The Handmade Brand

In the action sports world, a company’s identity has almost always been as important as the products they produce. However, over the last few years, newer, smaller and more localised ‘cottage’ brands that embody an ethos of artisanal values and environmental awareness have emerged. Here Sean Blackburn, Brandwave’s Operations Manager, looks at who they are, why they stand out and whether these brands are here for the long haul.

The heritage of a number of large sports brands is based in counterculture and their founders producing equipment for themselves, to further their own performance in their chosen sport; Jack O’Neill, Yvonne Chouinard, Jeff Hakman or Rab Carrington were all sportsmen pushing their equipment and developing technology to further their sporting needs. We have taken these foundations for granted now that these brands have been operating as huge multinationals for decades, their roots are being reflected in a new set of brands born out of a love of sport and an inherent counterculture looking for identity in a consumer driven industry.

Who are they?
These brands cover a variety of products, markets and target consumers but maintain a central focus on being smaller operations of 1 to 5 people, all with similar values relating to a quality product of a “made by, made for” attitude.

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We are seeing surfers at STAUNCH create their own clothing to embrace their own surf microcosm of the North Sea. – Image from http://www.staunchindustries.com/

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NEON are creating wetsuits that stray away from the traditional blacks, blues and greys to custom designs in order to further their own identity within their sport. – Image from http://neonwetsuits.com/

Whilst many may write off the rise of cottage industry manufacturers as a blip in the road that will not affect the professional circles of the ASP tour or performance skating, I believe it may well have a larger impact on the consumer culture of our favorite sports and the reasons why we pick the brands that we do.

Why do they stand out?
The emerging brands shown above give us just a taste of the broad range of action sport and lifestyle brands emerging from the woodwork. A huge number identify themselves as being authentic and treasuring artisanal values; providing the consumer with more than a quality product or a guarantee of performance, it is an identity and reason to buy their product other than want.

The tradition of independent cottage industries has until recent years been stifled by a huge consumer culture, based on performance goods for all, produced en-masse so that everyone can have the same board as Kelly or Jordi or Dane, even their tailpads are being reproduced and sold so we can’t excuse our equipment for stopping us surfing just like them… now I can only blame the inconsistency of the south coast…

However, the rise of the cottage brand has created a counterculture who refuse to buy mass-market paraphernalia and prefer to know how their jacket, wetsuit or board was made, by who, how will it make them a better surfer, skater or climber and how will it fit their style.

Green is good
The green-aspect of emerging brands is a significant trend and a clear USP throughout their marketing, with a focus on using recycled materials doomed for landfills.

It is apparent that many of the individuals who are establishing themselves in this market are passionate about the environment as a whole, and locally; establishing new technologies to encourage the use of renewable energy and move away from oil, or use driftwood and household electronic waste for their workshops and products. Declaring their products are “Grown Locally”, “Out of the Woods” and “Designed for a lifetime of waves”, these brands are stating that their products are not only sourced sustainably, but are built to last whilst avoiding waste. (grainsurfboards.com, ottersurfboards.co.uk)

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Image from http://www.grainsurfboards.com/

The importance of green-ness doesn’t come as a huge surprise; large manufacturers have been developing bamboo wetsuits and sheeting to replace neoprene and fiberglass for years, however, whilst this is something new that established brands are keen to celebrate, it is the niche brands that have begun their journey with this as a central ethos and a reason for consumers to believe in their products and trust their branding which I can only find admirable.

Why so different?
The majority of these smaller companies share a number of USPs which mark them as distinctively separate to the larger brands that have been taking hits over the past years; they are ‘unique’, ‘retro’, they enjoy making and using their own products and aim to make people ‘stoked’. It is this choice of language, those typically associated with the stereotypical messy surfer, ponytailed climbing bum or tattoo-ridden skaters that stops people from taking them seriously as manufacturers, ironic as these are the very people large brands are trying to sell to.

It is by embracing the stereotypical counterculture of their sports in marketing, whilst ensuring quality products, that these brands are making names for themselves. They are able to play with the big boys as far as quality is concerned… they are not cheap knock offs as some may have previously believed.

In fact, it is within the quality of the workmanship that many of these brands excel and pride themselves, producing handmade products and giving the consumer the opportunity to call the guy holding the needle or the plane. They are revisiting the simplistic beauty of the arts and crafts movement where I can see how my skateboard was made, the notches in the wood and the type of joint used to secure the pieces of driftwood, sourced from a local beach, together.

People, not machines, are making beautiful products that deserve recognition and admiration while being used in sport… because as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing worse than a beautiful board made for riding placed on the wall as a piece of art, afraid to be used because it’s TOO pretty.

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Image from http://www.grainsurfboards.com/

Can they compete on the long-term?
We have established that quality is not an issue for a number of these new artisanal brands, their products perform, they attract a counterculture of anti-consumerists and sporting purists, however, large brands still lead the way. Economically it would be very surprising for a cottage industry brand to be able to elevate themselves to the status of an O’Neill or The North Face, the competition is stacked against them.

They also run a considerable risk, particularly in a poor economic climate, of fizzling away for any number of reasons; their small staff losing interest when the money isn’t coming in, a cut in their supply chain develops or their products stop attracting their consumers… anything is possible, however, I look forward to this new age of retro-performance-arty products to try out and help them grow as brands, whether that’s in competition with established companies or remaining as a beautiful notch in the woodwork.

The level to which these brands will rise remains to be seen and it promises to be an interesting time to be involved in marketing these individuals and their products, because whilst performance is a central focus of sport across the board, it is a brands identity that can set them apart and make them significant.

Daniel Macaulay

Author Daniel Macaulay

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  • Great article. Highlights the fact that surfing (and other extreme sports like skateboarding or mountain climbing) remains a lifestyle that has its roots in counter-culture values and that people do it for the love of the actual activity rather than for the hype of it all.

    Definitely think a brand like Rapanui fits in this article, with their commitment to sustainability and their eco-friendly ethos. Let’s hope the movement for independent brands that care continues growing (especially after the extremely mild and stormy winter we’ve just had).

    • Thanks Gordon, we really take it to heart that surfing does become part of who you are and why we get up in the morning… doing it for love rather than appearances

      I’ve been really encouraged by the rise of these brands and many others like Rapanui and Sata Skates gaining popularity and recognition. It was especially cool to see people in Neon wetsuits on a recent trip to South Africa and even people making their own boards at home – hopefully the waves will pick up in the next few weeks and we can have some fun!

  • Simon McGee

    Great article Sean! If this strikes a chord with any readers – take a read of Yvon Chouinard’s autobiography ‘Let my people go surfing’ – a heartwarming and refreshingly honest account of how business can be a force for good

    • Thanks Simon, I love the book and the ethos that Yvon set out with, a genuine passion for climbing and his own requirements to push the sport, fortunately this has been continued in the Patagonia brand across business sectors as it has grown and I believe their authenticity to his tradition is a key reason why they remain a strong, premium brand.