How promoting a culture of fun helps Vans create breakthrough ideas

Photo of Nick Street, Head of Global Marketing Strategy at Vans
Nick Street, Head of Global Marketing Strategy at Vans

Earlier this year, we traveled to The Gathering in Banff, Canada to meet with marketing leaders from the world’s most-coveted brands and learn how they guided their companies to cult status. While we were there, we had a chance to chat with Nick Street, Head of Global Marketing Strategy at Vans. Here’s how he helps support ideas from his internal team, rather than outsourcing to creative agencies.

Vans has been around for over 50 years. Could you tell us some of the high points in the timeline of your brand?

The brand started in 1966 when Paul Van Doren moved his family from the East Coast to Southern California to start the Van Doren Rubber Company. It was a physical store with a factory in the back where he made custom shoes for consumers. It was then that Paul decided that a direct model was the way to go and it positioned the company as one of the first direct-to-consumer stores back then.

From there on, Vans basically continued to evolve. As the surfers and the skateboarders adopted the brand, we adopted them. 52 years later, we’re still in the business of supporting action sports, but have also branched out to some of the other cultures like street culture, art and music.

“We no longer sponsor events in a traditional sense. We tend to go out and create our own experiences or support creative communities in a partnership.”—Nick Street, Vice President, Global Integrated Marketing at Vans

How did Vans decide to get into storydoing, and what do some of those programs look like?

What’s known as experiential marketing today has always been a core part of what Vans has been doing. When you’re supporting skateboarding and surfing, those sports live in experiences. We were always a cultural advocate for those sports and providing platforms for the athletes to be able to do what they needed to do and express themselves. It has never been about a marketing strategy but rather a grassroots approach to do hand-to-hand marketing from the beginning.

As Vans grew up with grassroots, it’s one of our core competencies. While we ‘sponsor’ less events today than before, we are now more focused on going out and creating those events ourselves. One example is the Vans Park Series we launched two years ago and was created by us as a brand, not an agency. It was the people within Vans who came up with the idea. Today, the Park platform has grown to such a level that it is one of the two disciplines of skateboarding that will be at the Olympics.

Your roots were in the skateboard culture, then you branched out into snowboarding. Now you’re the number one snowboarding brand. How did that transition happen?

It really is a natural evolution and can be tied to the history of Vans. We went from surf, to skateboarding, and then snowboarding was a sport that came next. Not to mention, BMX is another example of a sport we’ve been involved with pretty much from the beginning.

How can you tell when your grassroots efforts are working?

For us, it’s really about the engagement and how deeply are we connected with our consumers. For example, we’re liked on social media, which is great for brand awareness, but what we care about is the engagement that we’re driving with events offline, in the real world, and the experience that the consumer is having with the content that’s coming out of all those platforms.

“We’re not a brand that uses many external agencies. The ideas that you’re seeing in our brand platforms were all created in-house.”

What are some of the things you’re doing to foster collaboration on your team?

For us, it starts with talent first and foremost. The ideas that you’re seeing in our brand platforms were all created in-house. They’re not a pitched idea that we bought into. They were ideas that were born out of the people that work at the brand, and the athletes, the ambassadors that work with us and engage in the brand. Listening to what those people have to say and allowing those ideas to happen in a small way—because you don’t know how big an idea can be—is what we found really works for us. If the idea is good, you have the ability to start somewhere with that, then we will support it.

For us, having the right talent that is culturally connected has been a big success factor for us as a brand over the years—we’ve always had the right people that have been stewards of the brand and the cultures we are supporting.

“When we have global events, you’ll see the entire team having a role… It’s really about fostering collaboration beyond just the job title that you have.”

Speaking of the global aspect of your role and having teams in different markets, what are some of the things you do to promote teamwork across offices, across time zones?

We meet a lot, we talk a lot but we also have a lot of fun together, especially when we are hosting an event. For example, when Vans is activating a global event, you’ll see the entire team there having a role.

If we’re running a big event, you might be in digital marketing, but you’re looking after an area as a steward, and being a part of running that event. It’s trying to be as inclusive as we can with the platforms and about fostering collaboration beyond just the job title that you have.

I love that idea of having fun together being the key to what makes collaboration work well. What’s your favorite example of a collaboration when your team was really in flow?

There is never a day when that doesn’t happen. We are so hands-on as a brand. The word DIY really is true for Vans. We will jump from having to figure out how to run an event and order enough toilets for an event or get a permit, to having to produce strategic presentations. People are really working very much multi-dimensionally and they’re very multi-faceted in what they do.

For more ideas on keeping your team in flow, download our tips guide, From Friction to Flow.

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