Scholars and Skate Punks: If the Vans Fit...

When refocusing these posts to include b-school coursework and case studies, I mentioned that scholarly press and especially u presses should read the HBR business case Vans: Skating on Air (Harvard Business School, 2002).

Vans (the company) is a great example of the lateral thinking many companies use to develop new businesses (plural) and several-fold new revenue, from a single core expertise/product/brand; the HBR case is a great study of how a discrete brand can be leveraged and expanded to stage a major turnaround and spur new products, new revenue, and new businesses.

Yes, I'm equating scholars with surfers and skate punks. They will be flattered.

And, yes, I'm suggesting u presses have something to learn from what was once a one-model, mono-coastal, skate shoe company, Vans.

THE CASE: A few things will leap out on any reading:

1. Vans was built on the simple model of delivering skate and surf gear for hardcore skaters and surfers: a handful of products for a small, dedicated market. Though Vans moved out to new markets and new models, they maintained that key, strategic commitment (to the best extreme athletes).

2. By the time of the case, Vans grew to finance a major movie (Dogtown and Z-Boys), narrated by Sean Penn, to sponsor extreme sporting events (triple crown of surfing) and other alternative events (concerts), to open their own skate parks, and begin developing video games.

3. A truly tiny percentage of total domestic revenue came from sales of its key product (extreme sports apparel) to its core demographic (extreme athletes), in specialty skate shops: 10%. Most of its apparel revenue came from sales of less-than-professional versions sold to kids in the suburbs, and large amounts of revenue come from the above various "cultural" events or side products.

4. Most importantly, as may be news to some, Vans had been dying. It staged a 540 degree turnaround, fueled mainly by the extensions into new areas beyond the skate shoe market; e.g., the triple-crown sporting events, music concerts.

Vans leveraged its brand (operational license in extreme sports and with the youth market the followed them) to move into new areas, and in turn these new areas led to growth that allowed Vans to stay in business -- and even to grow to serve its original core market better than ever. The wealth and health of all the other business (e.g., skate parks, extreme sporting events, concerts, a record label, film production, video game development) allowed Vans to over-serve the hardcore surfing and skating markets and to sponsor star athletes as they reach new heights in their discipline -- a market so specialized that serving it alone would not generate enough revenue to support the effort.

THE COMPARISON: For years (100+), scholarly publishers have sold books; they grew beyond books (once) to offer journals. Now, with new initiatives like UPPC and Project Muse, u presses are repackaging and delivering these core products differently; but, these initiatives aren't new businesses, just new modes of delivery.

More businesses could be grown alongside the development and delivery of scholarly content, ones that leverage the historic strength/s of u presses and serve new needs not only among the "extreme" market base of academics, but also among those who would be fans and amateurs of culture.

E.g., would it be an unacceptable stretch for presses to publish blogs for scholars and dedicated readers to access (dedicated to a discipline or subject); i.e., not a press blog -- of which there are many (one for each press) -- but a disciplinary or topical blog published by a u press -- of which there are none ...yet.

Much, much more importantly...

What new businesses could u presses build that would be as distant from yet supportive of scholarship as skate parks, surfing tournaments, and a record label are from and of a simple skate shoe?

THE POINT: The point of this extreme comparison is not to make a recommendation/s -- we'll save that for another post or two -- the point is to note that in many industries, especially where growth and increasing revenue are needed, considerable lateral thinking and experimentation is put forth to build new business units, entirely new business units, and these new units are often what keep the company and the brand alive.

Scholarly publishers are doing great things to monetize content; but, even if it were enough to support scholarship -- which it currently is not -- why stop there? Why not explore growth into new arenas?