Whether or not snowboarders should only support core snowboard brands is a debate that has raged on for the better part of three decades. What started as a DIY counterculture has grown into a lifestyle sport that has seen both endemic and non-endemic brands fight for space and relevance in an ever-changing cultural landscape.
While snowboarding certainly still has a core element, the line between what is core and what isn’t has been blurred since Burton became a mega brand and Ride went public in 1994. For many, the 1990’s signaled an end to what was truly a core counterculture as snowboarding went mainstream with its debut at the winter Olympics and snowboarding industry revenues skyrocketing into the hundreds of millions.
With this immense change came immense interest from non-endemic brands and marketers. Everyone from Mountain Dew to Nike tried to buy in, which further fueled the debate on who and what should be allowed to prosper off of our niche industry. Most snowboarders in the 1990’s were also skateboarders and had been privy to the boom and bust times of our sister industry, fueling a heavy sense of distrust for outsiders. Some were not ready or willing to sell out our culture, and others cashed in on what was clearly a time of prosperity.
This continued until the economic crash of 2008. Post-recession and after a few bad snow years the industry started to see a decline in growth and dropping participation numbers, even the New York Times took notice of what was clearly the beginning of a downturn. Shops started folding at an alarming rate, uber pro snowboarders found themselves without sponsors, Nike pulled out, and climate issues created dismal snow conditions in major economic regions like California.
While the downturn was a major turning point for our industry and many profiteers abandoned shipped, many of the sport’s faithful found solace in the proverbial trimming of the fat. If there was any positivity to be found in what looked like a decline in revenue and participation it was that snowboarding could find its true sense of purpose and once again focus on providing core products to core consumers.
The question at this point is what is and what isn’t core, or what defines a snowboard brand? There are plenty of examples of what a core snowboard brand is, companies like Union, Airblaster, and Capita are privately owned and have only produced snowboard products.
Some brands seem to ride the line of core and non-core: they’re snowboard brands at heart but have diversified their product offering, or are owned by bigger corps–companies like Burton, Ride, 32, and Holden. There are ski brands that have been producing snowboards for the better part of three decades and have continued to show support for the industry such as K2 and Salomon. There are non-endemics like Adidas, The North Face, Oakley, Vans and Patagonia that are huge multisport companies that have invested in snowboarding in a way that identifies with the culture. And then there is the biggest outlier of the group–Mervin Manufacturing–which has been bought and sold by Quiksilver, produces snowboards, skis, skateboards, surfboards, manufactures snowboards for Roxy, and is owned by Altamont Capital Partners, a private equity firm worth some $2 billion that also owns medical and financial service companies. And Mervin is still considered one of the few truly core brands.
The point being that “core” or “snowboard brand” is murky at best. What is a true snowboarding brand to one snowboarder might not be to another. As a snowboarder, when thinking about the concept of choosing what brands to support I think it’s best to look at what is good and bad about non-endemic brands being involved in the industry. This will hopefully guide consumers on their decision-making process and allow for them to make informed choices. While we might not be able to offer a clear definition of what is and isn’t core anytime soon, at least we can have a better understanding of what non-endemic brands bring to the table, good and bad.
Growth: A robust industry is good for everyone. When we are collectively prospering it means more jobs, more sponsored riders, and more funding for media inativies. Growth is dependent on participants that aren’t going to be reached by traditional or core media outlets and companies. Non-endemic brands are often their only exposure, meaning that they aren’t going to pick up a Snowboarder magazine anytime soon, but might get sparked on snowboarding through NBC airing the Danny Davis Peace Park presented by Mountain Dew.
Advertising: If you think that the magazines didn’t shed a tear when Nike divested you’re playing yourself. The truth is that if we want mags and videos to stay relevant and prosperous we need non-endemic revenue. While brands like Adidas, Smith, and The North Face might be seen as non-core brands their advertising spends are what keeps our few remaining magazines afloat. Personally I’d rather see an Adidas ad featuring Louif or Keegan than a Navy, Right Guard, or car advertisement.
Product Advancement: Core snowboard brands are cool as long as they make products that function well. At a certain level of riding, you need products that meet the needs of the rider. Riding a small label core product might grant you some core points, but if you get hemmed up in the backcountry with faulty gear you’re going to wish you bought a product that had sufficient R&D behind it. Companies that have the resources to test and develop new technologies are important for the industry and the truth is that only a few core brands actually have the resources to be on the cutting edge of product advancement.
Bottom Lines: There’s no way to circumnavigate the ill effects of profit. Non-endemic companies especially those that are public or owned by large corporations are beholden to their shareholders and make their decisions solely based on profits. This is what prompted the Nike divestment and has also been one of the major factors in core shops going out of business. Selling to big box stores and direct to consumers has essentially put a stranglehold on small brick and mortars.
Lack Of Product Diversity: The truth is that large snowboard brands like Burton and non-endemic brands like Nike and Adidas drive customers into shops through their large advertising spends, and while e-commerce and big box retailers have detracted from consumers actually going into shops, many of the surviving retailers carry a large selection of big brands and small selection of small independent labels due to the brand name recognition and minimums (required orders) of the non-endemics. In non-snowboard industry nerd terms, if a shop carries 100 snowboard products and 90 of them are from large or non-endemic companies that only leaves a tiny portion of the retail space for small or core brands.
They Capitalize On Small Brand Creativity: One of the best things about small brands is they are often risk-takers. Not having huge marketing budgets forces them to think outside of the box, they are also usually deeply invested in the culture of snowboarding which gives them an unrivaled insight on what is lacking from the industry or what could possibly be a cool addition. Essentially, they often create trends only to have larger brands co-op their cultural and product offerings. This can be seen in everything from the alternative shape movement to the growth of splitboarding.
The End Result
At the end of the day if we want culturally relevant brands to stick around we need to support them. It’s important that we understand the ethos of the brands we back, as everytime we choose to spend a dollar we are making a conscious decisions about who stays and who goes.
With that in mind I think it’s also important to allow space for non-endemic or non-core brands that are willing to invest in the culture of snowboarding to participate, as they are key to the continued growth of our sport. Really, “core” is such a muddied word and brands that are strictly snowboarding are becoming more and more rare. Diversity isn’t a bad thing and old ideas can often leave a market or industry stagnant. So for now, support the brands that support snowboarding.