetypical version of yourself in order to be successful. But I have seen women in business hold back, or try to get their point across outside of larger forum meetings where men may be dominating the conversation. I also often see women hold back when it comes to promoting themselves. Stereotypically women tend to be their own worst critic. What I try to remember in a work environment is that I'm in the room for a reason. My perspective is needed for a reason. I may come at the problem from a different angle than another person, whether that person is male or female, but it's important to be able to provide that perspective at the right time in the right forum so people will see you as a credible part of that team. It's important to take credit for the work that you do, but more importantly share that credit with the team. That's something I work to do everyday. Men and women may come at solving problems from different perspectives, but if we are constantly grounded in "What is the problem we are trying to solve? Who are we trying to serve?" then I think those different perspectives can live in harmony and is why I say I rarely think about gender at work. I think more about if we have the right people in the room to get the work done.
That’s a great point. Circling back to the beginning, what is Vans strategy working in some of the regions you mentioned earlier, like China and Europe, as far as growth and expansion is concerned? Is this a major push for the brand?
North America is a very important part of the Vans business, but we'll see sizable growth outside of North America in the foreseeable future. There are many countries that have already had huge success with the Vans brand, and we will continue to foster that. For those countries that are newer, for us its very similar in how we go to market for North America, but just balancing for the nuances in other countries. For example, action sports is the foundation of who we are, and in North America because action sports is a significant phenomenon and many people participate in action sports or appreciate them, that foundation makes sense, and from that foundational pillar we extend into music and street culture. Those things are often the amalgamation of action sports. You look at a country like China, and not only do they often not understand action sports but they often don't participate and its passive viewership, because their culture is risk averse. All of those pillars that are core to who we are: action sports, art, music, and street culture, are consistent globally but you may see one dialed up and another dialed down as we grow into new regions.