Marketing Director at Freestyle Watch Co.
Interview by Jennifer Kalban
Name & Title:
Chad LaBass, Marketing Director at Freestyle Watch
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I grew up in Newport Beach on the peninsula by 15th Street and so growing up there is where I started surfing, I didn’t get G.I. Joes, I got surfboards so that’s where I started getting in to surfing and the whole action sports scene. And there’s a local surf shop, 15th Street Surf Shop, and I just started hanging out there and eventually they just had to give me a job because I was there so much! So in high school I was always working in the shop, and eventually I went off to college and went up to UCSB so I could surf while I went to school, which was fantastic. There I ended up making the surf team and then my senior year I was president of the surf team. So that lead me to think while I was trying to figure out what to do after I graduate, wouldn’t it be cool to be a team manager. But it was like “how do you get those jobs?” So what happened was I happened to have a friend who was working for a small start up company called Rietveld, it’s not around anymore, but Rick Rietveld was the artist that started Maui and Sons and he had his own little personal brand and I ended up getting hired by them to be the team manager but really we didn’t really have a team. So I was doing everything, which was really cool and a great experience, so I got my foot in the door for a company selling surf wear and was doing customer service, shipping, receiving, I was helping make the catalogs, doing everything, doing the media planning, there were only three of us in there so it was the best experience working for a small company because you got to do everything. So I started on the retail side and then moved to the manufacturing side and then moved on to Freestyle about eight years ago.
What is your role at Freestyle?
Well I guess my role has extremely evolved. How I got the job was I got laid off from Rietveld after 9/11 because they were a small company and not doing so great and I went back to work at the 15th Street Surf Shop and we got all these watches in from Freestyle without any pricing. So I had to call them so I could mark how much they were and put them out on the floor and while on the phone I was talking to the lady and happened to ask if they had a team manager and it just so happened they either fired the guy or he got let go like two days before so I asked to talk to who’s hiring and that was that, got an interview that Monday and got the job. So started out just as a team manager and managing just the athletes, events and tradeshows. The evolution of Freestyle has been a wild ride because we have a parent company now that bought Freestyle in the late 90s and so there were a lot of changes and they took all the accounting and that back to our New York headquarters and left the marketing out here. So I’ve evolved from being just the team manager to pretty much overseeing all the marketing for Freestyle.
What percent of your marketing budget and efforts is spent on digital outlets? In-store activations? Events? What are your top priorities?
I would say right now it’s important to have a huge mix. I don’t think anyone knows the perfect formula but the perfect formula has some mix of everything. A little bit of print, but obviously not as much as everyone did in the past because it’s all about the digital world today. Most consumers now do research online before they buy; it’s just the way we do it. So I think it’s really important to have your digital world as buttoned up as possible. Have lots of cool and engaging content floating around on the web so that people can find you. So we’ve been concentrating really hard on that since the economy went bad, we got really in to the social media stuff by January 2009 we were already on Twitter and a lot of companies in this space weren’t yet, obviously everyone is now but we were in the forefront of getting into that. What we’re doing right now is we have this great base that we’ve built through our social media sites, with lots of great content and now we’re going to create a major new campaign to really go at it hard. Because we haven’t really done a major major print campaign since November 2008 and it will back up all the social media stuff we’ve been doing.
How has social media impacted you, the industry and marketing as a whole?
I think it’s changed everything. Just the way people look at things. You can get so much feedback from your consumers, it’s fantastic. Just by putting a watch image on Facebook, we can just tell by the comments if it’s going to be a good seller or not. You can do so much market research in a really cool way that’s not intrusive to them; they’re stoked to tell you what’s up. And even just naming things, when we do something like name this watch, we get the greatest ideas for names that we could never think of just in our office. You can reach so many different people and different age groups; just the collective brain is a huge help to marketing.
How do you follow trends and keep in the loop about what’s happening?
I have several blogs and I like digg.com it’s so cool to see what’s happening and what’s the most popular stuff on the web. And I use my industry knowledge and I use Shop-Eat-Surf and Surfers Village and stuff like that. And then for watches there are all these tech blogs and gadget blogs.
Being a watch company is your marketing based on getting action sport and surf customers or are you competing with mainstream watch brands as well?
Ya, we definitely feel like we’re competing with the mainstream watch brands as well. Freestyle is a watch company first, not a surf company, even though our roots are in surf and we always make surf inspired watches. One of the things for us to grow our business is really to look beyond the coast and we see connecting the coasts with other sports too and not just action sports. There are huge consumers in fitness and outdoor consumers we can hit too without alienating our surf community. We definitely look at ourselves as a performance watch company, which can be whatever we want it to be, we just have to decide what areas we want to support and invest in.
What established, larger brands do you look to for inspiration?
Well obviously in the watch category Nixon opened everyone’s eyes to what’s possible. They’ve just done a fantastic job since they came out. The just keep coming out with fantastic product and clean marketing, so we just look to them and that’s awesome. They really made everyone wake up, and made us step up our game. It’s nice to have competition. At one time Freestyle was the only watch brand in this category. Other clothing brands, I mean look at all the action sports brands they’re fantastic. RVCA, Billabong, and Volcom who’s marketing is so cool and different.
Is there a brand image or identity you try to have come across in your marketing?
You know Freestyle has been around for 25 years and Freestyle is really a challenging brand because it’s done so many things and gone into so many different divisions and distribution channels, that it’s hard to define it as just one thing but that’s what we’re trying to do now. We’re trying to find that one thing and really it comes down to we’re performance timing. And we want our watches to be thought of as ones you can do anything in at any time. The cornerstone of that is that every watch is water resistant to 100 meters and backed with a limited lifetime warranty.
Tell us about the work atmosphere style and what it’s like to be split between two coasts?
The atmosphere is really cool. The fact that we have a parent company that’s based in New York City basically on Broadway, from the balcony you can see Times Square, is really cool. It’s great to have Geneva Watch Group behind Freestyle and have all the resources at our disposable. Obviously the work environment is different there than it is back here. Here we’re California and we’re a little more laid back with six people working on all the sales and marketing. The environment here is a little more fun, creative. We have an open office in the back were our photographer and graphic designer can hold photoshoots and tryout ideas. We’re always having athletes stop by from time to time to say hi and go for a surf during lunch or before work.
With your current position do you travel much? And if so, where?
I really don’t travel too much, there is so much going on I seem to always be stuck to this desk. But I travel to trade shows and I do travel to our New York offices a few times a year to go over strategies and product development. And I do retail tours in the local area all the time just to see what’s going on out there, what’s hot, what’s not.
How has the economy affected your part of the industry?
I think it was definitely rough for everybody, but the one thing that Freestyle has is a really reasonable price point. We’re a value driven product. You can get a solid watch for $50 to $100 backed with a limited lifetime warranty and water resistant up to 100 meters. So I think that is something that has really helped us out. Everyone is talking about cell phones and you really don’t need a watch because you have a cell phone, but you can’t take your cell phone in the water. So I think it was strange but at the same time as the economy is crashing we’re coming out with a flood of different colors of our Shark watch, which is our bread and butter, we kind of equate it to the Vans’ slip-on. It’s been around forever, you’ve changed the colors of it with what’s hot and trending and it just keeps selling. The economy was a scary time for everybody but we felt we had the right product mix to leg it out.
Have you started to see a turn in the economy?
Ya I think we are, in talking with some retailers and our reps it’s always positive to hear but regardless we’re going to keep pushing and it will turn around eventually.
What’s the best advice you have been given?
I think the best advice in business is when there’s an issue you have to deal with it right away. It’s one of those things were there are always problems coming up and if you procrastinate and don’t take it straight on it can become more detrimental than if you just go for it.
I was told to ask you about what you wear every St. Patrick’s Day.
Oh jeez. I wear a vintage green suit that I bought for one Halloween that I wanted to be a leprechaun and I walked in to a vintage store and there was a green suit for $40 right in front of me and it fit so that’s what I do every St. Patrick’s Day. You can actually go to YouTube and just search “the ultimate leprechaun” there is a video of what we do every St. Patrick’s Day.
What do you think about group Y and its events?
I think it’s awesome. It’s great to be able to get out there and network with likeminded people who are all in this industry together. And the speakers are great, we can always keep learning and if you just shut yourself out to that you’re not doing yourself any favors. I just think it’s great to have communities like group Y to help us get out there and learn some more stuff.
Any parting words?