What Vans can teach us about influencer marketing

10 min read

Brought to you by Brendan Gaham

  • A successful campaign with influencers takes time.
  • Don’t spend your money with a single contribution, make agreements.
  • This is the story of Akeater’s favorite shoes.
What Vans can teach us about influencer marketing
What Vans can teach us about influencer marketing

Brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren opened a store on March 16, 1966 at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California. They made shoes straight from their shop and named their young company the Van Doren Rubber Company.

On the opening day, they sold 12 pairs. And 50 years later, the company is known as Vans and has annual sales of $ 11.8 billion.

This is the story of how they became one of the greatest shoe brands in the world and what marketers can learn from them.


The formula for a successful influencer program

In the early 1970s, a group of surfers redefined the emerging sport of skateboarding. They were known as the Z Boys, their nickname deriving from the Zephyr Surf Shop in Santa Monica, which sponsored them in surf competitions. With 12 core members, the Z Boys began their innovative take on the sport of dominating skateboarding competitions. They brought their surfing style to concrete.

They wore shoes all the time until they got the shoes from the Van Doren Rubber Company. Because of the strength of the shoes, they became indispensable for the skaters. The Van Dorens saw a chance with the Z Boys. They started sponsoring them.

His first advertising deal was with Stacy Peralta, a prominent young woman who later founded the Powell-Peralta skateboard company. They gave him $ 300 to wear the shoes only in competitions.

It’s the best $ 300 endorsement offer ever.

Image: Harry Hundal via Unsplash

Vans didn’t stop there. The brothers wanted to make the best possible footwear for skaters. His # 95 shoe was reinvented with contributions from Peralta and team rider Tony Alva. A thicker outsole has been added to compensate for landings. They reinforced the heel, added padding around the neck, and put extra rubber on the toes.

The modified # 95 is known today as the Vans Era. It has been practically unchanged for more than 30 years.

The Era is the first shoe designed and made for skateboarders

Vans worked with the drivers on their team and developed exclusive shoes. The company promoted the team with full-page advertisements. Peralta and his compatriots became superstars. Skateboarding went from counterculture to mainstream, along with Vans.

Van Doren’s marketing genius lay in his investment in the influencers of his time (i.e. athletes). Sponsoring athletes and influencers was nothing new. How the Van Dorens approached. They’ve teamed up with and then worked with the top influencers on everything from products to advertising.

The formula was simple: relevant goal + long-term cooperation = successful campaign.

Image: Jose Fontano via Unsplash


Vans was a small company. The great celebrities of the time were professional baseball or soccer players and actors. These were people Vans could never have paid for, nor would it have been a wise investment. The company would have been competing with a sea of ​​other sports brands for the same goal.

When it came to skateboarding, Vans recognized something before anyone else: an underserved niche that was enthusiastic about their product. They were brave enough to risk their small marketing budget and invest in the rising stars of skateboarding.

Could the lessons of Vans’ success be applied today?

Let’s do an exercise that looks at another category with roots in the action sports world that targets a similar population: energy drinks.

What names come to mind when you think of energy drinks? You’ve probably thought of Red Bull and Monster. You may have remembered Rockstar.

These three brands have dominated the category for the past two decades. They also ran the same ad playbook. They sponsor the biggest names in extreme sports. They make great content and advertise guys in their teens and twenties.

So where is the opportunity to implement the formula used by Vans?

Let’s start with the goal. Ask yourself: “Who is most relevant to today’s teenagers and twenties?”

They are no longer extreme sports. Today it’s esports. Games are becoming more and more popular. There are 500 million people who identify as fans or enthusiasts of the sport. Video game sales in the US are expected to reach $ 230 billion by 2022.

An outsider in the energy drinks category identified this gap between what young people are interested in today and what the big energy drink companies are promoting.

That company is GFuel. The New York-based company was founded in 2014 and works with the most credible names in the industry. They created their own Z Boys in the form of Team Gamma, their exclusive list of players.

Team Gamma is the crème de la crème in the world of esports enthusiasts and influencers. Includes PewDiewPie, someone’s largest YouTube channel. PewDiePie, known for its “Play with Me” style videos, has more than 106 billion YouTube subscribers and nearly 27 billion views worldwide.

GFuel has developed a full line of products with FaZe Clan, one of the most dominant esports teams. The FaZe-Clan turned gaming into a lifestyle brand. The team’s players live together in a Los Angeles mansion, each with huge YouTube channels and celebrities. The FaZe Clan has professional athletes, rappers and even Lady Gaga’s former manager Troy Carter as investors.

Image: Yousef Chenguiti on Unsplash

Team Gamma has nearly 100 other members with equally impressive pedigree, large audiences and credibility in the sport.

Both Vans and GFuel identified the most credible personalities relevant to their audiences. They also took another step forward.


Vans was farsighted when working with skaters. Peralta did not use Vans in any contest or advertisement, he used them in ALL of his contests. Vans asked the skaters not only to promote their products, but also to develop them together.

The Van Dorens received feedback from Peralta and Alva and developed exclusive shoes for the drivers on their team. They have woven the brand into the personalities who drive the sport.

Would you accept an influencer’s opinion? Would you build a product around them like Vans did?

GFuel does that with Team Gamma.

In collaboration with the FaZe-Clan, GFuel released a pineapple-flavored drink mix called Battle Juice by the FaZe-Clan and four ready-to-drink flavors. In collaboration with PewDiewPie, GFuel launched PewDiePie Lingonberry with its brand on the can. The company partnered with British YouTuber / gamer / boxer KSI to bring a new strawberry and banana flavor to the market. In early 2020, GFuel partnered with one of the most popular streamers, Dr. Dis Regard, one to bring Black on Blackberry GFuel Can to market. The list goes on: GFuel has partnered with influencers to create a variety of other flavors and products.

The Gamma team is paying off. The strategy has made GFuel the fastest growing energy drink company as interest has skyrocketed.

GFuel used the same strategy as Vans when it decided not to pick a single recommendation or ad with a major influencer. GFuel employees have partnered with members of the Gamma team to develop exclusive product lines. They reinterpreted what worked for Vans for today’s digital landscape in the 1970s.

Where would Vans be today if Peralta had been paid to wear the company’s shoes in just one competition or just run one ad? Vans benefited from the star power of Peralta and other skaters to the point where skateboarding and vans became synonymous.


I can’t imagine any other way that Vans could have grown into a $ 11.8 billion brand in annual sales.

Much of the advertising industry has recognized influencers as an advertising channel. Most advertisers, however, pay influencers to write ONE post and then move on. The formula that we know works could not be applied.

So when you’re developing your own influencer programs, ask yourself, “Am I thinking about this long term? Am I using the formula that has worked so well for other brands?”

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