The Big B: Five Lessons From “The Letter”

I’d love to be an insider at Burton right now. When Yobeat published the infamous “letter” to Jake & Donna, it felt like a high school drama unfolding in the middle of the cafeteria. It was ugly, it was messy, and it got a lot of people talking. But, I wonder what is happening there now? While the snowboard media has moved on to other matters, like the approaching winter, I’ve found myself thinking about the big B, the media landscape, and the general state of the snowboard industry. My background in public relations and media influences the way that I see the world. Here are 5 things to takeaway from this brief media crisis.

  1. Core brands need to have an excellent relationship to the endemic media. If Burton had a strong relationship with Yobeat, perhaps the letter would not have been published OR would have been published with a perspective from Burton. (In this case, Burton was put on the defense and Jake and Donna had no other choice but to respond the way that good leaders do. They took responsibility for the brand’s decisions and they stood by their people. What the fall out will be on the inside in the months to come, remains to be seen.) It tells me that their PR department might consider core credibility as a key strategic initiative in 2016.
  2. This was an opportunity for actual journalism. I have yet to see anyone investigate these claims and report on them. What is the perspective of Burton HR? What do former and current employees say? I’d love to see someone try to find out the real story, beyond the anonymous blog comments. It’s too easy for the truth to get blurred with rumors. I imagine that there is some of both when all is said and done.
  3. The snowboard industry is hurting and desperately wants strong leadership and direction. The big snowboard boom of the 90’s was 20 years ago. We are getting old. Die-hard snowboarders are having kids, getting real jobs and becoming the establishment that we railed against. Snowboarding is no longer one demographic, but many. Very few brands have done any actual consumer research. Most marketing comes from the gut, which works if you understand your audience, but there are many different audiences in snowboarding now. I’m convinced that current snowboard brand leadership only has a gut check on the 18-25 year-old male demographic. The truth hurts: most snowboarders are in the 25-35 year age range and the brands that are succeeding are the ones who are focusing on a specific audience (think Roxy, Jones…). As an industry, we’ve placed our faith in Burton to pave the way to the future and frankly they can’t do everything well all the time. They will rise and fall like the rest of us. They have growing pains. If they can learn from anyone, it needs to be brands like Vans and Quiksilver (They provide excellent lessons in both success and failure). If Burton can learn from the mistakes, assumptions, and successes of these brands, they will save themselves from future turmoil.
  4. Snowboarders are an exclusive bunch. People who don’t fit the criteria of “core” are often met with mistrust and a sense of disdain. I don’t know much about the people mentioned in the letter. I briefly met them at the Burton European Open in 2013. It took about 30 seconds of observing them to see that they don’t fit the uniform of what people immediately presume is core. Perhaps this is both their strength and their weakness. Snowboarding needs diverse perspectives. It needs people who don’t “look like snowboarders.” It needs people who are kooky and think outside the box. It needs people with a birds-eye view, who can think big picture. Above all else, it really needs people who care intensely about snowboarding, both personally and professionally. It needs inclusivity, open-mindedness and an ability to work with others and respect difference of opinion. Snowboarding needs people with a sense of humility. 
  5. Every brand has drama. I’ve worked in the snowboard industry since 1995, when I started out waxing snowboards and taking out the trash at my local shop. Privately owned companies have drama. Publicly held companies have it too. It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest snowboard brand in the world, or the smallest, everyone has an opinion. Very few people or brands can do everything well all the time. At the end of the day, listening to your critics with respect while maintaining a clear vision for the future is a huge undertaking.

Snowboarding is in a strange place right now. Those of us who are old enough to be in positions of leadership remember when snowboarding wasn’t just a winter sport, but a cultural enclave. When I was a teenager in the 90’s, I looked to snowboarding for a creative outlet. It was a physical thing, sure, but it was also a gateway to seeing the mountain through a creative lens, it was a place for artists, writers and musicians. It was a home outside of mainstream established culture. If I saw another car filled with snowboards during the drive to Mt. Hood Meadows, it was a car full of potential friends. As snowboarding grew beyond this subculture, it included people who didn’t fit the mold of the die-hard snowboarder and the culture exploded to include people who didn’t fit the initial mold. The generosity of spirit that was inherent in snowboarding’s beginnings began to falter. Newcomers were less welcome, even treated with suspicion. Where this leaves us now, I’m not sure.

We are in a position where no one really cares about snowboarding as much as those of us who remain passionate about it. Dreams of following surfing’s foray into mainstream culture may only yield the same boom and crash. To surf, you need waves. To snowboard, you need snow. Global warming is kicking our ass. Skateboarding may be in our cultural heritage, but it is infinitely more accessible than surfing or snowboarding. The only real business to be had in skateboarding is footwear. Skate shops are turning into shoe shops, because that’s where the paycheck is. So what is snowboarding, and Burton, to do? Do we keep chasing the lifestyle consumer and compete against fast fashion? Do we regroup and find ways to better serve actual snowboarders?

The one thing that gives me hope is a moment in the Bones Brigade Documentary describing the boom of skateboarding in the 80’s followed by the crash and the literal tearing up of skateparks. To those involved, it seemed like skateboarding had died. But, it forced those who were passionate to go underground and do it for the love, not the fame or money. Skateboarding’s resurgence came from the streets and the revival of better built skateparks followed. Some people see this time as a dark one for snowboarding, but I see a rebirth of possibility. Some see this as a dark time for Burton, but I see it as the catalyst for the brand to make some clear moves to support snowboarding and show its love for the core, while paving the way into the future.

What do you think? I’d love to hear other perspectives.

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