Focusing on core sports means that casual outfitters or brands like No Fear aren’t much of a perceived threat. Dunne agrees that they overlap in areas but their lack of commitment to the surf and board sports makes them less of a player among surfers. “No Fear has a broader target demo and perhaps because of that we don’t see them as a threat. No Fear perhaps lacks Rip Curl’s focus and passion in our chosen marketplace.”
Focusing on the brand qualities sometimes requires a bit of flexibility. A spot check of surfers in various locations worldwide revealed a strong connection to brands that were only available in the surfer’s region. Recognizing this affinity for local brands, Rip Curl tries to reflect local market tastes and themes in its own products. To monitor this, local production offices meet regularly to ensure that the global positioning guidelines are followed without eliminating the regional influences. As for their own Australian roots, Rip Curl is realizing that US market share may have been lost to Billabong or Quiksilver, who focused less on their origin. However, in other markets like Europe, Brazil and, obviously, Australia, Rip Curl has found the Australian connection has helped or at least not harmed its reputation.
Flexibility is also applied to the corporate identity through regular logo redevelopment and design – a change rarely seen in brands outside of the surf world. In fact, a review of surf brand logos reveals a glimpse of popular culture and styles through the decades. Rip Curl itself went through many incarnations including the original lotus flower to an eighties-inspired rainbow logo to today’s smart, clean design of surf cutting through a diamond outline.
All this is meant to keep Rip Curl fresh and attractive to the current and upcoming market. But what about the diehard original fans from the early days? Although they are presumably grateful to their older consumers, Rip Curl does not actively market to this demographic. “If they like it and buy it, it’s good for us – good for our bottom line. But it’s definitely not a focus of our designers in putting together a product line each season,” says Dunne.
However, to avoid alienating their loyal base and straying too far from their own ideals, they maintain focus on the original product and vision. “We feel that our core market is in the surf and board sport area. We try to [keep] a very clear focus on technical functional products in our product groups.”
This doesn’t mean no growth at all, just targeted growth that reflects the needs of the user and avoids the distraction of other non-related sports or lifestyle products. Areas of growth involve developing gear for mountain board sports and reaching out to the female surfing population – a group whose needs have previously been unmet by surfing brands. Although women have surfed as long as men, there have traditionally been less of them in the water. Even now Dunne estimates the guy-girl ratio to be about 10 to 1.
Leila Baruch, a Gen Xer who has been surfing for the last 14 years, says she had her wetsuits custom made before Quiksilver launched Roxy – now her preferred girl brand for clothing. In reviewing the main brands she defined Rip Curl and Billabong as guy-oriented and No Fear as a brand for “rednecks.”
Roxy attracted her in no small part because of the quality of the gear and because she felt it targeted women best. Her description of the differences in the way men and women surf leads to a better understanding of the challenge surf companies have in understanding and attracting this “new” market. “Women surf differently. Their center of gravity is located differently and they have a different style. They are less aggressive but enjoy it differently too,” says Baruch. The surf brand that best understands what attracts women will capitalize on this growing demographic.
Rip Curl’s attempts to stay fresh and true to its purpose also involve internal brand management. As the company grows and adapts to local markets, it inevitably becomes harder to maintain continuity among employees and the original values.
Recognizing this, the company endorses a philosophy, which can be best summed up by what they call The Search. The Search is about looking for the best conditions to practice one’s sport. Conducted with the proper attitude, the company feels, one should enjoy the journey as much as the destination. This internal concept adapts well with the external when applied to the philosophy of finding the best materials and designs for the products and finding the best conditions to conduct a challenging contest for the competitions.
To demonstrate The Search in action, Dunne turns to a time in the 1990s when surfing competitions were becoming increasingly popular and, as a result, suffering from their own success as they increasingly catered to the media and viewers at the expense of the most challenging surf conditions. In 1993, faced with no surf at Bells Beach, a decision was made to postpone the competition in favor of better conditions. As Dunne relates, “Within a few years – triggered in part by our actions here – it was decided that for the sake of the sport and its credibility, we need to ensure that the surfers are given proper surf to perform in.”
The decision worked out both for the surfers and the viewers as the media would much rather film in prime location where the waves are bigger and more challenging. The vision of The Search helped restore both credibility and challenge to the Rip Curl competitions.
If all this sounds like fun, that’s because it is. Dunne reminds us that The Search and by extension the Rip Curl mantra is essentially a quest for fun. “Have less focus on the absolute conditions and just enjoy the things that happen along the way when you go looking for good surf and good snow conditions.” Definitely one of the best corporate missions we’ve heard in a long time.