Focused On The Details: Counter Culture’s New Hand-On Approach

p>Last year wasn’t kind to smaller brands. While the industry’s redwoods were scorched by a down economy and the aftermath of 9/11, they were mostly immune from the fires raging below. But for brands like Tavarua and The Realm, the flames were too hot. Others were burned into receivership or had to make hasty deals with stronger partners to stay alive.

It’s gotten so bad that you half expect all small brands to fall by the wayside — or at least to be struggling for survival. But according to Counter Culture Co-Founder Pat Fraley, you’d be dead wrong to make that blanket assumption.

In 1991, Fraley and Mike Schillmoeller started Counter Culture with 3,000 dollars — money partially from a lawsuit Fraley won after being roughed up at a Ramones concert.

Fraley shifted his focus away from film school and toward building his new brand full bore. He’d throw samples in his truck and drive up to Marin and then work his way down the coast to Imperial Beach, hitting every surf shop along the way.

“Our first season’s sales goals were 10,000 dollars,” laughs Fraley. “Then the Orange County Register ran an article about us in the business section. A family friend who was a banker saw it and hooked us up with financing. That allowed us to grow to three-million dollars in sales in a couple of years. It was one of the craziest times of my life.”

In 1997 the brand entered into a worldwide license agreement with financier Ivan Spiers, and Counter Culture Manufacturing was formed in Irvine, California.

Flexible Strategies For A Broadening Market

The story of Counter Culture’s launch is your typical start-up success story, but Fraley is the first to admit his company is still small. But he says that’s sometimes an advantage in this rapidly changing market and that success stories like his are still possible — even now.

“This business is tough by nature,” he says. “Every ebb and flow is going to present its own problems. But in some ways it could be even easier to start a new company today than it was back in 1991. The brands that are more creative and have energy behind them are now in an environment that allows them to hone in on what makes them unique.”

Fraley says there have been a lot of good companies that have come and gone because they were too early with their styling. “Now just about anything goes,” he says. “Look at a brand like Rvca. They’ve got their own little vibe. The idea that you could come in with an artist-driven line would’ve had people scratching their heads a few years ago. Now there’s room for it.”

He also believes that the customer is much more open to the idea of fashion: “I’m not saying that we all want to go out and be like Diesel, Gucci, or Calvin Klein, but the image-setting kid is willing to embrace fashion in a way they wouldn’t have a few years ago.”

The best example of that is the growth of the fashion-denim market. “Fashion denim is driving our business now,” he says. “Four years ago, if you told me I’d be selling sanded, dirty-washed, fitted denim jeans, I would’ve said you’re crazy. Now they’re the only jeans I sell.”

Fraley says that while it’s sometimes tough being a smaller brand, he does enjoy the flexibility it offers. “We’re a close, tightly knit family. We’re also very hands on,” says Fraley. “In a lot of ways, we can get things done quicker than the other guys.”

It’s clear the market is becoming more diverse, but Fraley says most advertising campaigns rely on the same ol’ tired formula. “For intents and purposes, we’re all doing the same stuff and we’re all selling to the same kid,” says Fraley. “So on the marketing side it’s absolutely critical that the brand identity between brands be completely distinct.”

This is especially important at the retail level. According to Fraley, there’s now a level of sophistication in the market that’s never been seen before. “Some stores and brands are going to have to really step it up in order to compete,” he says.

The growth of company stores and brand-driven retail concept areas within existing retailers will no doubt become more important in the next few years. “Look at what Billabong has done with its retail store,” says Fraley. “They have a distinct message and an image they control. The displays in their flagship store are every bit as sophisticated as anything in the apparel market. Or look at a store like Jack’s {Surfboards in Huntington Beach, California} where the brands have built their own custom fixtures. It’s almost like their own mini retail environment.”

Fraley, who’s a bit of a travel fiend, says brands in Europe and Japan have a much tighter reign on how they’re portrayed at a retail level. “In the U.S., unfortunately, a lot of times the brand message is not coming through,” he says. “The idea of putting ten different brands of walkshorts on one rack that’s 50-feet long doesn’t do anything for me. That’s not the future of retailing.

“Whether it’s because the stores don’t have enough representation of your brand or because they don’t allow any kind of imaging or signage, they’re hoping the product itself will grab the kid’s attention — when we all know that this market is label driven.”

A Hands-On Approach

Counter Culture is actively tackling these retail challenges with a hands-on approach designed to strengthen its presence in key retailers in certain key territories. Fraley says when they tried this technique in Hawai’i in 2001, sales went throw the roof.

“In the past, you’d go hang out on the North Shore during the contests, you’d sponsor a couple of kids, and if the stars were all aligned, you found success,” says Fraley. “We did it differently. We still sponsor the guys, we still go over there during the contests, but we really focused on the little things.”

First, Fraley says he got involved with the main retail players on a grassroots level. “We got involved with kids, supported HASA (Hawaiian Amateur Surfing Association), put up window and in-store displays. We did all the things necessary to develop that relationship with our vendors. We tried to find unique ways to move the Counter Culture brand up in each store, so that when the kid walked in they’d say, ‘Wow! That’s something I have to be a part of!’ The strategy was such a success in Hawai’i that it’s now being taken country wide.”

Even though Counter Culture is a national brand, Fraley says his company is focusing on regional markets. “If you focus on one area and get as strong as possible there, it will naturally grow into different regions. The same goes with the retailers. Instead of trying to please every retailer under the sun, we focused on the key shops in the key areas. Pretty soon, the word gets around and you’ll get calls asking about the brand from other shops in the area.”

Of course, Fraley admits that this strategy works better for Counter Culture because its still small enough to focus its service on a limited number of key shops.

Counter Culture is also a big believer in the grassroots marketing. “We load up the Suburban with hot dogs and Red Bull and we’ll randomly show up at a Southern California skatepark with a bullhorn, box full of goodies, and some of our pros,” he says. “And you know what? You see it in eyes of the kids. I’ve never seen little kids light up or get tears in their eyes over a magazine ad, but I’ve seen it when you give them a sticker and a T-shirt. It’s safe to say that when you’ve touched a kid in that way, he’s gonna remember your brand. He’ll feel like he’s a part of your deal. As a small brand, it’s important to take advantage of those opportunities.”

So is it fun or frustrating to always see yourself as part of a smaller brand that has to do things differently?

“It’s both,” laughs Fraley. “It’s fun because we have a little more freedom, but it can get frustrating. It’
s a growing industry and companies out there have resources and dollars that we just don’t have. If we had access to those resources, we could do a lot of things that we currently can’t. But you learn to deal.”

Fraley says the trick is to offer big-company service on a smaller-company budget: “Retailers — once they experience a certain system and they’re seeing positive results because of it — are going to turn around and look at the rest of their brands and go, ‘Hey, your system sucks. This one’s really good. Either step it up or I’m going to put my dollars somewhere else.’ So, in that sense, yeah, you feel the pressure — and it’s a good pressure. The bar’s been raised.”

But Fraley says all the pieces are in place at Counter Culture and now it’s only a matter of being patient. “That’s another thing about the market that’s changed,” he says. “In the past there was this sense of urgency to grow. What a lot of brand discovered is that if you grow but are no longer supportive of your accounts or able to maintain the quality of your company, that growth will be pretty short-lived. I know we’ll get there. If we just stay focused on the good people we have already and get as strong as we can within those key accounts, it’ll be there.”

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Fraley isn’t passionate about growing his company. “Not only do we need to grow, we want to grow,” he says. “My philosophy has always been, if you’ve got a cool thing and a good message, why wouldn’t you want to share that with as many people as possible? Our brand message embraces a lot of things that are super important in society today — creativity, individuality, not being afraid to speak your mind or do your own thing. Those are pretty solid foundations to live by.”

“I want to get that message out to as many kids as I can up until the point that it’s not fun anymore,” he continues. “As soon as we get to that point, I’ll probably say, ‘All right, we’ve done it. We don’t need to go any further.’ So, in that sense, we’ve got a long way to go, because there’s a boatload of kids out there who don’t have a clue as to who we are.”

Certainly Counter Culture has made big strides since it launched, but Fraley admits his company is just getting out of the starting blocks. “But the pieces are there now,” he says. “You can have the greatest message in the world, but if you don’t back it up with a quality business, it will really show. My company has to be strong at every level, and that’s where our focus has been. We’re patient. We’ve positioned ourselves where we’re ready to take it to the next level, and I know it’s only a matter of time before we get there.”