Skater Goes Chic In China: Vans Taps Into Chinese Creative Class

    The China marketing manager of the classic U.S. skater brand discusses how collaborations with Chinese fashion designers are attracting China’s young fashionistas and artists.
    Jing Daily
    Philana WooAuthor
      Published   in Fashion

    A concert at a Vans marketing event in Guangzhou. (Courtesy Photo)

    Known mainly in the United States as a skate shoes brand with a demographic skewing adolescent and male, Vans shoes in China appeal to a much broader, trendier consumer base. At 300-500 yuan (US$38-64) per pair, the shoes also occupy a higher price bracket than they do in the United States (the average monthly salary of a new graduate in China is 3,000 yuan, or $485). According to Vans China Brand Marketing Manager Brian Smith, the shoe appeals to the greater creative class, including art, music, skate, and street culture. Furthermore, the brand’s Chinese customers aren’t your stereotypical “skater guys”—rather, they skew female. Smith notes that the brand’s image is so different in China thanks to the fact that U.S.-style “skater culture” isn’t well-known among China’s youth. Rather, the brand benefits from the global trend of high fashion co-opting styles from street culture.

    Jing Daily recently spoke with Smith about Vans’ China marketing strategy. Vans has been in China since 2008 and currently has 400 points of sale including retail, wholesale, and multi-brand in first- to third-tier cities. With previous marketing experience at the Shanghai offices of both Source, the first major street culture-based multi-brand store in China, and Volcom, Smith shared what it takes to make skater brands fashionable in the eyes of China’s young consumers.

    Where are your marketing energies focused?#

    We are well established in first- and second-tier cities, but still growing in terms of the competitive market: Converse, New Balance, Adidas Originals. In terms of other brands that have been here for longer, we are growing. We haven’t really stepped into fourth- and fifth-tier cities.

    How would you describe the Vans customer in China?#

    In the United States, Vans is very skate-centric. In China, skate is very small. Because we have a clean slate, we can focus on creativity as a whole. So anyone related to creativity—whether it’s art, music, skate, or street culture—the consumer relates that to Vans, so we have a lot of pillars to say this is what Vans stands for.

    When you talk about artists and musicians and people interested in that lifestyle, the age group gets older, anywhere from college student to early 30s. They may not be able to buy a lot, but they love what we offer. It’s more expensive than the United States because of taxes, duties, etc. When that college student has their own income, they’ve already grown with the brand and can purchase.

    Rather focus almost exclusively on skater culture like it does in the United States, Vans marketing in China focuses on young creatives. (Courtesy Photo)

    Can you share your marketing best practices?#

    O2O [online to offline] is pretty huge. We do a lot of storytelling online. The offline activation, the House of Vans, is where we bring all the elements of Vans under one roof and it’s open and free for all. We do creative workshops, skate contests, live music, and try to bring as many people as we can under the roof of Vans—what is art to us, what is music to us, what is skate to us? It’s not just exhibition but a platform for people to go and try.

    All these kids have so much energy behind them, but don’t have access to actually create and explore. Workshops are things like zine making that I grew up with in New York, but here, it’s a totally missed creative culture. Here, there’s nothing. We realized there’s an opportunity there—let’s get kids to use their tools that everyone has: iPhone, computer, printer, etc. We’ll do things like screen printing. There are so many illustrators and creative people in China, but the process ends with the computer, so with screen printing it’s using your hands.

    For our WeChat brand account, when we were doing the House of Vans, we would package up what’s happening with skate, music, art.

    We don’t do celebrities. We do KOLs [key opinion leaders], but they are our family, our skate team, the musicians we support, artists we work with. We always bring along our longstanding KOLs, who have been with us since the beginning.

    What are some creative collaborations Vans has done in China?#

    Globally, we do a lot of pretty big collaborations like Kenzo, Marc Jacobs, Supreme. It’s pretty big media and good exposure for us in China, but we don’t carry the product because the accounts we work with don’t have access—for example, Supreme isn’t in China. So we localize with our own collaborations with high-end designers, such as with [Shanghai-based] edgy shoe wear designer Kim Kiroic.

    We also do a yearly Chinese New Year collaboration. To support a shoe launch, we bring together relevant people in street culture, art, music, skate. Last year, we brought Sankuanz, Kim, hip hop artists, illustrators, skateboarders to support the launch of a shoe, so in the end it was more about creativity and what people thought about the year of the horse. We do a yearly t-shirt collaboration called Asia Art Tee Collaboration. That’s something to bring together our family of artists and illustrators. It’s nationwide, but we give artists a platform and now they have a career as an artist because of their work with Vans.

    Screen printing at a Vans marketing event in Guangzhou. (Courtesy Photo)

    What is a common misconception about the youth market in China?#

    I think there’s a misconception that I’m at fault with myself as well: that Chinese culture is not based on creativity and self-expression, that it’s a closed-minded place; kids aren’t doing anything. I myself thought that for years, that they don’t have an outlet, there is no path, that people need to follow the path that has been set forth, you follow a family line, get a job, do what you’re expected. Now, when I visit other cities, there’s hubs of culture, there’s lots of creativity.

    When we go and create base activation in some cities, what comes out of the woodwork is insane, and few brands are going there. But when we go somewhere like Guangzhou, kids are begging for it, loving it, interacting with it, and saying “please come back!” If a brand was to actually go explore those markets, whether it’s second or fifth, they will find there’s a lot of creative culture in China.

    Where do young people get their information about culture and trends?#

    It’s mostly internet-based, international news about fashion, street culture. There’s lots of local hubs of kids getting together, whether it’s blog- or activity-based and stuff happening in cities. They are sucking it in from international sources and making it their life. They are creating their own opportunities and looking for collaboration.

    Young women dominate Vans' customer base in China. (Courtesy Photo)

    What role does WeChat play?#

    Interpersonality is WeChat; for sure, that is the connector. For interacting, Kidulty is a big one that’s very street-culture based. Yoho is big both online and offline. When you talk to kids on the ground, they are fully up to date on Hypebeast, High Snobiety, what’s happening in New York, etc. because they have access.

    Do women in China wear Vans?#

    We actually have more women than men. I think they are talking more and sharing more about product stories and activations. I think the girls are spending more time to share and discuss about it. It’s not just the product, even for House of Vans, the majority of workshop signups are women.

    Does this affect your marketing strategy?#

    It’s something that we will think of; thinking more about the girls.

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