Tavarua Moves On Up

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tavarua, Banning Caps

What began as a small operation out of a garage in Laguna Beach, California has turned into multi-million-dollar surfwear company that’s distributed internationally on five continents.

Even though the company continues to grow — sometimes by 50 percent in one year — Tavarua is changing its look. But why fix something if it ain’t broke?.

Nine months ago Tavarua Cofounder Mark Price realized the brand was in tune with the market, but not out in front. So Price and company discussed new paths for the brand to take.

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What emerged was a new look; a new graphic handle that Price hopes will appeal to the younger surf market. It incorporates some of the old Tavarua — particularly images of perfect Cloudbreak — and blends it with a fresh, edgier look. As Price puts it: “What’s brewing is the beginnings of a graphic handle for the brand that’s not just in tune with what’s going on in the market, it’s something that’s slightly ahead and most certainly different from what other people are doing.”

Their goal was simple: maximize Tavarua’s unique identity in the market and make sure the brand was relevant to the younger surfing crowd. While many companies have hit on the crossover surf/skate market, Price believes that focusing on just the core surf market will be the key to success. “At the end of the day, the niche companies that specialize at addressing their niche customer are gonna beat out the broad-based, broadly positioned brands at a core store level,” he says.

But Price realizes it’s not going to be easy. One of the most difficult challenges is gaining retail floor space, for example.

TransWorld SURF Business sat down with Price and new Designer Dino Sakelliou (formerly with The Realm) to discuss what was, what is, and what’s next from Tavarua.

TransWorld SURF Business: How will the new Tavarua fit into the crossover market?

Price: In many respects the emerging youth customer in the skate market doesn’t know us. We could reinvent ourselves and reposition ourselves to that customer as the next hardcore skate brand through marketing. But we don’t have an interest in doing that.

The first point is that we have a real love of surfing. When we get up in the morning, that’s what we’re thinking about — when, where, with whom — so that drives the market position of the company.

At the end of the day the niche companies that specialize at addressing their niche customer are gonna beat out the broad-based, broadly positioned brands.

What’s driving the market right now?

Price: The market is so brand-driven right now. Logos are such an important fixture in the market, particularly on T-shirts, that brands have to be careful of just how much of their logo is put out into the market, because a brand can burn out from overexposure.

The reason we’re a branded business is because the brands have equity. And the basic blocks that are out there — the styles of the walkshorts or the T-shirts — are very similar. The real thing that separates them is the marketing and the name on that product. When an eighteen-year-old kid buys a certain brand, he connects to that brand — he’s not just buying a T-shirt, he’s buying a logo, he’s wearing it with pride, and he has a connection with it. If he goes home and his ten-year-old brother has that same logo that his mom bought for him that afternoon out of a mall store, I believe that somewhere in the cosmic nature of business, that undermines the true value that that eighteen-year-old has for his T-shirt.

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There are so many new customers coming into the market that the growth potential right now for brands is unlimited. And these types of big-picture issues can get swept under the carpet. You’ve got to look a little bit deeper than that and see who’s wearing what product and where, and how that person is going to help grow your business — the wrong customer wearing your logcan hurt your business, too.

Is that just a function of distribution or are there other mechanisms at work?

Price: It’s a product-extension question and a distribution question. Because you have to consciously decide to make T-shirts for seven-year-olds with your logo on it. That’s a corporate decision. Secondarily, you then decide whom you want to sell it to. The impact of Nordstrom’s kids’ department on diluting your brand is far greater than those same styles sold to a surf shop.

Six months ago, what was the catalyst for changing Tavarua’s brand image?

Price: I think the market’s shifted so dramatically. Volcom has been growing steadily over the years. The combination of Volcom’s and Hurley’s product statement really shifted the market dramatically.

Hurley — a brand that didn’t exist four years ago — is now a top player. Did that open up a lot of eyes for brands like Tavarua?

Sakelliou: It has definitely sucked the bottom people up with it. It’s sucked in new blood almost. The big guys like Quik and Billabong have been there so long that they’re so established. I mean the general state of the market is in such movement now. There’s so much more youth in the market now.

When you saw the market changing what did that tell you?

Price: I think it was a wake-up call for us that we need to become more relevant to the customer base that drives the surf-store business. We probably could have evolved the brand even faster into a 25- to 45-year-old customer brand and gone with the distribution that catered to that product, going head-to-head with the people who sell those types of products.

When you saw that the market had changed, was there a decision to go Nordstrom’s main floor or reinvent the brand and take it in a younger direction?

Price: The men’s main floor was never an option, so it was an easy decision, if you could even call it a decision. Again it comes back to that lifestyle question: Why are we in business? And yeah, of course we’re in business to make money — no question about it — but we’re also in business because we like to surf and we love doing business with surfers and having our whole business lives wrapped up around the sport. That was the real catalyst for making the shift, so that we could continue to do what we enjoy doing the most as opposed to take the business into another business realm that might have been more successful — but I think that would have been a hollow victory.

So what are you doing differently?

Price: The major difference is primarily on the graphic handle, because that’s the most visible manifestation of the design process in our industry. Hang tags, advertising, T-shirt direction — the graphic handling of the brand has been completely revamped. Dino has taken the elements of Tavarua that are right on — 100-percent hardcore surf, Cloudbreak, the Ledge at eight feet — and by incorporating that in a completely modern and fresh graphic handle we’ve been able to transition into a new direction that brings the best of the old with us. That’s opposed to saying, “Everything we did before was crap, and there’s nothing we can learn from it and let’s just completely start fresh,” which I think would have been a mistake.

Sakelliou: We have a wave called Cloudbreak that nobody else has, and it wasn’t being utilized. With the market being so brand driven, we can just repackage it in a branded way.

What’s the deal with 6’8′?

Price: Well remember when the “Eddie Would Go” bumper stickers were floating around everywhere? My wife and I were driving around one time and she goes, “Hey what’s ‘Eddie Would Go’?” — because if you don’t surf, you wouldn’t know. Then a couple days later she goes, “Hey, Tavi should come up with our ‘Eddie Would Go.’ So we came up with “six to eight foot and perfect” — that just tagged Cloudbreak perfectly. That was like three years ago. And then it morphed when we were looking for a graphic handle the “six to eight” got abbreviated to its present form.

How do you leverage the brand with the island?

Price: On a trade level it happens almost automatically because most of the retailers have been around for awhile and they know our involvement in the island — many of them have been there. From a consumer standpoint we have a tag on our hangtag that’s a one-percent contribution back to indigenous people on the island, which is a little bit more of a subliminal message. I think there needs to be a little mystique attached to the brand. I don’t think every aspect of the brand should be rammed down the market, right up front. I think kids like to discover things and get a feel for things and let it develop. So I’m quite happy for a kid to buy a T-shirt because he thinks it’s a sick layout, and maybe two weeks later realize that we are the company that’s associated with the island as well. I don’t think it always has to be made up front.

The other important aspect of the new direction is the addition of a surf team. In the past we relied on completely remote elements of the island — empty waves, sunsets, whatever. And now we’re taking hot young guys and putting them in that environment. I think that Jesse Hines busting air at Cloudbreak has a little more credibility than a guy busting it at Salt Creek.

Are you going to bring on a full-scale team?

Price: We’re slowly building the team. We started out on a fairly low level from an investment standpoint, but I think the market today is about fresh faces. You can take young guys with attitude and if you market them the right way you can almost get just as much mileage out of them as the heavy hitters.

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What do you want retailers to know about your new brand direction?

Price: I don’t think retailers realize the talent we have in the building and how creative we’re going to get and how far we’re going to push it. Because once you start pushing it, the funnest part comes a little bit down the road as you start pushing it a little bit farther. What’s brewing is the beginnings of a graphic handle for the brand that’s not just in tune with what’s going on in the market, it’s something that’s slightly ahead and most certainly completely different from what other people are doing. For the past year we’ve been playing catch-up, and now’s there’s an opportunity for us to step out — if not ahead, at least to the side and create our own identity.

What kind of growth are you expecting out of this?

Price: Well we’ve grown considerably since the day we started out of a garage in Laguna Beach with credit cards — we’ve grown between 30 and 50 percent a year.

I think we’re going to continue to grow, but it’s difficult to quantify. What I do know is that it’s going to broaden the appeal of the brand exponentially over where we were. What that translates to in hard dollars is hard to guess. As far as the long-term scenario is concerned, I’m confident that if we remain true to our love of surfing, combined with our commitment to running an effective business, we’ll be okay.

We may not be going public anytime soon, but I don’t see us sucking on 40 ounces at Uppers at six a.m. remembering when we used to run Tavarua Clothing.

There does seem to be a point in every brand’s history where you reach a certain ceiling and the brand has to radically change the way it’s operating once you break through that volume, and it seems that if everything goes well, you guys will be nearing that zone soon. Price: The one benefit this brand has is we’ve had experience at different times of our careers working for much, much bigger companies than we are, so I think we have the management expertise to gear up the internal to deal with any external success that comes our way. I’m not concerned about. That was like three years ago. And then it morphed when we were looking for a graphic handle the “six to eight” got abbreviated to its present form.

How do you leverage the brand with the island?

Price: On a trade level it happens almost automatically because most of the retailers have been around for awhile and they know our involvement in the island — many of them have been there. From a consumer standpoint we have a tag on our hangtag that’s a one-percent contribution back to indigenous people on the island, which is a little bit more of a subliminal message. I think there needs to be a little mystique attached to the brand. I don’t think every aspect of the brand should be rammed down the market, right up front. I think kids like to discover things and get a feel for things and let it develop. So I’m quite happy for a kid to buy a T-shirt because he thinks it’s a sick layout, and maybe two weeks later realize that we are the company that’s associated with the island as well. I don’t think it always has to be made up front.

The other important aspect of the new direction is the addition of a surf team. In the past we relied on completely remote elements of the island — empty waves, sunsets, whatever. And now we’re taking hot young guys and putting them in that environment. I think that Jesse Hines busting air at Cloudbreak has a little more credibility than a guy busting it at Salt Creek.

Are you going to bring on a full-scale team?

Price: We’re slowly building the team. We started out on a fairly low level from an investment standpoint, but I think the market today is about fresh faces. You can take young guys with attitude and if you market them the right way you can almost get just as much mileage out of them as the heavy hitters.

[IMAGE 3]

What do you want retailers to know about your new brand direction?

Price: I don’t think retailers realize the talent we have in the building and how creative we’re going to get and how far we’re going to push it. Because once you start pushing it, the funnest part comes a little bit down the road as you start pushing it a little bit farther. What’s brewing is the beginnings of a graphic handle for the brand that’s not just in tune with what’s going on in the market, it’s something that’s slightly ahead and most certainly completely different from what other people are doing. For the past year we’ve been playing catch-up, and now’s there’s an opportunity for us to step out — if not ahead, at least to the side and create our own identity.

What kind of growth are you expecting out of this?

Price: Well we’ve grown considerably since the day we started out of a garage in Laguna Beach with credit cards — we’ve grown between 30 and 50 percent a year.

I think we’re going to continue to grow, but it’s difficult to quantify. What I do know is that it’s going to broaden the appeal of the brand exponentially over where we were. What that translates to in hard dollars is hard to guess. As far as the long-term scenario is concerned, I’m confident that if we remain true to our love of surfing, combined with our commitment to running an effective business, we’ll be okay.

We may not be going public anytime soon, but I don’t see us sucking on 40 ounces at Uppers at six a.m. remembering when we used to run Tavarua Clothing.

There does seem to be a point in every brand’s history where you reach a certain ceiling and the brand has to radically change the way it’s operating once you break through that volume, and it seems that if everything goes well, you guys will be nearing that zone soon. Price: The one benefit this brand has is we’ve had experience at different times of our careers working for much, much bigger companies than we are, so I think we have the management expertise to gear up the internal to deal with any external success that comes our way. I’m not concerned about the operational challenges that will face us as we go. We have the maturity and we the extra experience as well to address it.  

bout the operational challenges that will face us as we go. We have the maturity and we the extra experience as well to address it.