Sims Sports, Inc.
Sims Sports, Inc.
22105 23rd Dr. SE
Bothell, Washington 98021
Telephone: (425) 951-2700
Web site: www.simsnow.com
BE FREE CAMPAIGN
Sims Sports, Inc., maker of Sims Snowboards, asked its advertising firm, Seattle-based Hammerquist & Halverson, to create a campaign for the 1997–98 winter season that would "return to the roots of snowboarding," according to agency copywriter Ian Cohen in Advertising Age's Creativity. "Sims wanted to shake up the market," explained Cohen in an article by Margaret Richardson in Print. Cohen said that Sims "had run ads for years on the back cover of snowboard magazines and were coming in dead last in reader-recall surveys. We wanted a different perspective than the typical jumping snow-boarder ad. So we created a mantra: 'Be Free.' We didn't want to say a lot, but we wanted to say it up front."
The centerpiece of the "Be Free" campaign, even though it ran only in niche magazines such as Snowboarder and Transworld Snowboard, was a print execution that played off the famous photo of the standoff between a Chinese student protesting for democracy and military tanks in Tiananmen Square. Hammerquist & Halverson hired photojournalist Bob Peterson of Streetsmart, who had worked as a staff photographer for Life magazine, to give the shot an air of authenticity. Creative director Fred Hammerquist and art directors Matt Peterson and Mike Proctor then mocked-up the ad to make it appear as if it were a newspaper clipping, complete with a half-ripped caption extolling the "courageous act" of a single snowboarder standing off a lineup of Snowcat grooming machines.
On the one hand it was a soft-sell ad in the sense that the product name, Sims Snowboards, appeared only as a half-ripped headline, with the Sims logo just discernable on the bottom of the renegade's snowboard. On the other hand it was a hard-sell ad in the sense that it politicized the struggle of snowboarders. Whereas the Chinese student had stood up for freedom of political expression, the snowboarder was standing up for the freedom to have powder snow. Snowboarders were renowned for the lengths they would go to for fresh, ungroomed powder snow, which they could ride as a surfer rode a wave. The ad walked a tight line—gaining from the symbolic power of Tiananmen Square while retaining an edge of sarcasm—in comparing the struggle for political freedom with the struggle of a recreational sport. It had an air of absurdity that rang through the execution. The rest of the ads in the campaign similarly walked the line between the serious and the humorous.
The Colorado Snowboard and Ski Museum in Vail had on permanent display the first snowboard, made in 1963 by Tom Sims in his high school woodworking class in Haddonfield, New Jersey. It measured 34 by 8 inches, with carpet covering the top and aluminum the bottom. The first snowboard like device to be marketed, however, dated to 1965, when Sherman Poppen, a businessman based in Muskegon, Michigan, fastened together two snow skis to form a single wide board for his children to slide on as they held on to a rope tied to the front for balance and steering. Recognizing the potential marketability of such a piece of equipment, Poppen licensed what he called the Snurfer (from "snow surfer") to the Brunswick Corporation. Brunswick marketed Snurfers for $10 apiece until the middle of the 1970s, when the company discontinued production. Brunswick never capitalized on the concept by improving the design and technology of the snow board, and it almost died from undermarketing.
As the Snurfer was dying out as a toylike fad, concerted efforts were being made to establish snowboarding as a more serious sport. Sims marketed his first snowboard in 1976. Jake Burton, the other major snowboard pioneer, who founded Burton Snowboards in 1977, built prototypes in the woodworking shop of his friend Emo Henrich, the director of the ski school at Stratton Mountain in Vermont. Burton tested more than 100 designs before he happened upon the combination of shape, wood laminates, and binding style that worked best. Burton, who got a Snurfer when he was 14 years old, spoke of the aborted beginnings of snowboard history in an article by Michael Finkel in Sports Illustrated: "I always felt there was an opportunity for [the Snurfer] to be better marketed … for serious technology to be applied to it, so Snurfing could become a legitimate sport instead of a cheap toy. I knew there was an opportunity there. I couldn't believe Brunswick never took advantage of it."
At the beginning of the 1980s most ski resorts banned the use of snowboards, claiming that snowboarders created an insurance liability. The ski resorts, which catered to those who could afford expensive lift tickets and ski equipment, remained reluctant to open up their slopes to the reputed counterculture associated with snowboarding. When the insurance excuse proved flimsy and snowboarders persisted in their demands that they be allowed on the slopes, ski areas acquiesced and opened their snow up to the sport. According to Finkel's article in Sports Illustrated, Paul Johnston, the manager at Stratton Mountain, reportedly stated that "nobody wants [snowboarders] on our mountain, but nobody has a good reason why [snowboarders] shouldn't be allowed on."
The trend toward banning snowboarding was reversed in the late 1980s, and as of 1997, 95 percent of ski areas in the United States allowed snowboarding. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, over the prior decade, since 1988, the number of snow-boarders had risen 77 percent, while the number of skiers had fallen 25 percent. Clearly, snowboarding was filling its ranks at the expense of the skiing population. As of 1997, snowboarders numbered 2.3 million in the United States, accounting for 20 percent of the traffic at ski resorts. The final legitimization of the sport came in 1998 when the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, included two snowboarding events—the halfpipe freestyle event and the giant slalom racing event—reflecting a decision made in 1995 by officials of the International Olympic Committee.
Snowboarding had its roots in the maverick sports of surfing and skateboarding. The Alpine skiing community viewed these as illegitimate sports and consequently looked down on snowboarding as an bastardization. In addition, snowboarders were seen as punks. For their part, snowboarders embraced the image as rebellious outsiders, and when ski resorts banned snowboarding, this reinforced the image of snowboarders as outlaws. Ironically, the stereotype benefited snowboarders. If they were banned, they became martyrs (at least in their own eyes) for the freedom of athletic expression, and if they were not banned, they got to ride on the slopes, which was their ultimate goal. Snowboard manufacturers played up this maverick image as a means of paying tribute to snowboarders who fought the system while also enticing nonparticipants into the counterculture of snowboarding.
"This audience is so sensitive," said Hammerquist & Halverson's Cohen in Richardson's article, a statement that seemed counterintuitive to snowboarders' tough image. What these 14-to-28-year-olds were sensitive to was the nuanced representation of their sport and themselves. They greeted mainstream advertising with the same enthusiasm they would have for spending a gondola ride with a dozen mediocre skiers from New York City. The "Be Free" campaign from Sims and Hammerquist & Halverson spoke to snowboarders on their own terms, capturing the irreverent spirit of the sport.
The snowboard market began with two companies based on either coast—Sims Snowboards in the Northwest and Burton Snowboards in the Northeast. Although Sims started making and marketing snowboards well before Burton, the latter managed to gain a commanding lead in the snowboard market early on. As of 1997, Burton Snowboards dominated with a 45 percent share of the market and with sales of more than 100,000 boards per year. Nonetheless, this represented a decline from earlier in the 1990s, when Burton owned the majority of the market. This kind of domination, however, risked the appearance of the mainstream commercialism that snow-boarders avoided. Burton's lead proved unsustainable anyway, as the number of entries into the snowboard market multiplied. Ski manufacturers such as American-based K2and French-based Rossignol entered the market, increasing the competition with advertising budgets that dwarfed those of most snowboard manufacturers. As of 1997, approximately 250 companies competed in the snowboard market, which boasted more than 2,500 individual models.
Hammerquist &Halverson's "Be Free" campaign sought to recapture the original spirit of snowboarding and its culture of the outsider. In the print ad entitled "Mantra," Hammerquist & Halverson stated the snowboarder's philosophy: "The time has come to slash the jugular of mainstream mentality. To dismantle the notion of boundaries. To reclaim the mountains bastardized by conformity. The time has come to be free." The motto appeared to be handwritten on a poster bearing a cartoon silhouette of a figure who, having cut himself free from a ball and chain that had shackled his ankle, held a Sims snowbird above his head. To add to the political dimension of the ad, Bob Peterson used a curved lens to shoot a wide-angle photograph that revealed the man who had been plastering the message over other posters on Seattle's Pioneer Square and who was fleeing the scene with squeegee and glue bucket in hand, as if he were a fugitive. The execution created a sense of political urgency to the message, as if holding the tenets central to snowboarders' beliefs carried a risk.
A similar execution featured a snowboarder dressed in signature knee-length shorts and skateboarding sneakers who was fleeing the scene of a prank to an awaiting car with snowboards strapped on the roof rack. His crime was that he had rearranged the lettering on a restaurant sign that had read, it could be surmised through reconstruction, "Welcome Skiers Egg and Bacon Breakfast $2.99" to read "Sims Be Free." He had also slapped a Sims sticker on a telephone pole during his flight. Another print ad advanced a less subtle message. It featured five snowboards of differing lengths arranged to resemble fingers folded into a fist, with the middle snowboard longer than the rest, like an extended finger sending the universally understood message. The copy, which seemed haphazardly glued onto the picture, which was itself haphazardly stapled at the corners, read, "Tell your inhibitions, insecurities and fears where to go." The gesture suggested by the ad epitomized snow-boarders' philosophy.
NOT AVAILABLE ANYWHERE—PLEASE SEND NO MONEY NOW
Hammerquist & Halverson poked fun at mainstream marketing techniques with two mock product offers. One print ad, which urged viewers to "collect all three today," featured three plastic cups like those fast-food restaurants gave away to promote Hollywood megahits. Instead of picturing Batman or characters from the latest Star Wars epic, the cups pictured endorsers Allan Clark, Noah Salasnek, and Tina Basich in action shots riding their Sims Snowboards, with short blurbs on the opposite side of the cups describing the snowboard models they had designed. Fine print in the corner revealed the ad to be a sham: "Sorry, these cups are not available anywhere."
A second execution went further over the top by promoting a porcelain plate like the ones featuring puppy dogs and furry cats that were advertised in supermarket tabloids. The headline of the ad read, "The Sims Mint Proudly Presents the Mark Fawcett Commemorative China Plate," with the copy reading, "The front of this beautiful plate features Mark Fawcett engaged in big air on his beloved T. Sims board." A candle cast glowing light on the plate. Hammerquist & Halverson captured all of the tacky elements of this genre of advertising, which was conspicuously at odds with the elements of snowboarding culture. The cutout order form revealed the ad to be a farce: "Please Send No Money Now. If you want to order the Mark Fawcett commemorative plate, you can't. They will never ever be sold, in order to protect the as-yet-untarnished image of Mark Fawcett."
A television spot went in the opposite direction by playing off the familiar plot twist of a popular Saturday morning cartoon program. The commercial began unassumingly at a ski resort on a beautiful day, when the calm was suddenly broken by the appearance on-screen of a huge six-foot rabbit sporting giant fangs and seeking snowboarder blood. In slapstick fashion a snowboarder knocked the bunny over, revealing it to be the resort owner Mr. Jenkins. In the familiar words repeated at the end of every episode of Scooby Doo, the villain boasted that he would have gotten away with his crime "if it weren't for you meddling kids!" The ads thus returned to the history of the sport, pitting snowboarders against the establishment. The humor of the spot, however, arose from the fact that snowboarders could now joke about the past enmity of resort officials, whom the snowboarders had essentially defeated in reality as they had in the mock commercial.
Advertising critics appreciated the "Be Free" campaign and showered it with laurels. The Hammerquist & Halverson team, which in addition to art directors Peterson and Proctor, included copywriters Cohen and Grant Holland and creative directors Hugh Saffel and Hammerquist, won a Gold Pencil at the One Show in New York for the Sims campaign. The agency as a whole won 22 awards at the 1998 Seattle Show, including the best of show commendation for its print work for Sims. In addition, the campaign won a silver ADDY in the print category, and Graphis magazine included the campaign in its annual edition surveying the best in graphic advertising for the year. But it was Hammerquist & Halverson's Cohen who, in Richardson's article, summed up the most important result of the campaign: "The outcome was that the consumers were digging it."
Atkin, Ross. "A Man Who Helped Skiers Get on the Snowboard." Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 1998.
Finkel, Michael. "Chairman of the Board Jake Burton Took a Childhood Toy and Launched an International Craze." Sports Illustrated, January 13, 1997.
Kim, Nancy J. "Marketing and Media." Puget Sound Business Journal, December 18, 1998.
Richardson, Margaret. "Snow Business." Print 53, no. 3.
"Upfront." Advertising Age's Creativity, December 1, 1997.
"The Works This Month: Amateur Hour 5." Advertising Age's Creativity, June 1, 1998.