People who claim to have turned a hobby into their occupation sometimes have a whiff of insincerity about them, but Nick Street doesn’t. At 36, he comes across as someone still in his twenties who is just having a really good time doing the things that come most naturally to him.
Someone who always seems to be in motion even when behind his standing desk, Street has been at Vans’ parent VF Corporation since 2002, even though he says he was always entrepreneurially inclined and had no intention of becoming part of the corporate world.
After three years as marketing manager for Eastpak, he moved to Vans, and there he has remained. His passions have changed little since his student days: the skate and youth scene, photography and film, and organising live events. Half German and half English, he grew up in Mainz but started his career as a freelance event and project manager while studying arts and event management at Bournemouth University.
That put him on course for where he is today. By his own admission, he has always been better at documenting skateboarding than actually doing it himself. He also much prefers being behind the camera than in front of it, as became apparent during this interview. His role at Vans was the perfect fit from the beginning. “There aren’t many brands that work to my personal interests as much as Vans does,” he says. “That’s probably why I’ve stayed so long.”
Street has been in Asia just 18 months, and is excited about the opportunities to grow the brand in the region. He oversees activity in Hong Kong, China, Korea and India — four markets with very different levels of maturity when it comes to streetwear. He has no direct involvement in Japan, the region’s most advanced streetwear market; there, Vans has operated for 20 years under a licensee agreement.
Growing with local culture
Walking around a city like Hong Kong, the Vans shoe might seem ubiquitous. Still, in the bigger scheme of things, there are challenges to surmount. Clearly conveying the essence of the brand and the youth culture it is based on is a major one, Street says. Although Vans’ positioning and target consumer profile is consistent regardless of location, the whole counter-culture scene that Vans grew up with in California and other Western markets is barely present in most of this part of the world.
“Skateboarding is not a sport widely understood or practiced in Asia,” Street admits. “Australia has a strong action sports culture, but when you go to India, no one knows what it is, so depending on that you have to tell the brand story in a different way.”
That involves “dialling up or down” the pillars of action sports, music, art and culture according to the audience the brand is trying to reach, Street explains. All four are part of the Vans story and can be emphasised to varying degrees. Sometimes, it all begins with education about the heritage and the products: Street says it’s important that people recognise Vans as the first brand to produce the casual slip-on — the silhouette of which has since been duplicated by everyone from the humblest mass-market retailer to top-end couture labels. Vans also needs to promote its apparel, for which it is not so well known. “We tell the whole brand story. A lot of what you see in terms of streetwear has been influenced by us.”
Telling that story takes numerous forms. While skateboarding is a big part of Vans’ history and still a core element, it also serves as a springboard to tap into other areas of youth interest. Street says this seemed like the obvious place to start in Asia. But today, coordinating cultural events takes up a major part of Street’s time. Much of the work Vans does in Asia is still at the grassroots level, especially in places like India. Street says his aim is not to sell a dream, but to sell “a story you can be part of that is not unattainable”.
“It isn’t about creating an ad—it’s about letting the consumer be part of the brand,” he says. One example of this ethos is building skate parks for communities in places where they don’t exist. Then there is the House of Vans—a permanent fixture in New York that takes the form of various mini festivals in Europe and Asia—which Street describes as a “platform for creative self expression”. One of Street’s first efforts in Asia was to organise four three-day brand experience initiatives across Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Seoul.
“We bring together athletes, artists, musicians and other people we work with to showcase the brand and let people in to experience it,” he explains. “It’s not about the products, but about the brand—explaining what ‘Off the wall’ [Vans’ slogan] means.”
The current campaign, ‘#Livingoffthewall’, documents the lives of people who “fit the ‘off the wall’ spirit” and don’t necessarily conform to traditional values of society, Street says. They include fringe musicians in China and a tattoo artist in Korea, where the profession is technically illegal.
For live entertainment, the brand has brought together local and international artists, such as Beijing’s Twisted Machine and the more widely known Pusha T. An upcoming festival in India will highlight emerging musical talent. Vans also runs workshops, and has invited people to learn how to make ‘zines’ — brief hand-published magazines — design paper shoes and execute screen prints.
Skateboarding culture remains largely irreverent and rebellious in spirit, particularly in the US. But the aim of campaigns like this in Asia is not to provoke rebellion against the establishment—something many consumers in China or Korea might be uncomfortable with. It’s about encouraging people to develop their individuality. “At the highest level, we enable people to be themselves and be creative.”
The importance of being true
The big danger for a brand that celebrates counter-culture is that it eventually becomes mainstream. One could argue that Vans has already reached that point in a number of global markets. Street says that makes it essential the brand remains true to its values to avoid getting lost in the melee, and that means working with the “right people” for endorsement.
“A lot of them are not celebrities, but some become celebrities and grow with us as a brand. Whoever we work with has got to be authentic. We’re not going to buy our way into it. That’s our long-term strategy and that’s the journey we’re on here in Asia.”
Street is equally selective when it comes to collaborations with other brands for specific products. While Vans has worked with high profile labels like Kenzo, it often aligns with much less famous companies, such as Brownbreath from Korea, or the skateboard shop Fly in Shanghai.
“We see them as part of the story we’re trying to tell,” Street says. “We don’t use models. We use people who’ve got a relationship with the brand. You can then dive deeper into the story. If you want to know who he or she is, you’ve got the ability to do that.”
Street works to an annual calendar of activities but certain things are done at short notice. In one example, to promote limited-edition Star Wars-themed shoes, the team in Korea solicited music students from a local university to make random appearances outside Vans stores, where they would play the film’s distinctive theme.
“If you don’t have a plan in place, you’re going to fail,” he says. “But we’re not following a rulebook. We’re not doctors or lawyers, and consumer behaviour changes every day here.”
In the end, Street remains connected to consumers the good old-fashioned way: by spending time with them. He believes there is no substitute for being ‘in the field’.
“I go and skate with 20-year-olds. I almost don’t want to grow up. That’s probably why I’m in this job. I support my family doing what I used to get expelled from school for. You can study a lot, but doing it and experiencing it and learning from failure is probably the most valuable thing you can do.”
Brands as publishers
Vans’ proximity to subculture, and the cultural events it stages, feed naturally into online content. But it should be noted that Street does not work with advertising agencies. At Vans, the vast majority of content is produced in-house with the aid of freelance experts, and Street is adamant that more brands are going to become publishers in their own right.
“Some marketers hide behind agencies but [at Vans] it’s always been about being hands-on and doing it yourself,” he says. “We use freelancers, a PR agency in Korea, and an event agency in China that helps with production. Anything technical, we bring in. It’s great, but it puts enormous pressure on you as well. Maybe that’s why everyone is so down-to-earth here: you can’t just pass it on to someone else. You’re accountable for it and will be praised for it when it goes well.”
It also gives a greater degree of flexibility and helps keep things in-tune with the brand’s character. A primary platform for content distribution is offthewall.tv, where Street says the brand is free to run stories about the various characters in its universe. These range from athletes to animators to “a guy who teaches us how to piss in public”. Juvenile though that may sound, it’s a sign of a brand that understands its audience and the concept of entertainment as opposed to contrived promotional messaging.
“[The stories] are not necessarily always about the brand,” Street says. “It’s not telling you how great the product is. It’s just a fun piece of content we’ve put out there. Some people find it outrageous but it’s pretty funny.”
More serious endeavours include ‘Wish you were here’, a six-episode miniseries that charts a skateboarding journey through different Asian cities. The approach is paying off. Street claims that some Vans properties “have more visitors a month than the media might advertise with”, and the content is sustainable because “we have not told grandiose stories that are unattainable”.
It all comes back to a belief in the importance of being present in the lives of consumers. As well as Street himself, “our VP is at every event [such as House of Vans in Hong Kong]. You try and grow and be an active part of it. That’s what informs your experience and your decisions in the future, how you grow as a brand and as a person as well.
“Obviously work has to get done as well. The output for us is pretty phenomenal when you look at our headcount: we have under 30 people in marketing in Asia and that’s it—all creative is done in-house. It means you’re nimble. If I have an idea we can execute extremely quickly. It’s certainly a challenge as you grow—making sure you stay nimble as more people are involved.”
Nick Street’s CV
- 2013 Marketing director, Asia-Pacific, Vans
- 2012 Senior marketing manager, EMEA, Vans, Reef, Pro-Tec
- 2006 Marketing manager, UK and Ireland, Vans, Pro-Tec
- 2003 Marketing manager, UK & Ireland, Eastpak