Can upstart brands save surfing?


As the surf industry continues to transition, top-ranked guys like CJ Hobgood are still out there battling without a sponsor. Could that change as new brands begin to emerge?

2013 has been a year of major change in the surf industry, with the ASP in transition and financial turmoil at the biggest companies. The global economic collapse has hit industry leaders like Quiksilver and Billabong hard, as both have experienced wave after wave of budget cuts and layoffs. Sportswear giant Nike has exited surfing completely -- in favor of investing in Hurley. Meanwhile, Hollister, an Abercrombie-owned brand based in Ohio that doesn't sponsor athletes or events and has no connection with the core surf market, has quietly become the biggest "surf" brand in the world.

While the overall effects from this tectonic transformation have yet to be seen, smaller companies are stepping into the slipstream. "I think there's a hunger at the local surf shops for something new," says Jason Weatherley, sales manager and partner at the upstart brand Captain Fin Company. Captain Fin, like other hot new brands such as RAEN, Poler and Valley, aren't big yet and don't really want to be.

"I think a lot of the big brands started to have to do things that they wouldn't have wanted to do in order to keep growing, but weren't the best for their image," says Weatherley. Captain Fin, which started as a brand that produced fins with cool art painted on them, has since expanded to apparel. Next year they will introduce wetsuits, but don't look for them to grow too fast. "I wouldn't want to ever have to answer to a board of directors," says Weatherley.

Eyewear brands RAEN and Valley might not be big either, but they are rich in cool factor. They both make high-quality handcrafted sunglasses with acetate frames and Carl Zeiss lenses at reasonable prices. The key figures at these brands are also younger than most of the execs at the big companies and they have a closer connection to their consumers.

"You have to care more at a small brand," says Chris Smith, general manager at RAEN Optics. "You have to give better customer service than the big guy. We want to make great product and get it out to the world. We can react quickly to things we see in the market."

The ability to be fast and nimble is also a plus for Michael Crawley of Valley Eyewear in Australia. Crawley worked at Quiksilver prior to founding his own company. "We can really do things spur of the moment at Valley," says Crawley. "We did a photo shoot yesterday with 24 hours' notice."

The creativity and ingenuity shown by these new brands is how they want to set themselves apart from the mainstays of the industry. Poler is an outdoor-based brand with an action-sports sensibility. "We're trying to set ourselves apart by making products that aren't offered by anyone else," says Benji Wagner, creative director and co-founder of Poler. "The bigger brands have been playing it safe for too long," says Crawley. "I think people are bored with it -- the same trunks, the same campaigns, the same athletes year after year. There's not much freshness."

Of course, as these companies grow, new challenges will emerge, and it won't be so easy to keep things fun and loose. If sales skyrocket, things can get way more complicated.

Weatherly, Smith and Crawley cite brands such as Burton, Nixon and Vans as examples of companies that have gotten big while remaining true to their principles.

"If we could follow the Nixon example, we'd be very happy," says Smith. "They are an accessory brand and have grown into a couple-hundred-million-dollar business. They've kept their brand equity along the way and people who were wearing it 10 years ago are still wearing it today."

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