There are green shoots appearing in the crater left by King Kelly’s announcement to part ways with his long-time sponsor Quiksilver. Their relationship seemed familial and their separation amicable, yet bittersweet, like a son or daughter leaving for college. Kelly was clear that he wanted to do his own thing and his new sponsor, Kering, enabled him to do that. According to Bob McKnight, Quik’s patron saint, the company was willing to co-exist with Kering, however Kelly’s new sponsor – who also owns Quik competitor Volcom – was not. So what can we expect from the anointed one? Again, according to Bob, Kelly wants to create a truly sustainable brand in which every element of the product can be sourced and every step in the supply chain can be as green as humanely possible.
The big news here isn’t so much the split, but what the split represents. It wasn’t a financial, strategic, or even creative decision, but rather a branding decision. A brand can be defined as a product or characteristic that serves to identify a particular product. Your familiarity, availability, awareness, image/personality, and the company you keep all determine what kind of brand you or an organization will have. Kelly was a Quik product and part of the Quik brand for 23 years. However, over that period of time, he had become a high profile brand himself. Surfing, competitive success, eternal youth, wholesomeness; these are all brand attributes that characterize and define Kelly Slater. His brand is reflected in and reinforced by his consistent public appearances, interviews, and facebook and Instagram posts. It should be noted that you don’t have to be a major corporation or a famous celebrity to have a brand. We all have a brand and everything we do or say strengthens or weakens that brand.
Kelly is a smart guy. You don’t build a successful, sustainable brand like he has done by being stupid or lucky. He is very aware of his celebritydom and the clout that comes with it. He has a publicity and marketing team that looks out for him and ensures he maintains or expands his powerful brand. Why all the trouble? Rather than parading around like some vacuous narcissist, he’s choosing to have more than 15 minutes of fame; to establish a legacy. Consider some of his work outside of surfing. While he took an enormous amount of heat for it, his small role on Baywatch, a global phenomenon in the 1990s, was an early effort in his broadening his reach beyond surfing. Since then, he’s written two books, recorded an album, and earned a Master’s degree. He is an entrepreneur, investor, environmentalist and activist. Given his stature in surfing and, more broadly, action sports and popular culture, it can be argued that Quik was part of Kelly’s brand rather than vice versa.
With the Kering signing, it’s evident Kelly did more at Quiksilver than show up for photo shoots and cash paychecks. He saw first hand what goes into marketing a product and building a brand. Now, the haters will point to his VSTR brand that he launched under Quik’s tutelage that met an untimely demise amid strategic changes at Quik and a costly trademark violation, however VSTR’s failure wasn’t the result of any decision Kelly made or didn’t make. That said, you can bet Kelly learned from this experience. He started the Komunity Project shortly thereafter and it can be assumed he has more business and creative control there. It’s unclear where, how or if the Komunity Project will fit in with Kering but, regardless, Kering seems like a natural next step to further develop the Kelly Slater brand.
In terms of branding, Kelly joins an esteemed list of athletes and celebrities who have made big business decisions to build, enhance or defend their own brand. In baseball, Barry Bonds opted in 2003 not to sign the licensing agreement with the players’ union, meaning licensing companies like baseball card and video game makers wouldn’t be able to use and profit from his likeness the following year. This decision gave him the opportunity to pursue his own licensing deals and, given he was closing in on the all-time home run chase, secure better terms for his brand. Michael Jordan and Lavar Arrington did the same thing in basketball and football, respectively. In music, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and The Beach Boys all started their own record companies in order to have more autonomy in the recording studio, do their own promotions and marketing, set their own touring schedules and record releases and even sign and record bands they liked. In surfing, Laird has been building a public and defensible brand for years without long-time sponsor Oxbow. There’s a clear pattern with all of these legendary figures. First, they all learned from some of the best businesses in their respective industries. Second, they had to reach the pinnacle of success on the stage, court, field, etc, before they could call for a fresh start and do things their own way. Perhaps Lavar Arrington got a little ahead of himself, but the others all have seats at the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) table.
Kelly’s decision won’t be an isolated event in the surfing world. World class surfers on and off the tour have surely taken notice and wondered, “if Kelly can do it, why can’t I?” So, who’s next? Will it be Dane? Rob? John John? These guys have very unique brands and the opportunity to grow them and monetize them. Whether they have the inclination, motivation, or representation remains to be seen. Whoever follows Kelly’s path, they too will have endless possibilities. Signature surfboard models and fins are just the tip of the iceberg. What’s next? Cologne? Sports drinks? Golf clubs? What about non-profits? Venture capital firms? Restaurants? Surfing has a long and rich history of artists and dreamers who have passions outside of surfing. Kelly’s pivotal decision has set a precedent for surfing. It may take a few years but the surfing world will feel the ramifications of his decision for years to come.