Nov 18, 2010
Author: Dean Seguin, photos by Mike Blabac
For two decades and counting, Ken Block has been a dynamo in the vanguard of action sports pacesetters. He has completely rewritten the script on how to market skateboarding, helping the trade cross the great divide from its nickel-and-dime roots to the multi-billion-dollar behemoth it is today, all the while solidifying DC Shoes as a footwear icon in the process. Now he’s reinvented himself by launching a second career in rally racing and shaking up another industry along the way.
Whether it’s conjuring up dreams in the bedroom or banging out prototypes in the garage, it only makes sense that any strapping young startup has a strong personality as its backbone. You need a healthy dose of charm and spirit to be an entrepreneur—to stand out in a crowd, to shmooze investors and connect with customers. And it’s that personality that can define a brand.
When Ken Block hooked up with Damon Way to found DC Shoes in 1993—a time that reflects back like a millennia in this industry—he cleverly injected much of his own personality into the fledgling footwear hopeful. He’d cut his teeth in three other projects by that point—Eightball Clothing, Droors Clothing, and Blunt Magazine—and was piece-mealing his way learning the ins and outs of the industry. He was anything but sure, however, the idea would take off. Beyond some computer design classes from a community college in San Marcos, California, he really didn’t have much else in the way of a formal education. Yet what he and Way did have was a simple but groundbreaking idea more iron-clad than any business plan: think of skateboarders as athletes and develop the first performance-based skate shoe for them.
TAKING TECHNOLOGY TO THE STREETS
The way the two saw it, skateboarders could stand to benefit from a functionally superior product. After all, they were hurling themselves up vert walls and down handrails. With that in mind, they set out to fill that niche by breaking into the market with never-before-seen, high-tech footwear that could potentially enhance a skater’s abilities. The company convinced its first two athletes, Danny Way and Colin McKay, to leave their shoe sponsors and lend their names to the first two DC shoe models. The concept of pro model skate footwear was nothing new—both Airwalk and Etnies had already gone down that road—but it was the manner in how it was done, the extensive and well-executed endorsement, that made all the difference. Little did they know they were about to lay the blueprint for what is today a massive market in skate footwear and become one of the most eminent brands to emerge from action sports.
“That was an interesting time in skateboarding,” Block reflects. “Skate shoes were overall pretty boring at the time so our goal was to stand out by making something that was aesthetically and technologically superior. For a skateboarder, the only thing on your body that touches the board 99 per cent of the time is your feet, so if we could improve that functionality, well, that would hopefully improve the skateboarder’s ability and skills and hopefully make it more enjoyable.”
Durable, detailed skate shoes were unheard of at the time and even today it seems like a stretch to think of skate shoes as being state of the art. Yet, whether they actually helped skateboarders ride better or not was irrelevant. For Block, it was all about creating a cachet as being a cut above. Despite skateboarding being in a rut, the brand’s timing couldn’t have been more impeccable. DC’s aesthetic was a near instant hit, giving sustenance to an industry trying to mature, and quickly becoming the must-have shoe to complement the sartorial persona of skaters. Hand in hand, DC and skateboarding enjoyed a momentous upswing propelled by an explosion in the popularity of action sports.
“In all of my involvement with DC, we’ve always tried to be on the cutting edge of marketing,” Block says. “It’s always been somewhat of a staple with what we’ve done, going back to the early ’90s, when we were trying to do everything unique and different than everybody else in the market. When we were a smaller company, there wasn’t so much on the line, and there wasn’t so much money moving around. We were able to take more risks and have more fun with athletes and advertising.”
The moment of truth came when Block began experimenting with the brand’s approach to advertising, taking seriously the creative direction of showcasing its athletes in compelling, high-profile campaigns, placing its shoes at the centre of attention with captivating photography splashed over double-page magazine spreads, and flipping the script on the traditional marketing strategies of the day. DC committed to heavily promoting its athletes, placing them on a proverbial pedestal, thereby making them de facto skate heroes to legions of kids. This emphasis created a tangible connection between the skateboarder and the shoe. The results flowed in and it was immediately obvious this was no freshman effort—the first DC model was back-ordered by retailers. By the end of 1995, DC, alongside Block’s other brands, had brought in nearly $7 million.
“When things really started to pop off, there was the Dyrdek shoe that did really well, there was a shoe called The Boxer that did really well,” Block reminisces. “Those were the times, within only a year or two of us starting the company, that the numbers being sold of those products was really eye opening. That’s really what changed our thought of just how big DC could really be.”
And grow it did. By the mid-’90s, skate shoes had gone mainstream, influenced as much by skateboarding as by pop culture, pushing DC from a two-man shop to one of the biggest players in the business. The company made major advances in shoe design, using multidensity rubber, gel cushion pockets, stronger materials and innovative construction methods. Who’d ever thought of employing the unique waterproofing qualities of wolverine skin to produce a water-resistant shoe? Even simple tweaks like using nylon loops to encase exposed shoelaces from abrasion were novel and proved to make a huge difference for the brand.
“When I really started looking into the capabilities of what our factories could build for us and what we could actually put into the shoes to be functional and ideally make people skate better, that’s when we really started to apply that knowledge and make shoes that we thought would be an improvement over what was made before,” Block says. “We tackled everything from heel cushioning to how fast the suede wore out or how to protect the laces so they didn’t break so much. That was really fun for us and it was a really big part of our success so we were really proud of all of the stuff we did.”
Over the next decade, DC’s growth acted as a catalyst to move beyond being solely a skate brand. The company became respected as an action sports powerhouse with core credibility. Known for its sponsorship of progressive, non-traditional athletes, Block saw an expansion in DC’s consumer base that coincided with the brand’s decision to embrace other targets. He blazed a trail for DC to successfully cross over into snowboarding first, then surfing, BMX and motocross. Hell, even celebs like Adam Sandler and the Beastie Boys were sporting the kicks.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Unrelenting to complacency with the company’s endeavours, Block’s genius marketing tactics continued to one-up each other. He had an incredible knack for picking out talent, assessing whether they’d be a good fit and then grooming them for Team DC. With his finger on the now-firing pulse of the youth market, he continued to ensure DC was on the media’s radar by investing in the action sports culture. This led to the creation of blockbuster, DC-emblazoned skate spectacles. When he and Danny Way conjured up the idea of the SuperRamp, and its successor, the MegaRamp, Block’s pièce de résistance came from capitalizing on Way’s odds-defying, now-iconic antics—jumping from helicopters, off the lofty guitar at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, and over the mighty Great Wall of China—that will no doubt be eternally etched in skateboarding’s history books along with the conspicuous logo that tagged along. These efforts led to DC stacking up widespread coverage of its team and product from both endemic and mainstream media the world over. Meanwhile, the growth of events such as the X Games only served to further DC’s increased exposure.
“The interesting marketing—The DC Video and the MegaRamp—came into play and really helped us stand out from everybody else in the market,” Block says. “Being able to activate all of the innovative projects we did was a huge accomplishment for me. And as I look back over the whole time of what we did, it’s Danny and the MegaRamp that stands out to me as one of the biggest things that was ever done. DC wouldn’t be what it is without Danny Way.”
While many skate companies have attempted to branch into snowboarding only to receive lukewarm response, DC approached the winter market with a no-holds-barred attitude, garnering an immediate following and cementing itself a place within snowboarding’s ranks. Block used the same recipe: savvy messaging, innovative products, and highly credible athletes, which included an original team of Devun Walsh, Bjorn Leines, and J.P. Walker among others.
“I think at the time, there was a lot of respect for us in the skateboard market and we were a very powerful player in that market, so it was natural to bridge into the other sports,” Block says. “Snowboarding at that time really looked to skateboarding for influence on product and style. When we developed our first range in snowboarding, it was really based on extensive knowledge and quality design to make a legitimate product.
“We weren’t just a skateboard company throwing our name on a crap product and putting it out there trying to sell based on our name. We actually worked very hard to try to make an innovative product. On top of that, I think we took the proper steps in those beginning years to launch DC into snowboarding. It was really important for us to do it right and do it legitimately, and we hired the right athletes and did some very good marketing that made an impact.”
Block learned that the key to remaining credible and authentic to its consumers was gradual distribution. Opening up mom-and-pop storefronts and getting lines into them was the company’s bread and butter. DC made a name for itself at this level, but to expand—and be strong enough to weather economic turmoil—the company had to enter larger markets.
Dipping too deep into mainstream channels typically meant imminent death, and was an exercise in futility for most brands. But DC made it work with a segmentation strategy that saw the premium, technical, and therefore coveted, footwear go into the core shops and its lesser lines channeled to the majors. While footwear heavyweights like Nike and Reebok were trying to muscle their way into the skate shoe market, DC, which had taken its own cues from the athletic shoe world, was able to successfully reach its distribution to chains such as Nordstrom and Pacific Sunwear. At the same time, DC added emerging categories such as kids and girls lines, skate-oriented outerwear, and artist and musician collaborations, to its product roster. It even helped Jamie Thomas get Fallen Footwear off the ground.
Print ads for the brand started showing up on the opening spreads of magazines like Rolling Stone and other lifestyle-based publications outside of the action sports world. Likewise, when DC bankrolled the high-production value of 2003s The DC Video, and the movie flew off shelves at skateshops, the company increased distribution to more mainstream outlets including Blockbuster and Walmart.
Growth didn’t come without its pains, however. DC stumbled across a few trip-ups in its otherwise smooth sail. Block and Way found themselves having to wear many hats—from operations to distribution—regardless of whether they knew what they were doing. Things got ugly when a failed deal to Billabong resulted in a $140-million lawsuit with former DC partner Clayton Blehm, who was originally brought on to crunch numbers.
“As you get bigger and bigger, the funding and the risks involved also get bigger and bigger. I think that’s really what some of the biggest challenges were for us—running the business on one side and, on the other, sort of balancing the fact that what we were doing was really a childhood dream. Growing up as skateboarders and then being able to actually turn that love of skateboarding into a company and making money off of it was amazing, but once you get to a certain point, it’s like holy shit, my name’s on a line of credit for $10-million. If we go under, I’m going to be paying that off for decades!” Block laughs.
Although the company took a few sales dips and dealt with legal wranglings along the way, DC became an industry darling, achieving sales exceeding the $100-million mark, and influencing endemic and non-endemic companies alike. When Block and Way made the difficult decision to sell the brand to Quiksilver in 2004 for nearly $88-million, it was one of the most talked-about mergers in the history of action sports.
Staying authentic in today’s market is as difficult as ever. Skateboarding is a tough nut to crack let alone maintain a position within. It’s a closed circle teeming with the most marketing-savvy, label-discerning, rad-one-minute-and-lame-the-next kids meaning attempts to penetrate its shell and blend in often end up in just being blended. Sure, DC broke into the mainstream years ago but its still the core, the essence of skateboarding or snowboarding or surfing culture, that needs to be addressed in order to stay relevant. DC’s been able to hold on to that authenticity.
“The challenges are always trying to remain legitimate to where you came from,” Block says. “I only say that because our market has gotten so big and so widely accepted that there are a lot more players today than there were 15 years ago. At one point, a couple years ago, we counted 30 different companies making skateboard shoes. And when we started our brand I think there were six. So it’s become a much more saturated market, it’s become much more of a mainstream market because of the awareness of the mainstream consumer of skateboarding, snowboarding, and of these sports because of the X Games and the Olympics and that type of thing. So I think one of the biggest challenges for us, and a lot of other companies, is really remaining true to where you came from, and your original messages, and the products that go along with those messages.”
Looking back on the empire he helped create, Block says that while getting DC on its legs was a tough task, market saturation means its harder for today’s brands to stand out amongst the pack. “When I first started, for example, it was much harder to create your own ads. There was no digital photography and creating a website was a lot more difficult back then,” he says. “Nowadays, you can start a brand, create a website, trademark everything, and actually source manufacturers for anything and everything without even leaving your bedroom. And that just physically wasn’t possible when we started our brands. So I think in that way, it’s made it easier for people to do things.”
The relative ease of starting a brand nowadays means there are many more small projects on the go, creating a more competitive landscape. Launching a new brand involves an incredible amount of planning on messaging and creativity in original products in order to avoid the already-been-done factor and be regarded as causal in the industry.
“Otherwise, why would the consumer say, ‘Shit, I’ll buy such-and-such skateboard over a Plan B skateboard. Someone like Plan B is using all of their resources and some of the best athletes in the world to make an exceptional company. Sure, you can go out and buy blank boards and screen on them, but if you don’t have the right marketing, the right message, the right everything, those kids just aren’t going to buy your product,” Block says.
“We’ve always tried to constantly evolve what we’re doing to be a leader. A big part of what we do nowadays with DC is exploring what we can do with viral marketing as just part of the bigger overall plan. Whenever we look at a product we need to market nowadays, we look at the traditional avenues—like print and press releases—but we also look at all of the other angles that we have available from unique events all the way through to viral videos,” he continues. “It’s brand building. The more eyeballs that see stuff, the more eyeballs that will get our DC message, and hopefully that ends up meaning a product sale at one of our fine retailers.”
As part of the deal in DC’s sale to Quiksilver, Block became the brand’s chief brand officer and was adamant about staying the course with the same philosophies and brand direction that had hoisted DC to the top. He also became a multi-millionaire, and rather than fade into the background and relax, the cash afforded him the chance to launch himself into a second career and lifelong dream as a rally driver, and a damn good one at that. His skills have gone from nil to amongst the world’s best racers in a mere five years.
“I’ve been a fan of rally since I was a little kid. I’ve always loved cars and motorsports,” Block says. “But as a kid growing up skateboarding and snowboarding and all of that, you’re fairly limited in what you have time and money for, and motorsports is very expensive and, really, if your parents don’t bring you up and get you into cars and racing as a kid, then you don’t have too much of a chance to really get into it. It’s not something like a skateboard that you can pick up for $100 and skate down the street.
“So even as I grew up and was getting older and became a snowboard bum in Colorado, I had cars—like a Volkswagen GTI—that I would go out and trash at night in the snow, and basically imitating what I saw the pros do in the videos.“
When DC-sponsored freestyle motocross maverick Travis Pastrana pursued a spot in the rally world, Block supported the move with continued sponsorship. Recognizing this as an opportunity to deliver on yet another of his passions, Block honed his skills from bagging self-mod V-dubs around the neighbourhood to a viable shot at the pro rally circuit. “I contacted the people that Travis was racing for and said ‘Hey, I’d like to go race with Travis, what do I have to do to get started?’”
An unexpected breakout season on the Rally America circuit earned Block “Rookie of the Year” honours and a spot with Subaru (now with Ford). Since then, with extensive training from some of the rally world’s finest, plus the balls-to-the-wall style he’s become known for, Block has continued to rack up top finishes at major rally events.
But those race accolades pale compared to his more recent business accomplishments. Driving is one thing, but it’s his sharp marketing sensibilities that have really shot Block to global rally fame. He’s hustling as an athlete—doing interviews, autograph sessions, and going beyond the standard sponsorship obligations—in order to forge the brand-consumer connection and put a face to this new generation. He’s broken jump records on the Discovery Channel, helped bridge the sport into the X Games, and let’s not forget the insane closer to DC’s Mountain Lab snowboard vid, in which Block is rallying his car around the park and off tables with the DC shred team. “That was a lot of fun,” he laughs.
Through the creation of the Monster World Rally Team, Block is stirring things up within the sport of rally by re-establishing the race-team archetype—not all about winning but about marketing motorsports in new and innovative ways. Through that, he’s simultaneously putting the DC brand in front of a whole demographic of rally consumers meanwhile bringing the relatively closed-off sport of rally to the masses.
“It was strange at first to think of myself as an athlete,” Block says. “But being on the other side of the equation for so long as the sponsor, I know what’s expected of me and can bring along my own experiences in marketing DC to my rally sponsors.”
In 2008, Block turned the even less-known auto sport of gymkhana on its head by releasing an online video featuring him ripping down lone stretches of runway and drifting through empty hangars on an abandoned Air Force base. This clip was passed around faster than B-list Hollywood gossip, blowing up the Internet and becoming a viral sensation. His sophomore effort, Gymkhana Two, went even further to take the social media world by storm with its mindblowing car stunts, complete with a Rob Dyrdek cameo. Best part? DC openly labelled the video as an infomercial and made no confusion as to its end-goal in the intro—that it was a product advertisement masked as motorsports eyecandy. It even jokingly prompted viewers not to resist temptations to buy DC’s product after watching. By being honest—we’ll give you great entertainment, but mind that, ultimately, it’s an ad—DC effectively lowered the consumer’s guard, dropping any potential for perceived veils of deception, and massively increased the likelihood of it being passed along free of guilt to friends of friends of friends... you get the picture. Both videos have been viewed tens of millions of times, with Gymkhana Two reaching the No. 4 spot on Advertising Age’s Top Viral Campaigns of 2009.
“For us to be in there was actually really amazing because almost every single other marketing campaign in that list was all done by a big creative agency,” Block says. “I think there was a Nike ad in there, and that was done by their creative agency, and Evian was done by a creative agency, but Gymkhana Two was actually done in-house here at DC by us. You know? So it’s kind of cool that DC, as a relatively small company—compared to all of the others on that list—with our own in-house marketing, was able to pull off that sort of campaign equally or better than what some of the big boys around the world are doing.”
Such wide recognition has also caused larger companies to look to DC for ideas, Block admits, in some cases biting some of the successful initiatives the company has executed. “It’s sort of inevitable at certain points that people apply some of the things that we’ve done,” he says. “There’s always a sense of pride when you see any of the big companies steal stuff that either we’ve done or something that has come from skateboarding or snowboarding, or an idea that has close ties to our market that’s been taken and gone bigger. Sometimes there’s a sense of like, “Hey, quit stealing our stuff” but on the other side there’s a sense of pride that these big companies actually look at what a smaller company like ours does and tries to mimic it.”
As for the future, it certainly looks bright. Block is content with his brand’s place in the industry, asserting that DC will continue on its path of producing innovative products and developing unique marketing for those products to be at the forefront. Now that Block has teamed up with Ford and its new Fiesta, a third Gymkhana video is in the works and he’s invited fans to submit ideas for the shoot. Block says a third and final DC Mountain Lab flick is also on the horizon with plans to make it the biggest of the franchise yet. Block’s also planning to move full-time to Park City and be near the Mountain Lab, the holy shrine of the snowboard world.
“This past winter was a weak one for me snowboarding,” he says. “I’ll get more riding in next winter with the move. I’ll be able to walk out my door and be right on one of the Park City lifts so it’ll be a lot easier for me to get more days in.”
The move will obviously make it difficult for Block to get in many days at the company’s California office. But he admits that with his racing endeavours and other projects, he’s not spending as much time as he’d like there anyway. “I’m pulled away so much nowadays that it’s hard to be a functioning employee,” he laughs. “In fact, I’ve only been able to get into the office twice in the last eight weeks. I still do a lot by e-mail and cell phone but nothing replaces face-to-face meetings, especially in relation to creative projects
“I’m really not that hands-on or involved in the business side of the company anymore,” he continues. “I’ve been a shoe designer, I’ve designed ads, I’ve managed teams, but I’ve had to let go of each part of the company piece by piece to where I’m at now—overseeing DC’s creative direction in a big-picture way.”
The big picture is something Ken’s always had a keen grasp on, it’s what helped bolster DC to the big leagues and seep into pop consciousness without sacrificing the framework and authenticity of the vision that brought it there in the first place.
LIKE this post:
LIKE Snowboard Canada on Facebook:
This interview originally appeared in SBC Business Magazine