When Surf City becomes NikeTown: 5 lessons in brand experience

Huntington Beach, CAI may live in one of the most branded towns in the U.S.. Afterall, Huntington Beach threw-down with Santa Cruz  to capture the trademark on “Surf City USA” .  However – every year about this time, the big guns come to town with the US Open of Surfing and school everyone on brand experience.

It’s about that time again and I find myself thinking back to how well that 9-day experience comes together and plunges everyone into a world of surf – youth culture – freedom – accessibility creativity and lots of products.  So what is it that these marketers do so successfully to take physical and virtual participants on this journey?

What follows are a few key take-aways to  inspire new approaches to cultivating engaging experiences.

lesson 1 : review positioning

The U.S. Open of Surfing is a respected competition that dates back to 1959. Many might say,  “don’t mess with an institution”, but in the late 1990’s the contest had fallen on hard times. The appeal of sitting on the shoreline for hours watching the best surfers in the world compete was limited. 

In 2001,  International Management Group (IMG) – one of the oldest and largest sports marketing firms – took over.   IMG  re-positioned the US Open of Surfing as the anchor of a massive beach lifestyle festival featuring several sports (BMX, skateboarding and volleyball), live music, fashion shows and an interactive festival. 

This moved the event beyond the hard-core surf enthusiasts and tapped into a larger customer group that embraced the underlying lifestyle and values. Now, the experience is infused with a youthful attitude, elite athletes/celebrity, fashion and music—all set against the backdrop of 50-plus years of competitive surfing . With attendance now topping 500,000 – the US Open of Surfing is a very valuable asset.

lesson 2 :  know your brand promise

Last year,  the competition had “3” action sports brands as  premier sponsors: Nike 6.0, Hurley, & Converse.  Oh wait… those brands are owned by…Nike, …Nike, and…umm.. Nike.  While you may not have a love for the company, from a marketing perspective –  they are wicked smart and one of the top brands globally. 

To really appreciate what…Nike did – you need to understand what they were trying to embody with each brand. Its brand essence or promise.   [NOTE:  I make this point on the importance of a brand promise very intentionally. If you don’t understand where you are trying to take your brand perception, how can you begin to cultivate experiences that will productively get you there?]

Below are the brand promise statements of the “3” sponsors. Inspiring and well-crafted.  (click to enlarge Brand Summary graphic) 

Consider “what kind of person would say these things?”.  The personification of a brand starts with the brand’s promise and is vividly brought to life in the social space and in real life discussions.  If you do not have this guiding statement, people are forced to “wing it” as best they can. I am not talking about graphic guidelines and rigid rule-following. I am talking about engaging people in a common cause or philosophy.

lesson 3 :  blur the edges of the experience

While there is probably a set start and end time for your event and a main physical event area -
your participants are not bound by your constraints.

Blur the time. In watching the festival set – up, you can appreciate the grandeur and scope of what is about to happen. The process starts 10 days prior to the event and is completely visible to everyone. To stream the set up of this event, I’ve always felt would add to the excitement. However, some people prefer to “dress in private”.  Apple is an example of this philosophy. (NOTE: Turns out – set up is on the 2011 site that just launched.)

Blur the place.  It’s obvious that the adjacent Downtown Huntington Beach area is a draw for participants. This is a fact to embrace. IMG pays for the 14 acres of beach rental & then it (and several other brands) subtly invade all of downtown.

From the Coast Highway  fencing of a development project “on hold” ; up Main Street into the windows of retailers and onto the shirts of wait staff at the local sidewalk eateries.

lesson 4 :  set up a synergistic experience

Nike 6.0 brought their brand experience “Motel No Tell” to HB in 2010 to “serve as the epicenter for the action happening around the U.S. Open of Surfing.” – both offline & online seamlessly.

They rented out & overhauled a motel and side property to have complete control of a place 2 blocks from the festival. From this base, they created a week of non-stop branded experiences that strategically mixed their celebrity athletes, fans and product placement.  The experiences played out In Real Life (IRL), virtually with Live Streaming throughout the place,  as well as on their website/blog and in other media.

Below is a summary of some of the strategic brand partners that helped deliver on the Nike 6.0 brand experience promise.  NOTE: the mix of activities and partners works within the frame of the Nike 6.0 brand promise.

lesson 5 : involve your customers

Hurley closely connects with their core customers of high school students in their Walk the Walk National Championship promotion,  a high school fashion show competition featuring…Hurley apparel.

The contest is a grueling three months of online video challenges with 26 schools from across the county vying against each other for the chance to create their own five-minute fashion show and strut their stuff at the US Open. The grand prize – $25,000.

The process plays out IRL and is amplified online across various channels. “Walk the Walk”  is about teamwork, creativity and getting everyone involved. Review Hurley’s brand statement and you’ll see  the whole experience fits them.

Final Thought: So maybe your grand opening will never be the US Open of Surfing, but it can engaging and impactful.  To create a great brand experience, start with a clear understanding  of your brand promise and then go with it. This is beyond graphic design and into the realm of personality and cause. 

The goal is to cultivate a brand experience that people want to engage in and  actually builds your brand perception productively. This is demonstrating your brand promise. “Walking the Talk” – is how I explain it to HM-2 clients.  Also,  include your online audience in the experience design. Online you aren’t limited by space or timing and experiences make for great content.  

Worth a Visit:  2011 Nike US Open of Surfing  –  7/31 to 8/7 – Huntington Beach, CA – by the pier.  Cost: Free ;)  &/or  online

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