The key to any successful brand is authenticity, afterall, consumers and audiences are far more privy to who you are now, especially in the social media climate - they can see through any charade you put up. No one believes this more than Paul Naude, who believes if you want to succeed as a brand then you need to be your most authentic self, doing away with hierarchies in marketing. Having worked in the surfing community for countless years now, he wants to bring style and authenticity back to it, as well as to other brands. We could all take a leaf out of this man’s book…
In this episode of Building Brand Advocacy, we’re joined by Paul Naude, CEO of Vissla, a company dedicated to the culture and performance of surfing. He started off working in a shaping bay in South Africa while honing his surfing skills, which led to a continued career in the surfing industry, including founding South Africa’s premier surf magazine, ZigZag.
He is also the former president of Billabong’s US operations and started Vissla after a failed takeover bid of his previous company. After starting as a boutique brand, Vissla has developed into a multi-million-dollar brand!
To hear more on what he has to say, make sure you tune into this episode!
Jaclyn: To kick off. Would love an introduction to yourself and what you're up to today.
Paul N: Okay. My name is Paul Naude. I was born and raised in South Africa. I've been in the, call it the California beach lifestyle industry for a long time. My career spans five decades. I've always been involved in it. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to make a good living out of a lifestyle that is basically central to who I am. So I started out in the industry in the early 70s in Durban, South Africa, as a surfboard builder and got involved in the apparel industry in 1981 and have been involved on the apparel side as well as on did the whole gambit, competitive surfing, administrative functions in surfing. I was involved in the media for a while. I started a magazine in 1976, which I sold in 1988, but which is still going today. Probably one of my proudest business achievements that a print media publication that I started over 40 years ago is still going, but mainly focused around the surf industry. Moved to California in 1992. Thought I was only going to be here for three years, but 31 years later, I'm still here.
Jaclyn: Wow, that's a great background, great introduction. And where does this play into all of this today?
Paul N: So we delivered to market in 2014. We took on a lot. It was an interesting period. The world had changed significantly. So we kind of started a brand in really a new era where digital everything was digital, digital media, digital marketing. And it was quite refreshing. And really, we've done very little since then in any sort of print media and really sort of a modern surf company that's based around digital marketing, platform, content creation, et cetera. So we went to market in April of 2014. We are launched globally, all at the same time. So I set up subsidiaries in Europe and Australia and had a few distributors going in other areas as well. And the reason I launched globally was because of the power of digital marketing, the power of our balls. And we launched globally not so much to chase sales, but more to grow brand equity as quickly as possible.
Jaclyn: On the topic of doing things a little bit differently at the time, who was the one that was driving this? Who was the one that was seeing these trends and bringing the team along?
Paul N: I think it was collective myself, head of design ahead of marketing. Kind of a driving force. We have these sort of think tanks and bounce things around and pretty open. I'm not a big believer in hierarchy, but I am a believer in structure. I'll take a good idea from going the warehouse, to be honest.
Jaclyn: Yeah. And when you guys tried something, what was the process for trialing? It seeing the results, experimenting. What was the business set up to essentially do?
Paul N: Well from a marketing point of view, particularly from a digital standpoint. That's one of the beauties of digital marketing. You can put it up and take it down. In the old days of print ads, when that thing was printed, you got another shot at it a month later. So very different, very exciting, much faster moving. My team will produce over 70 videos a year, anywhere from 20 seconds to a full feature film. And in terms of imaging of images, as you know, we'll use annually in post and in digital advertising, we'll use probably north of 1500 images versus a dozen or so in the old days. So the new consumer has an insatiable appetite for newness. They want to see things, they multitaskers, and you've got to keep them entertained. And I think that's a big difference to what was even ten years ago. The shift ten years has been significant. Another thing that's really important about this new market, and we really are in a new market now, is that you can speak directly to consumer. We speak to consumer every second of every day and it's a beautiful thing. At the same time, you got to give them what they want because they buy into your brand and they're loyal to your brand and you got to deliver. But the fact that you're going direct to consumer today is a big plus. It's a big benefit for brand building. You can test things, you can talk to the consumer, you can get feedback from the consumer instantly from your perspective.
Paul A: Because things like TikTok is user generated in the sense of it's not coming from the brands, it's coming from the users, the customers. When you think about advocacy for Vissla, I always think about in kind of action sports industry is always fascinating. In fact, I remember being on a beach in South Africa and a guy comes up and he starts he's giving out Vissla stickers, right? Everyone's stoked because they're getting a Vissla sticker and they're going to put in the board of their roof box or whatever right back of their car. That sort of advocacy. How much is that powering, your growth versus a buy with Meta or whoever it is?
Paul N: It's way more grassroots. Listen, everything's about authenticity poor. So you can't just that's why I say for us, we look at TikTok and we sort of playing around a little bit, but we're not going to change who we are to appeal to a broader TikTok customer. The reversal app will be who we are. And whichever TikTok viewers like what we do, so be it. I'm not saying that's the be all and end all. I just use that as an example, as a new platform, and there will be other platforms, but everything that we do, we sort of base around authenticity, keeping it real, not overdoing it, not in your face. I'm a big believer in assisted discovery. I always have been. I think that the best form of marketing is assisted discovery.
Paul A: How does that work in terms of when you're thinking about it beginning of the year, pulling together a strategy, like how do you nudge people in that direction? How do you get your team around?
Paul N: You'll make sure that we have a balance between, let's just say what we call commercial content, which for us, the average guy we are, that's pretty cool, but for us, we say it's commercial. So we'll have a balance between commercial content and what I call underground content. So in terms of underground content, we're not trying to sort of we want to see it and see who finds it. And effectively those sort of more low key, underground, little bit sort of alternate in our space activities. People or whoever thought that a surf brand would be sponsoring a guy who's a regenerative farmer?
Paul A: Yeah, that makes total sense. What percentage do you reckon of your customers are there because someone because of someone they loved or someone they respected or their friends said, Vissla is the brand you should wear?
Paul N: I think people buy into the brand. A lot of it is peer group driven. Somebody say that things go with you and then they learn about the brand. They go online. Again, we back to digital platforms. You look at how you can educate a customer that quickly with content on your website and somebody sees the brand, sees a guy at a coffee shop, cool T-shirt, we see it. We see people do this, go like this, and then they find out about the brand. Look, I'll tell you one thing you touched on a minute ago. You have always believed in surf your own peak. We have the saying and surfing. We compete for market share by focusing on the consumer and his needs and wants. We don't compete for market share by targeting a competitor. And there's a massive difference. If you don't surf your own peak, the chances of you being run over there are good. You surf your own peak and you focus on that. Your chances of winning market share the right way, what I call the right way is far greater. And there's too many brands out there that are knocking people off or looking over their shoulder the whole time. We don't look over our shoulder. We look ahead.
Paul A: I love that. The ethos that we've always had with Jewel is that we believe that brands are growing through their people. And actually a brand needs a platform to managing the relationships with every single one of their people, their advocates. It doesn't matter whether it's an ambassador or creator, but also at the core of it, those passionate customers that they're not famous, they're not special, but they love the brand. So how do you give them a way to engage it so that they can become that engine of growth for it? And when we look at our competitive landscape, there is lots of different tools that do different things that kind of add to that. And they do that one thing really, really well, probably better than us. But putting it together that I don't think we'd be able to do what we was able to do had we been looking at the competitors. And it's that thing of being like, actually, what does a brand need? Brand just wants one thing that does it all and they want it to do it really well and they don't care about having all these vendors and stuff like that because of that. I think it's one of the things that we've been lucky enough to do what we do. And so I love the idea of surf your own peak and it's looking over your shoulder, but it doesn't help you, does it?
Paul N: No, but at the same time, there's always going to be common denominators. That's what an industry is. When everybody's going right, you can't always go left. There's times where you also got to go right, but you got to do it slightly differently. But overall, as I say, the plan is to surf our own peak. I'll say one last thing is this, is that you can't buy your way to success with ads for brands online because if you could, everybody would be doing it right if it was that easy. It's just not that easy. So the content, the ad, everything about it has to be good. It's the permutation that's critical. And the last thing which is super important is that the battle is won by understanding the intangibles. You have to understand the intangibles of what drives your consumer. I've often said that market forces drive change. Industry doesn't drive change. Industry can influence change, but market forces ultimately drive change. And understanding the intangibles of your market is the key to building a successful brand.
Paul A: Such as do you have an example of that?
Paul N: Well, for example, in our industry, people understand if it's cool or not cool. That is an intangible understanding. So your authentic consumer that buys into your brand, they endorse the fact that what you're doing is cool. And you understand the intangibles. The minute you look like you don't, they gone. And market forces in a specific space, particularly always, you know, the top end of the pyramid, you know, those guys appear group leaders. Those consumers are technically setting the trends. Those consumers are the market forces that are driving change. You need to understand the intangibles that are making those guys don't.
Paul A: And do you think that how much do you think social media has changed that? Because some of those people will be living in a van and haven't touched don't even have a phone. Right? But they're cool. Some of them will have an Instagram account and they'll have followers. Do you think that has changed the market, the way that a brand grows in it since that intangible coolness, which is what makes a brand a brand has that shifted, do you think, in the past ten years or so?
Paul N: I think it has. I think, in a way, technology has helped, but in a way, you got to be really careful that you don't just rely on technology, because these kids can see right through it. Peer group leaders can. They understand authenticity. They understand if you understand the intangibles or not, and you can use technology to help accelerate that, but at the end of the day, it's an innate feeling that you need to understand. That's what brand builders do. That's who they are.
Paul A: Amazing on that, I think. What a closer. Paul, this has been brilliant. I'm learning from a master. So literally, we can't thank you anymore for making the time for this.
Paul N: Yeah, great, man. Thanks, Paul. Thanks, Jacqueline. You guys let me know if you need anything and stay in touch.
Jaclyn: Yeah, great. Thanks, Paul.
Paul A: Okay, have a great day.
We can't wait to meet you.