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Interview: Zoot Sports… from a race day brand to an everyday brand

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Zoot Sports – the performance apparel, ‘wetzoots’, footwear and accessories specialist – has been a well-established and respected multisport brand for many years. Back in March, the company named Erik Vervloet as its Vice President and General Manager.

A former professional tennis player, avid athlete and a two-time Ironman finisher – Vervloet has previously worked as Vice President of Sports Marketing for K-Swiss and most recently as Chief Marketing Officer for Ironman brand owner World Triathlon Corporation (WTC).

He brings a decade of leadership experience and marketing expertise to the Zoot Sports team. Taking a look at latest developments for Zoot, we caught up with Erik to also sound out his perspectives on the endurance sport industry…

triathlonbusiness.com (TriBiz): Tell us a little bit about Erik Vervloet the person!

Erik Vervloet (EV): I’m a brand evangelist; a freak for brands. I value their worth from a marketing and sales perspective and enjoy watching the growth of genuine authentic brands.

I suppose I’ve also had a lifetime of hyperactivity. I’ve been an athlete and I feel honoured that I can now combine my passion for brand marketing with sports. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like work!

My origins are in tennis. I started out working at a fitness resort in Hawaii. I’ve been a pro tennis player and have founded and owned a fitness equipment company. Essentially, I’m entrepreneurial in spirit.

 

Erik Vervloet - Vice President and General Manager of Zoot Sports

 

I’m also a passionate consumer. From this I recognise that the biggest challenge for any brand out there is to leverage the core values of a brand – its inspiration to its core consumers – and take that to the mainstream. At the same time, it’s imperative of course to stay true to the brand’s core values.

Many brands have done it. Sometimes you need a bit of luck to make it happen. It’s my driving obsession to figure out the puzzle for every brand I work for.

TriBiz: You’ve previously been Director of Sports Marketing at K-Swiss; talk us through this role and some of your highs and lows at the company…

EV: I’m thankful to [major K-Swiss shareholder] Steve Nichols. He had faith in me at the outset and supported me when I was sponsored by K-Swiss as a tennis player.

With its core origins in tennis, K-Swiss expanded significantly. Ultimately it became a lifestyle brand. Although it did disconnect from its heritage somewhat.

In April 2007 I was brought in to help reinvigorate the brand. By this point, global sales were at US$500 million; and we saw that you can’t just support this with tennis. The challenge was to keep true to the brand’s roots. We had a good story in tennis and a well-respected range of shoes with strong performance credentials.

We needed to extend these credentials into other categories and running was the clear area of focus. At 36% of the sports footwear market overall, it was an area that K-Swiss had to attack – although with credibility.

K-Swiss logo

Back in April 2007 we didn’t have a shoe and the product cycle is extensive. You can make a baby quicker than a shoe!

At the time I had no job description and was pretty much given a free reign – with a core objective to get K-Swiss into running. So, we started from scratch. I was living on Hawaii and understood the passion behind Kona and the annual Ironman World Championships. This gave us an opportunity to connect directly with a strong and passionate consumer base.

Yes they were triathletes – but they were committed runners also. And from this group, and extensive dialogue and product testing, we built a shoe. The other thing to note about runners as consumers, and Ironman runners in particular, was that they embrace the new. This helps you get authenticity in a hurry. It also means that if you’re full of shit they’ll tell you in a hurry!

The Ironman athlete as a consumer is also a viral connected individual. They help you build the story, give you feedback and spread that feedback virally via social media.

TriBiz: In 2009, you were behind establishing K-Swiss as the global sponsor of the Ironman triathlon series. How did this deal come about and how successful do you feel it was?

EV: At the time [Ironman brand owner] World Triathlon Corp (WTC) was at an interesting transition point [no pun intended!]. WTC had by this point licensed lots of M-Dot product that the consumer wouldn’t wear or use. As a consequence, the brand had become watered down.

This is a brand that people get tattooed. There aren’t many brands like this on the planet – maybe we can add to this Harley Davidson and the US Armed Forces. So, the Ironman brand is something special.

In the K-Swiss pitch to WTC we echoed the view of the athletes… that only the best stuff should get an M-Dot. We focused on the K-Swiss run shoe as being such a brand – with performance and credibility at its heart.

By 2008 we’d made the shoe and had shifted well over 200 pairs during the Ironman World Championships alone in that year. It goes back to the viral word of mouth we were able to create via the Ironman community. And the K-Swiss association with Ironman was a key component in expanding the reach of our new shoe.

TriBiz: How natural an evolution was your January 2012 move into the role of Chief Marketing Officer for World Triathlon Corp (Ironman)?

To put it simply, you’ve just got to love the Ironman brand. I’ve done two Ironman events and, like many of us, know about the journey, about the story of the brand… Mark Allen, Dave Scott and all those inspirational moments.

I felt though that Ironman was starting to lose its appeal and its connection with the community of athletes.

In 2011, I spoke with Andrew Messick [Chief Executive Officer of WTC] and mentioned how I felt the Ironman brand was at risk; how WTC was being perceived as the evil empire and was only being tolerated because the finish line experience resonates so well with athletes. They go through all the pain and sacrifice along the way, but the finish line euphoria is like ‘the great eraser’ – it makes you forget everything beforehand.

Working with the Ironman brand presents so many opportunities. You get to talk one-on-one with your consumers. The athletes are passionate. They are vocal; and building on this the brand has such a strong story to tell.

Ironman logo

But, everything has a cycle. And for Ironman the on-going challenge is keeping people in the cycle. It’s in the nature of the athlete to want to try new challenges. Doing an Ironman or more every year isn’t for everyone; and eventually an age grouper might decide to maybe go shorter, get more into cycling or try other challenges.

Building on the engagement with athletes and strengthening the community helps to keep athletes in the cycle. It’s all about keeping the brand marketing story alive.

TriBiz: You only had a year working for WTC before moving on. Was your latest position with Zoot Sports ‘an offer you couldn’t refuse’?

EV: The WTC job is stressful and involves a lot of time in the air. While my air miles were looking healthy travelling to races every weekend and generally being on the road, my work-life balance got way out of whack.

I have four kids and owed them more of my time. WTC felt that as well. So, I took a break. I then had a little bout with cancer and took some time to get healthy.

Martin Franklin from [Zoot owner] Jarden then called out of the blue. It was a great position – to take on the marketing for Zoot; and that’s nothing to do with the money. The Zoot brand already has the origins and authenticity. There is work that needs to be done, but we’re starting from a great place.

 

Zoot stand at Eurobike 2011

 

TriBiz: As the new Vice President and General Manager at Zoot Sports what lies in store? New products? New initiatives?

EV: Zoot was born back in 1983 and was the first brand to embrace tri apparel. The challenge is that most people don’t know it. We need to reinforce the credentials and heritage of Zoot.

If you boil it down, back in the 1980s it was just about putting a smaller chamois pad in a pair of bike shorts so that athletes can more comfortably swim, bike and run.

Lots of brands now do apparel. 2XU does a full range. TYR has a wide range of products too. But footwear is another ball game. And there’s only one brand – Zoot – that has the fullest tri offering.

The diversity of products in the portfolio does present a challenge. We can only spend a certain amount of time in meetings, for example, to talk about wetsuits. For some companies, they can spend a whole sales meeting on wetsuits.

 

Zoot Sports - Ultra Kane 3.0

 

 

At Zoot, we need to focus on efficiency in everything we do. We also realise that we don’t need to do a thousand things to be authentic. We can do less than 10 things really well and not get too swamped in the peripheral stuff.

Sometimes it’s hard to say no even to great ideas. We just need to make less of a range of stuff; and for everything that’s left in the portfolio to carry the Zoot brand – it has to be the very best.

TriBiz: Being part of outdoor sports gear specialist K2 Sports, how much of a free reign do you have at Zoot?

EV: It’s a win-win situation in many respects. Having a business like K2, and our ultimate parent company Jarden, behind Zoot gives us a lot of horsepower. With such scale we can, for example, walk into a factory and get products on a production line a lot more readily than smaller brands may be able.

We do have a lot of free reign as the endurance sport category is a different beast to snow sports and needs to be run differently. Zoot is also not a seasonal business like ski, for example.

Generally speaking, consumers swim/bike/run 365 days a year, whereas ski and snow sports are constrained to the winter season. However, Zoot is tiny in comparison as a business given the mainstream scale of snow sports globally.

Going forwards, we just need to be nimble… thinking like a small brand and acting like one, albeit with a big company behind us.

TriBiz: Zoot recently reconfirmed its sponsorship of the ITU World Triathlon Hamburg event until 2014. How important is this event for your European business?

EV: The ITU World Triathlon Series and the Hamburg event in particular – as one of the world’s largest triathlons – represent a great brand statement. The team in Europe have done a great job and we’re massively looking forward to the impact from this event.

TriBiz: How do you balance athlete sponsorship with events? Which works best for you?

EV: It’s all about balance and we don’t put all our chips in one basket. From a sponsor point of view, we want to own the athletes’ chest. Having that sponsor space and association with an athlete helps forge brand awareness directly.

The athlete is always on a journey; and sponsoring athletes helps us tell that person’s story and in tandem get the Zoot story and message across.

Banners at an event don’t do that for you. Media impressions can be helpful, say for example in terms of TV contacts. But people generally choose a sports brand via who they know and connect with.

 

Pro triathlete Ben Hoffman signs with Zoot Sports

 

Events have to have a connected messaging component to be attractive from a sponsorship point of view. The advantage of events is that they can help brands connect, tell their story, repeat and extend into a conversation. It’s very similar with athletes in this respect. We work with our Zoot athletes to build bridges with consumers and have an on-going dialogue.

Both event sponsorship and athlete sponsorship need focus, clarity and discipline. Branding must be consistent and can’t contradict. We can work with other brands to deliver a consistent branding message; but we’re not interesting in a cluttered sponsor roster on an athletes’ vest for example.

TriBiz: How about retailer partnerships; who are Zoot’s key retailers and what do you look for when working with retailers?

EV: We have a ‘specialty-retailer-first’ mandate and again need to be disciplined about this. This goes back to being credible. We avoid big box retail. Saying no to big volume early on in our life cycle is important.

Our retailers have to be partners; and these are predominantly across the specialty space – in run stores as well as tri stores.

Ultimately you have to sell where you can sell. Yet, the only way to sell effectively and therefore profitably is to be able to tell your brand story and get your message across.

TriBiz: How about online retail; any particular challenges or opportunities here?

EV: Online is important; there’s no doubt about that. But no-one buys their first bit of gear in an online environment. With multisport there are so many issues in terms of sizing, product features, types of event – long or short distance – that the first timer needs to have that dialogue with a retailer.

TriBiz: How widespread is your distribution globally?

EV: Zoot is now in 26 countries. We’re growing and it’s going well. Growth in Europe has been great. Likewise, in Japan we’ve seen strong growth – helping to boost the Asia business overall.

Japan and Asia are pretty unique. There is a strong tri passion there and from this Japan/Asia can stand alone and operate differently to other markets. Europe and North America on the other hand tend to operate in a similar way and are more inter-related.

So far, things are healthy in our three core markets of North America, Europe and Asia. Other markets of interest include South America and East Europe.

We do a lot of work with our current distribution reach; and there’s still lots to do in our biggest market of North America.

TriBiz: You’ve previously said that ‘Triathlon has always driven innovation’. Why do you think this is the case?

EV: Ultimately, no-one would call them self a triathlete without racing. That’s what triathletes do; they race – whether it’s week in week out or a couple of times a year. From this comes a desire to be faster, more comfortable, streamlined. So, this makes the consumer fundamentally performance oriented.

Innovation goes hand in hand with this competitive element amongst triathletes. So, while runners can just run for fun, but not compete, this isn’t the case for triathletes… And as long as human beings compete there’s a need for innovation.

 

What it means to be a triathlete - word cloud

 

TriBiz: What next for you and Zoot?

EV: We want to move from being more of a race day brand to an every day brand. This is ultimately where we’re going. We’re not there yet, but it’s a challenge we’ve set ourselves. Being thought of by athletes as a race day product is a complement, because you save the best products for race day. But it’s a smaller part of the bigger opportunity; and it’s the big opportunity that excites us most.

www.zootsports.com

 

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