Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is there hope after all?

I have been following with interest some recent pieces about "the industry" that appear to point to a problem that the sport of climbing faces in broadening its appeal, a problem that is in my view a good thing but which to many appears as an obstacle to be overcome en route to a commercial utopia of highly paid "professional" climbers and who knows what other riches for us all. The first is a post by Justin Roth, Petzl Communications Manger and blogger at The Stone Mind, about Adidas and its attempts to "cozy up with climbers." Judging by the lack of comments, besides my own, this piece did not excite a lot of reaction, probably because most climbers are not interested in press releases, but also because (and this is just my impression) climbers don't particularly care about Adidas, or at least in this country. Since I was holed up in a motel in Westborough, Massachusetts, acting as support crew for my wife who was running the Adidas-sponsored Boston Marathon, I actually went to the Adidas website to see what they had to offer.

Well if Adidas actually wants to market to climbers in this country, it seems like they ought to mention it on the website's homepage somewhere or frankly anywhere. A search on the American site showed only "We are having trouble locating a match for your search: climbing". Obviously I needed to go global. Now I got something. I was asked if I was "all in" which is a surprising choice for a catchphrase, as it raises images of poker players or very tired people. OK I decided I was all in so I looked around some more. There was a wobbly video about speed climbing in the Dolomites with a lot of handhugging and some pretty cool helicopter photography but overall it was pretty mundane stuff for one of the top global brands overall and among the very top in sports. The bouldering video is a bit better. And there is the nice video of Sasha DiGiulian. But overall, and again we are speaking of a top global brand here, the feel of the website was disorganized and a bit clunky with awkward Euro-english throughout. A sample quote from "girls on the rocks":

"They want to overcome creative problems in the gym, whether in bouldering or lead. The bolted routes have long since ceased to emulate the rock faces nature has to offer and now constitute a world of their own. Because the risk of falls and injuries on well-secured and safety-tested artificial walls is much lower, very young girls can have fun trying things out at their leisure and quickly stretch their limits"

Not exactly the prose style that will pull in the coveted youth demographic in this country. In the end, I am not sure that Adidas is offering anything of value to the climbing market that isn't being done better by already established brands both internationally and here in the US. The feel of the clothing and shoes that they offer seems out of place in the natural settings  in the videos. There is something metaphorically "off" about the stripes that I cannot quite explain, something too linear about them in the more fuzzy or granular outdoor world. And I should add, I use Adidas products, especially for running. I just don't see what the marketeers call the "value proposition." Climbing in the US especially is just not seen as an athletic pursuit so the image that Adidas has of focused athletics will have an uphill battle (so to speak) in finding customers here. So over all, I think that Adidas has not done a great job of positioning themselves in this market. Their acquisition of Five Ten does not in my view imply automatic success in climbing either. Again I use Five Ten shoes and have for a long time, but the thought of Adidas somehow taking over the climbing world through this acquisition looks very remote given what I have seen so far.

(Edit: For a sense of where Adidas wanted the US initiative to go as of March 2011, please read this interview. The accompanying clothing graphic certainly gives pause for thought. This video from OR Summer Market 2010 also gives good context, reminding viewers that Adidas has tried this before. Rolf Reinschmidt Adidas VP takes considerable trouble to emphasize commitment, authenticity, etc., in the context of a seven-year plan.)

The other big name company to sign a climber, Fila, has virtually no presence that I am aware of in the climbing scene and I expect that initiative to evaporate as suddenly as it appeared. I would not be surprised to see Adidas come to a similar conclusion unless they can figure out what they really want to do. From my standpoint, that of a clueless blogger, they need to understand better the relationship that climbers have with their gear and why it is very different from other sports. As far as I can tell, it isn't very clear that that they have this understanding.

In a somewhat similar vein, I read the lament titled "It’s not ability the industry lacks. It’s vision."  Here Jordan Shipman, from the media producers Louder Than Eleven, wrote a response of sorts regarding their coverage of the SCS Nationals here in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. Shipman was commenting on the lack of a live feed from the comp and explaining that USA Climbing had not budgeted for it. Developing the theme of the piece, he went on to argue how "companies have demonstrated little to no interest in supporting these professional-scale events. The desire to invest in the future of our sport is marginal at best." Instead he proposed that companies want "a direct return in increased sales" and hence avoid the indirect option of sponsoring media-friendly events and coverage thereof.

Now I think Jordan and Jon are great, and they work really hard at making free videos that don't suck (except for the segment with shooting guns to the Blue Danube Waltz from the roof of a Honda Element in Poudre Canyon--that sucked) but I am afraid that the problem is neither ability nor vision when it comes to marketing climbing. It is simply about money and how it works. I would argue that climbers are deeply mistaken regarding the broader reach of what they think is appealing about the sport, even in a supposedly accessible form like competition climbing. I have written a little about this before but I think it bears repeating. Nobody besides climbers wants to watch climbing media. That's all. No exceptions, no qualifications. There is simply no way that a large segment of the American viewing public will ever be persuaded to give up even a few minutes of time to follow a climbing competition. Frankly very few actual climbers can be bothered. Comments on this topic at the or at LT11 indicate as much. What some climbers may think is a successful audience of several thousand is barely a drop in the bucket as far as big media producers or sponsors are concerned. In other words the big-time ain't going to happen, and I will eat this blog post if it does in the USA. It doesn't mean that people won't try to make it happen and present a distorted and less-than-genuine view of the climbing world in the process, but in the end it won't work out as far as the financials are concerned.

Climbing has long been on the margin of mainstream culture and I don't think that will change much despite the efforts of many to assert that it is now time for the sport to hit the big-time. The stories and the characters are not there, the values don't translate well outside the circle of climbers, and the money is not there to create visuals that can truly be called professional, at least as big media would define the term. Those calling for the professionalization and expansion of the sport are not recognizing the limitations that the sport itself imposes on its practitioners and viewers. I don't believe that climbing is immune to commodification and the inroads of capitalist exploitation and I do think those narratives can do lasting harm to the climbing culture and more importantly the environment in which climbing takes place. But the example of Adidas' own marketing, as I describe above, clearly shows that (fortunately) the marketing and PR types have not figured out the key to extracting untold riches from climbing by pitching it to the masses. This is too bad if you want to make a fortune (or even a living) from making movies or becoming a "pro" climber but good news if you believe in a vision of climbing outside the market.

In my next post, I want to talk about why this vision is important and why a closer critique of climbing's assumptions and practices is so difficult.


Steve said...

This is interesting, and it's a line of thought that brings me to something I thought about before: I always thought there was a lot of similitude between the climbing lifestyle and the surfing lifestyle. Yet surfing, as far as big companies are concerned, became mainstream somewhere down the line. Case in point: I live really far from the ocean, and from anything that could be called a wave, and yet I can walk into any convenience store and buy a surf magazine. At the newsstand, half a dozen different surf mags, Rock and Ice nowhere to be found. Kids wearing Billabong and Quicksilver they bought at Walmart, yet they couldn't name one surfer. Laird Hamilton? Never heard of him. I really wonder what appeal surf has that climbing (perhaps happily) doesn't have and that will always prevent it from having a larger audience.

Lee Cujes said...

Great post Peter. You're right, nobody outside climbing wants to watch climbing. And the degree of apathy amongst climbers with respect to consuming climbing media is very high. I think a couple of contributing factors is that climbing is a highly fragmented sport. Climbing as a whole is niche in size, at best. When broken into its subdisciplines, its microscopic in the wider world of "sport". Further, I would say the ratio of climbing consumers to climbing participants is very high. Contrast this with football where you have millions of diehard fans who have never picked up a ball.

The bigtime will not happen. We will need to create our own reality when it comes to the future of climbing.

chuffer said...

This is one of the more interesting opinion pieces you've written or I've seen in a while. If you supported some of your basic premises with numbers, demographics and fact-based analysis, it would even be better, but that's just the scientist in me Peter.

Adidas indeed?!?

Peter Beal said...

Hi Chip,
That's one of the issues with free journalism. Much of this post runs against the grain of what people want to hear, meaning said data is difficult or impossible to obtain, being proprietary, or uncollected in the first place. Can you think of any outfit who would commission an article that seeks to prove there's not really much money to be made in climbing? Or that a major advertiser's marketing is out of touch? Again, next planned post will discuss this problem of critique.

Anonymous said...

It would help if you had some business background or financial background. The deal with adidas and Five Ten is only 4 months old - give it some time. They have already partnered with the Huber Brothers, Beat Kammerlander and Barbara Zangerl as well as organizations such as Zermatt Alpin Center (Switzerland) and Ragni di Lecco (Italy). They have a much bigger view then getting some Boulder climbers to wear their products - they are thinking about the outdoor industry, and Five Ten also fits with that vision because of their climbing AND mountain biking products and audience. I could see adidas simply using Stealth rubber on their products and making the acquisition pay that way.

I agree, non-climbers don't want to watch climbers climb, especially indoors. Boring. But that doesn't mean climbing as a style brand can't go big time. As Steve said, surfing has gone big time as a style brand, and people in Ohio wear Billabong and Quicksilver. Similarly, I see plenty of non-climbers wearing Five Ten shirts, silly North Face gear, Marmont pants and jacekts, and so forth. Just like when surfing, skating, snowboarding, etc. went big time, it was never about serving those markets better. It was about creating a bigger market by getting non-surfers, non-skaters, non-climbers to embrace the mythical image of the lifestyle. I can see climbing becoming a "style" in the same way. There is millions to be made in climbing, but just not how you are thinking of it. Just look at some recent brands and their explosive growth from small operations to big global brands with all their products made in China (North Face, Arcxteryx, Marmot, Black Diamond, etc.).

Peter Beal said...

I think I have enough understanding of how business works to suffice for commenting on this issue. Adidas is trying to adapt a quantitative-performance-oriented profile to a sport that has stubbornly resisted it in this country. The first two climber examples mentioned are very old-school Euros, i.e. of my generation while few outside of Europe are likely to have heard of Ms. Zangerl. Again besides Sasha DiGiulian, Adidas is hardly going "all in" in sponsoring US climbers.

In American business, and certainly in marketing, a year (the adidas outdoor USA launch was announced last March)is a long time and certainly enough to begin assessing the value of any initiative. Maybe Adidas is locked in for the long haul with Five Ten. Only the signers of the contract know for sure how that was set up. I know that if I was paying money up front in an acquisition deal, I would have lots benchmarks and escape clauses in place.

Given the ubiquity of "sticky" rubber, I doubt that acquiring the Stealth brand per se would lift Adidas revenues much but more like the other way round. I think it was a very savvy move for Chuck Cole.

While global brands may want to market a "lifestyle" to non-climbers, this will hardly constitute success for actual climbers looking for a way to practice their trade and especially with regard to competition. I would argue that the North Face is not selling clothing because someone in the Midwest saw Daniel Woods win a competition. A bunch of factors are involved, few of them having anything to do with what climbers wold consider real climbing. The "explosive" brands such as Black Diamond etc, are doing a lot of their marketing to lifestyle consumers or skiers, etc. Climbing is ancillary to that growth, not a real driver or beneficiary of it. "Trickle-down" will not work any better for real climbers than it did for the US economy in general.

Bearcam said...

"While global brands may want to market a "lifestyle" to non-climbers, this will hardly constitute success for actual climbers looking for a way to practice their trade and especially with regard to competition. I would argue that the North Face is not selling clothing because someone in the Midwest saw Daniel Woods win a competition."

Peter I think youre wrong here, there is a huge chance that some impressionable new people to the sport watch Daniel wearing his TNF clothes at the comp, see how much of a boss he is, and then see him wearing the same shit later in pics/vids and get really amped up on TNF, pretty soon they're all decked out. TNF for sure has a bigger presence on the comp circuit, and I would say they treat their athletes really well (#OnEverest, Daniel travels the world...) If they want the climber's lifestyle to sell, they sure as shit will make sure the climber has a lifestyle worth selling!! In my opinion this is good for all of us :)

"A bunch of factors are involved, few of them having anything to do with what climbers wold consider real climbing."

Really doesn't matter what factors, especially since you didn't name any but it's all good as long as there is $$$ being put into the climbing industry!!

"The "explosive" brands such as Black Diamond etc, are doing a lot of their marketing to lifestyle consumers or skiers, etc. Climbing is ancillary to that growth, not a real driver or beneficiary of it."

Climbing is a definite driver and beneficiary of that growth!! Come on!! How does that even make sense?? The climbing is real!! Lifestyle consumers are what we want, they will help us bridge the gap to the more mainstream.
The more people that see those videos, the more people get attracted to checking out who the people in the videos are, what climbing is, etc.

""Trickle-down" will not work any better for real climbers than it did for the US economy in general."

Trickle down seems to work okay for lots of other sports, pretty ridiculous to say it won't work for climbing!

Since it's hard to sell somebody on something they can't imagine doing, you can try to sell them on the IDEA of doing it! Then hopefully one day they get around to doing it. But that's why there are approach shoes.

Anonymous said...

As much as i respect Danil Woods, i think that his impact on selling TNF is very minor in comparing with something like NAS wearing TNF jacket on the cover of Illmatic album.

jacob said...

"free journalism," is that what you call this? this is all your opinion. chuffer asked for more evidence to support your thoughts, but you say that the information is not available or impossible to obtain. well, isn't that the point of journalism...i think it's called research, peter.
i'm sick of all of these blogs posting unsubstantiated opinions as news. how can you expect to have a critical debate about a subject that you don't really know much about.
i feel that you insult real journalists everywhere when you call youreslf a journalist. you're an opinion blogger, there's a real difference.
as a writer myself, i understand how tedious and time consuming researching a subject can be, but that's part of the gig, whether you're writing about foreign affairs or fantasy.
i don't mean to come across as an asshole, but when i saw that you called this journalism i had to say something. this is a problem happening throughout the intardweb. a person already has to sift through so much misinformation or just plain wrong information to glean a few simple facts about a story, don't add to that, peter.

Peter Beal said...

Hi Jacob,
Yes, you do kind of come off sounding like, well, you used the word, not me. I have no idea who you are or what kind of "writer" you are besides the anonymous type of commenter who likes to make meaningless accusations and call people names.

I am going to go out on a limb here and ask you to specify what would be the facts and figures (thanks for the definition of research, verrry helpful) that were missing and would materially affect the argument of the post. Surely as a "writer" yourself, you would have some ideas on what they would be and where one would go to find them. Let's hear them or would that be too "tedious and time consuming" compared to shelling out whiny criticisms and complaints?

There are multiple definitions of journalist but the lowest one might be someone who writes cowardly silliness like your comment, neither commenting on the merits of the argument nor offering alternative views or evidence. Good luck with all that "real journalism" that you claim to do, somewhere, I guess. I hope all your readers and publishers see a different side of you.

jacob said...

thanks for the kind words peter and sorry...i stand before you now, humbled. but why are you so defensive and condescending? i was just expressing my opinion, which i don't feel was a whiny complaint, but a real issue in the world of journalism.
anyway, crush hard in the alpine this season...and don't worry i won't be back, i know when i'm not wanted. i'm taking my ball and going home.

Peter Beal said...

Jacob, sorry if I came off as a, well you know what I mean. I am not being defensive or condescending. You claimed to be a writer who knew what journalism was but your post didn't offer much evidence of that. It did offer lots of complaints and criticism, all of it anonymous.
I agree that the best kind of journalism requires research and the kind of preparation you describe. It also happens to be the kind that is hardest to find because it costs time and money. I try to strike a balance and on the whole, I have seen very few comments that have effectively refuted my arguments or evidence.

On a final note, if you want to identify yourself properly, list some constructive ideas and so on, I will happily apologize for my comment, delete it and engage in dialog with you, if you want.

Anonymous said...

"I think I have enough understanding of how business works to suffice for commenting on this issue." What qualifies you to make accurate and experience-based comments? You have never been a CEO. You have never owned a company. You have never even been on the business end of a company. Your degree in Western Art History does not qualify you to make any comments other then armchair comments. I agree with jacob that this is not journalism in any form. Just random opinion not backed up by facts.

"In American business, and certainly in marketing, a year (the adidas outdoor USA launch was announced last March)is a long time and certainly enough to begin assessing the value of any initiative." Again, use facts. The official deal was not completed until November 3, 2011. It might have been talked about in March, but it has only been four months, not a year. See their official press release:

"Given the ubiquity of "sticky" rubber, I doubt that acquiring the Stealth brand per se would lift Adidas revenues much but more like the other way round. I think it was a very savvy move for Chuck Cole." Again, you don't have any background or experience to back this up. Another conjecture that you try and pass off as fact. Spending $25 million for Five Ten is not much money, especially if you had some business background. Sure, there is lots of sticky rubber on the market, but adidas bought not only the brand, but also the rubber, the manufacturing equipment, the clothing line, and the entire business chain from Five Ten to distribution to wholesale to retail. That alone is almost worth the $25 million.

Also, its a small "a" in adidas.

You seem to think that adidas wants to market (only) to climbers? Why would you think this. They want to market to the outdoor industry, which has climbers as part of it, but also people who simply follow the lifestyle. They don't really need the approval of climbers in order to sell climbing clothing or aspects of the lifestyle. That said, if you had your facts right, you would have realized that the deal is only just started, and that they have already made several moves in the direction of their "Strategic Business Plan Route 2015" So, they have very big goals, none of which deal with any of your critical opinions in this post. So, they must just be fights at windmills?

But, I do think it is easier for you to rant from your armchair then do actual research. Jacob got it right... and yes, I am anon, but if the comments/criticism are true, it doesn't matter who says it. Truth is truth.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the lengthy comment. I would like to respond but it appears you deleted it. You are absolutely right that "adidas" is with a small "a" but typographically it's a nuisance so I stuck with the upper case "A". Let me know if you want a response. It seems like a lot of work went into it.

Jay Gatz said...

Hey Peter,

Interesting thoughts here. Here's my two cents:

Any fashion house/ designer has their "top of the line" product. These are the gowns that go to celebrities, the watches that get sent to royalty, the suits that cost more than a small house should. The designer, however, never really intends to sell these items, but simply wants to raise the profile of their "brand." In fact, this is the case with many outdoor brands as well. TNF sells relatively few $600 Gore Tex jackets, but by making them and slapping them on athletes, they raise brand profile.

I think that in a more abstract sense, this is what climbing as a whole does for brands. The climbing lifestyle can be easily packaged as high-end adventure, so that more hiking boots, day packs and wicking shirts can be sold. Pictures of Alex Honnold on an exposed ridge in the latest and greatest getup sells the outdoors as cutting edge, even if the actual products that eventually sell are cotton t-shirts.

So what? Well, I think that this means that companies that break into the climbing world aren't quite as short-sighted as you might estimate. They probably know that they aren't selling to climbers, just like they know that they aren't selling $600 jackets.

This is probably because climbing is just such an obvious metaphor for struggle and achievement. It practically screams to have a college application essay written about it (guilty).

I think what this means for climbers is the following:

1) The war for climbing's soul isn't lost. Companies will continue to use climbing as a selling point, but they aren't REALLY after us. In the meanwhile, we can enjoy some of the runoff--some midlevel athletes can get some shoes, some top-level athletes can make a living
2) It's up to us to protect what we love about climbing, but it doesn't have to be a fight against the corporate world. People aren't stupid. We see through the branding and the advertising because we've had a hell of a lot of practice. We're not immune marketing, but we're not naive either. Deep down, I still know that climbing's heart is in a day spent in the outdoors with friends, not in the instagram I post to a company's facebook wall to win a prize.
3) The bigtime may come, but probably not soon. In the meantime, it's pretty cool that so many people are willing to stick their neck out to try and work in a world where they have a good chance of not making any money.