Vans at 50

Shoe brand Vans has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this month with a campaign promoting its links with art, fashion, music and sport. We talk to global VP of marketing Fara Howard about the new ads and the brand’s approach to social media and experiential marketing

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Vans was founded in 1966 by brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren and their business partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia. The brand’s first store was located in Anaheim, California and by the late 1970s, it had opened 70 shops in the state and gained a loyal following of West Coast surfers and skaters.

Today, Vans has 415 shops around the world and two skate park-cum-entertainment venues in London and Brooklyn. It also sponsors travelling rock concert series the Vans Warped Tour, as well as annual skate, surfing and BMX tournaments, and since 2003, has partnered with artists and pop culture brands to create limited edition product ranges for its premium Vault x Vans imprint. (Recent collaborations include one with Disney and another with Takashi Murakami).

To celebrate its 50th birthday (its first shop opened on March 16), Vans has launched a series of short films documenting its heritage and links with art, sport, fashion and music. It has also hosted events in 10 cities, including London, Cape Town, Hong Kong, Toronto and Seoul, with live music and skate demos. An event at the House of Vans in London included sets by Dizzee Rascal, Julio Bashmore and DJ Annie Mac, with tickets allocated by public ballot.

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The first Vans store in Anaheim, California

Fara Howard, VP of global marketing at Vans, says the anniversary celebrations aim to capture the idea of “enabling creative expression” something she says is at the heart of the brand.

“Our campaign encapsulates the story of Vans over the past 50 years. It’s told through an ‘Off the Wall’ lens, both through the visual style and through our irreverent voice,” she adds.

Films were directed by Reza Resoli from production company Pet Gorilla and animated by French duo Mrzyk and Moriceau. Narrators include actress Chloe Sevigny, hip hop artist Chuck D and skateboarder Ray Barbee. “It’s imperative that the people we include in our campaign are truly part of the brand – [skateboarders] Jeff Grosso, Tony Alva and Ray Barbee play key roles in the campaign and they’ve been part of our athlete team for many years. Public Enemy was the first band to perform at our permanent House of Vans locations in Brooklyn and London, so Chuck D has played a critical role in Vans’ history and Chloe Sevigny has been a consistent Vans fan and embodies Vans style,” explains Howard.

Accompanying artwork features black-and-white illustrations combined with the brand’s famous chequerboard pattern, a print that became a core part of its visual identity after customers began customising their slip-ons with hand-drawn squares. Bold copy emphasises Vans’ irreverent tone of voice and showcases some of its now world-famous famous shoe designs – one ad featuring its classic #44 shoe reads simply ‘The Original Since 1966’.

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The key focus of the campaign is on social media and events: while outdoor ads have been popping up around London and other major cities, Vans has spent weeks posting anniversary-related images, videos and animations on Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

“We are always evaluating a mix of digital and experiential to reach the Vans audience,” says Howard. “With our consumer being constantly connected digitally it’s imperative that Vans is where they are having interactions with them one on one.”

Experiential marketing can be a difficult thing to get right, but the House of Vans is a particularly successful example and pop-up events in other cities have featured a similar mix of skating, art and music. At the House of Vans in London, programming has included movie nights, photography exhibitions and creative workshops.

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50th anniversary celebrations at the House of Vans London. Image: Joe Hart

Howard believes the success of House of Vans is based on having a carefully curated line-up and creating spaces that are open to the public and not just a select few. The House of Vans also helps bring the idea of supporting creativity to life, she says.

“House of Vans has had an extremely positive impact on our brand,” she says. “When it comes to our programming, it’s about listening to [audience’s] needs and responding with creative options that keep guests coming back to our events. We maintain a mix of inspirational content including hands-on experience like photography workshops, skate clinics and Open Mic nights, which have all been successful.”

“We were able to a learn a lot from our permanent locations Brooklyn and London and we are able to extend that knowledge to pop-up activations everywhere,” adds Howard. “House of Vans was always intended to give consumers experiences across action sports, music and art. The House of Vans spaces are always free, open to the public and constantly changing to ensure we’re bringing new creative experiences to our consumers around the world.”

Vans has a long tradition of supporting sports, art and music events and experiences: it opened its first skate park in Orange County in 1997, has funded and made films on skate and surf culture and has sponsored the Warped Tour since 1996. The Vans Triple Crown series, which includes televised BMX, motocross, surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding events, was established in the late 1990s. The anniversary campaign aims to emphasise the brand’s long-running commitment to supporting the sports and communities its shoes have become associated with over the years, and highlights its effort to stay interesting and relevant to consumers (whether skaters, surfers, teens or fashion fans) through carefully curated partnerships and events and engaging social media content.

An exhibition in London, meanwhile, offers a look at memorabilia from the Vans archive, including vintage packaging, shoes and skate stickers (some of which are shown below, along with photographs of early stores). In the 50 years since it was launched, its visual identity has changed little – and its logo and strap line are among the most famous in the world.

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Vans 50th anniversary graphic, via @vans on Instagram
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Social media assets created for Vans 50th anniversary campaign by Mrzyk & Moriceau. Images accompany a series of films which document the brand’s roots in music, art, fashion and action sports
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Early Vans store, courtesy of Vans
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Vans store, 1973, courtesy of Vans
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Vintage skate sticker
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Vintage skate sticker
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Skate sticker from 1970s
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Vintage Vans shoes. The side stripe started out as a doodle by Paul Van Doren, who referred to it as a “jazz stripe” and has since become a hallmark of the brand’s shoes. Images courtesy of Vans
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