Vans President Kevin Bailey: ‘The Brand Is Not Broken’ But It Lost Its ‘Eff You Attitude’
Throughout his time with Vans, which began in 2002 and has been on and off since, global brand president Kevin Bailey has experienced his share of highs and lows. However, the industry veteran might have inherited a more daunting task than he had hoped for when he returned to the helm in April 2022.
Last month, when parent VF Corp. reported its Q3 2023 earnings, the company revealed $926.9 million in sales for Vans for the quarter, a 13% decline from the year prior. What’s more, VF stated Vans revenue is expected to decline by high single digits in constant dollars, compared to the previous outlook of down mid-single digits.
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“The brand is not broken,” Bailey confidently told FN. “Everybody trips up once in a while. Skateboarders fall and cut their knees up. It is what it is. Have we hit a bump in the road? Yes. How much of this was our causing? Nearly all of it.”
The list of what Vans needs to fix in order to right the ship, however, is long. Bailey identified several critical mistakes, including the brand becoming too dependent on certain styles (“Our consumer said we want more style and versatility, but we kept pumping out Classics”), not innovating enough (“When I wasn’t involved with Vans, I saw how much we spent on product development dwindle to places where no one spends that little”). Also, the exec said Vans has struggled in the marketplace by allowing itself to become ubiquitous, where in the past it was clearly segmented and had distinct ways of showing up across its different channels of distribution.
“These are all horrific problems on their own. Added together, it’s terrible,” Bailey said.
He continued, “When [chief product and merchandising officer] Marissa [Pardini] agreed to come back and help [in December 2022], the look in her eyes two weeks in was pretty similar to the look in my eyes, like, ‘What the heck happened here? How did we lose some of our practices? How did we lose some of our disciplines? How are we this unfocused? How is our execution this poor?’ The fact that we’re still there is not a surprise to me.”
What’s more, Bailey said the sharp edges Vans once had dulled with recent success.
“We allowed ourselves to become too comfortable,” he said. “We didn’t maintain our edge. We lost our rebelliousness, that rebellious nature that is Vans. That ‘eff you’ attitude that is Vans. Somehow, we got watered down in the process.”
As Bailey and his team work to bring the brand back to prominence, Bailey asked industry insiders and consumers alike to exercise patience. “The time it takes to get well is serious. Turnarounds don’t happen overnight. It’s not what public companies want to hear, generally,” he explained.
Despite the headwinds, Bailey — who spoke with FN today, the 57th birthday of the brand — believes there are reasons for him to be confident. Throughout today’s conversation, the exec repeatedly said “don’t call it a comeback,” referencing the LL Cool J hit from 1990, “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
“I’m convinced we have the right elements in play to change the way we show up by the second half of this year,” Bailey said. “But we’re not going to be all the way to where we want it to be. We’re still going through a tough cycle.”
Bailey’s confidence rose last year when Vans made several key executive hires. Aside from Pardini, a 10-year Vans veteran who returned after nearly three years at sister company The North Face, the brand tapped Bobby Goodwin as VP of DTC merchandising for the Americas region and hired Sarah Kleinman as VP and GM of global digital.
Beyond new hires, one of Vans’ biggest priorities is removing underperforming SKUs from shoe walls.
“Retail stores will have 30% to 40% fewer SKUs in the fall on the footwear wall, which will allow for a greater focus and greater understanding of the stories we’re telling,” Bailey said. “That drove an 11% increase in sales when we did a test in one store, just by taking models off the wall.”
With this, Pardini said Vans will tell fewer, but deeper stories that the brand expects will resonate with consumers. Also, it could help solve a low awareness issue that Vans has had with some of its newer products, which VF addressed on its earnings call last month.
During the call, using the Vans UltraRange product line as an example, VF said its awareness was around 10% among all consumers and below 30% among brand loyalists.
“There are areas where we’ve been innovative, but it’s been under the radar because we have not taken bold commitments around trying to communicate,” Pardini said. “MTE and UltraRange, we have had success there, but there wasn’t much awareness even with those consumers. We know consumers want something different from us, and there’s heritage we can draw into some of these more progressive products, but we have to be overt and we have to stick to it.”
Also concerning retail, Bailey said consumers can expect a reimagining of its stores, which he described as stale and dated.
“Today, because our footwear and apparel teams haven’t worked well in the past, they don’t even feel like the same spaces on some level. We also have the men’s side and women’s side. We’re talking more about style fluidity. Our young consumers dress the way they want to dress, that’s how they express themselves,” Bailey explained. “If you go to our website today and look at a men’s pant and go through the images, you’re going to find an image of a woman wearing the men’s pant styled out. Why not? Consumers are doing that.”
He continued, “So why do we have a men’s and women’s side of the store? Why could we not think in terms of consumer category teams? Why could we not have a pro skate section, which has the skate shop for the hardgoods and our pro skate shoes and apparel? Why couldn’t our lifestyle section have our core Classics and a bunch of basic tees and hoodies?”
Bailey also said Vans has started working on how to improve its consumer segmentation. “[That] work has just kicked off. It’s a study, a deep understanding of our consumers across demographics, geographies, activities, lifestyles,” he said.
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