Skateboarding is in a weird state of flux right now.
It’s difficult to tell where it’s going, whether it will follow with a slow rise or begin to drop down to the level of white noise when the corporate advertisers, major television networks, and mainstream audiences find that next best thing, and it’s very likely that companies are already feeling the compression of the Bush administration’s ingenious domestic economic agenda. Although the industry may be teetering, new companies are starting up, people are still churning out products, and mainstream America continues to give skateboarders a modicum of respect. Who knows where the edge lies? Right now, there’s still money to be made.
And right now that money is in the youth market-a still-burgeoning demographic friendly to new and trendy products, and much of that in the form of point-of-sale products. Ollie Pop bubble gum capitalized on the popularity of stickers and candy, World Industries’ Wet Willy and Flame Boy icons can sell any product to kids, and the phenomenal success of Tech Deck almost single-handedly pushed skateboarding into middle-school ubiquity. The best-selling point-of-sale products tend to also be the ones with the most inter-market viability, and while its contributions to the skateboard industry are hardly unnoticed, the question remains: Are they good for skateboarding?
The obvious benefit these items offer is that they get kids into skateboarding at an early age. Where we might have been buying Transformers and trading baseball cards, kids today are buying Ollie Pop gum and inflatable Flame Boy toys. As peripheral to actual skateboarding as these may seem, it still exposes kids to skating. Whether they stick with it and see skateboarding as more than a passing fad is another story.
Ben Jones, co-owner of Kinetic Skateboarding in Wilmington, Delaware, brings up the interesting dynamic of the skate industry’s changing face. “It’s just like when we were little kids going into a toy store, except these kids are coming into a skate shop buying stuff like stickers,” he says.
Jones says World Industries products and stickers are the most popular point-of-sale items, with Ollie Pop still selling fast. “We’ve sold a lot of it, especially around Christmas,” he says of the bubble gum. “But it’s kind of cheesy to spend a dollar-50 at a skate shop and then spend a dollar-50 at Target for the same thing.”
But the youth market is far too large and viable for companies to ignore. A quote from Ollie Pop bubble gum’s Web site probably sums it up best: “Ollie Pop will utilize the massive influence of icons on the spending habits of young consumers. The numbers don’t lie. Over ten-million kids now participating in boardsports globally.”
Ollie Pop has tremendous youth appeal and represents the changing industry of skateboarding and the power of youth marketing. It’s an easy target for skating purists, who credit the downfall of skateboarding to an oversaturated market of novelty items, and indeed there are those products, but sometimes skateboarders cannot be bought and sold so easily.
Ed Hoffman is the president and cofounder of Ollie Pop. With colorful graphics and a pouch full of bubble gum and skate stickers, its success during the holiday season wasn’t surprising. While Hoffman says the impact of the burgeoning youth market is huge, it wasn’t a big factor when developing the concept of combining candy and skateboarding, at least one of which is a perennial kids’ favorite. Hoffman estimates Ollie Pop has shipped about 4,000 cases in the last six months. The company has carved out its own niche, fulfilling the aims of its business statement and taking advantage of the “Ten-million kids involved in boardsports.” “The confectionary market is untapped as action sports goes,” Hoffman says. “With every company we’ve talked to, whether it’s Volcom or Blind, everyone is super stoked on the exposure they’re getting. And the kids are stoked on it as well.” d kids will be able to buy Ollie Pop pretty much everywhere. They’ve recently signed with Circle K, the convenience-store chain, for national distribution. Add to that plans to begin inserting 30-minute mini CDs with video advertisements, trick tips, and band videos, and it seems like Ollie Pop is a product with huge appeal that’s ostensibly bulletproof.
But not everyone is convinced Ollie Pop is part of skateboarding. Some skate shops, like 510 in Berkeley, California, don’t sell the gum for what Owner Jerry Harris says is exactly that reason. “I don’t feel like skateboarders, at least in our area, are very into Ollie Pop gum or Wet Willy wax. I don’t think it has any place in skateboarding.”
The presence of these types of products, Harris says, is part of a process. “Once something gets to be so recognizable, people are going to sell things and market things to people who don’t know the first thing about skateboarding.”Harris also brings up an important point that demographics, as well as shop image, play a large role in what sells. Harris says 510 projects itself as a “skate shop that’s just skateboarding for skateboarders.” Its customer demographic is similar to many other shops these days, ranging mostly from thirteen to nineteen, with skaters as young as five and as old as 35, so it’s likely Ollie Pop could do pretty well. But personal taste, Harris says, is also a factor: “If it’s a company I respect and they make something I like-like Anti-Hero makes cozies and air fresheners-then I’ll sell that.”
Kinetic, on the other hand, is less than six months old with a majority of their customers under eighteen. “Seventy-five percent of our customers are six to fifteen years old,” Kinetic’s Brannon John says. Older skaters, he says, come on more slowly to new shops perhaps out of loyalty to older shops: “There’s so many young kids into skating now it’s easy to have stuff for them. It’s easy to attract them because they haven’t had a shop yet.
“I think a lot of the cheesy stuff is basically marketed toward little kids-all the stuff that the older kids hate-it gets little kids into skating,” Kinetic’s Ben Jones says. “A lot of it has to do with the area you’re in. We’re in a real suburban area, so we sell a lot more of (point-of-sale) stuff.
“But it’s difficult to say exactly how much we sell because it’s hard to say where the line would be,” he says. “If you say Tony Hawk or World Industries decks and wheels, then it’s a big part of our business, but if you say Flame Boy, then it’s just a small part.”
Inveterate industry icon World Industries is one of the companies that has, in particular, focused its marketing strategies on the youth market. And if anyone doubts the power of icons, then they’re likely too busy sifting through their unsold piles of product. John says World Industries posters featuring its pro riders can’t be given away for free. “But we can sell anything with Flame Boy for ten bucks-it doesn’t matter what it is,” he says.
Eben Woodall, director of product development and a designer at World Industries, says characters like Flame Boy serve a larger purpose than just an advertising agent. Flame Boy is an icon synonymous with the company, achieving a sort of notoriety that many companies grasp at. “It is important to have a recognizable icon for brand recognition while having a good balance that allows a designer to be creative with different applications,” Woodall says. Wet Willy and Flame Boy are versatile icons that can jump from magazine ads and board graphics to T-shirts and toys.
Ben Jones at Kinetic says they had World Industries’ inflatable toys as display-only items, but started carrying them when every other kid would ask how much they cost. It can’t be denied that World has struck gold with Flame Boy and Wet Willy, allowing such universal appeal that these characters are as recognizable in a mall as they are in a skate shop.
Whitney Slobodian, marketing manager at World, says the youth market is a definite factor in developing these icons: “We definitely place a high value on our young customers. World has created a great dynamic within the brand to have the ability to cater to all types within that young consumer market.” World has capitalized on that cartoonish bad-kid model, the same way Garbage Pail Kids and Mad Magazine appealed to previous generations, and there’s a better chance kids will recognize Flame Boy before they figure out who Alfred E. Neuman is these days. It’s a market corner World has more or less monopolized.
Slobodian says World pushes the edginess of skateboarding and in doing so they’re able to create inventive products for the youth demographic. Perhaps a successful business model is one that creates a mascot inextricably linked to the company name. youth market is a definite factor in developing these icons: “We definitely place a high value on our young customers. World has created a great dynamic within the brand to have the ability to cater to all types within that young consumer market.” World has capitalized on that cartoonish bad-kid model, the same way Garbage Pail Kids and Mad Magazine appealed to previous generations, and there’s a better chance kids will recognize Flame Boy before they figure out who Alfred E. Neuman is these days. It’s a market corner World has more or less monopolized.
Slobodian says World pushes the edginess of skateboarding and in doing so they’re able to create inventive products for the youth demographic. Perhaps a successful business model is one that creates a mascot inextricably linked to the company name.