Building and Sustaining a Cold Water Surf Brand

The last place you might expect a successful surf brand to develop is in Canada. Whilst there are a dedicated band of surfers in Canada, it has everything working against it; cold climate, restricted access to quality waves and a small local surfing population. However, a British Columbia based company, Sitka, has managed to develop a strong surf and skate brand based on a mission that relates to the natural values of the region and strong values of community, sustainability, integrity, commitment, creativity and adventure. To put this in context, the nearest surf to Vancouver is some six hours away on the west coast of Vancouver Island at Tofino or a similar drive south to Washington State in the USA.

I recently visited the Sitka Vancouver flagship store and caught up with Sitka Marketing Director, Mel Greene, over a coffee and discussed how the business could exist and survive the winter in such a cold climate so far from the surf. Mel has been with the company for eight years and has known the two company founders Rene’ Gauthier and Andrew Paine since she met them at university in Victoria (the capital city of British Columbia situated on Vancouver Island).

Rene’ and Andrew, both keen surfers, started the business 11 years ago in Victoria when they started making surfboards with a distinctive Sitka Spruce logo on them. They began to get requests for t-shirts, which led to expanding their clothing line and stores. According to Greene, the guys really want to live their passion through their work and Sitka has developed largely as a do it yourself business. They made the boards and screen printed the t-shirts themselves until demand got too much and they had to outsource. The company now employs some 50 staff, with three flagship stores (two in Canada and one in Zealand) and distribute their clothing through some 150 wholesalers in Canada, USA, Europe and NZ.

Greene says that their clothing is a 50/50 mix of men’s and women’s. They focus on quality clothing that can be worn to work as well as in the wilderness where you can chop wood in it. It is not just surf fashion, and in line with their sustainability values, they want it to last so your children can find it in a thrift shop in 30-40 years. They are also planning to offer to “repurpose” old clothing into bags. Originally they had their clothing made overseas; however, they are now working on bringing manufacture back to Canada and are aiming to have 100% domestic production by 2016.

One of the key elements of the business success is the name brand Sitka which is a species of spruce tree that is attracted to water. This gives a strong association with the region, the water and natural values that captures the spirit of the local surf culture. It’s an ideal brand name for the region and, to pardon the pun, all aspects of the business seem to grow from the Sitka brand name.

Greene says the company had no noticeable downturn in business through the global financial crisis. Key factors in their survival through this difficult time were loyalty and local support, the focus on quality of product, customer service and their niche market appeal. Also, the fact that they mainly sell their own product rather than other brands gives them a better margin to play with.

Another key aspect of Sitka’s success and survival is their approach to human resource management. They have a culture where they value everyone’s opinion and work with people who share the same the same values. They hire from resume’s submitted as well as approaching people they want directly. They aim to be an employer of choice and have a number of staff including students who come back each year. The company recently introduced the concept of passion projects for employees. One project proposes growing food on the roof of the Victoria store which is then used in the store cafe’.

The busiest period for Sitka’s Canadian based stores is when the surf is good in the fall. They also do well in summer and during back to school shopping periods. The slowest period is February, however, trading picks up in the spring. Their global clothing distribution and Auckland store would also off set the winter drop local sales.

Sitka’s marketing strategy is based on defining themselves as being in the business of wilderness activism and aligning their actions with their values with respect and love for the natural environment. Greene says that the essence of Sitka is that it is a cold water brand and their differentiation is doing what you love in a harsh climate. The visual brand images show members of their surf team in snow and ice.

Rather than expensive advertising campaigns Sitka’s promotional activities are based, from my observation, on authentic relationships with their local community and broader markets. Their stores are becoming community centres where they provide events such as skate contests at their in-store skate ramp with bands, parties, do it yourself nights and space for creativity and visiting artists. For their broader market they provide two films a year (one surf film and one skate film) with their sponsored athletes and produce a biannual magazine. They sponsor both country surfers and city skaters. In line with Sitka’s values, these promotional activities are about giving something to their community rather than pushing through the surf media.

The fact that the brand is more than just a surf brand will also help it survive through the winter months on the back of its skate and outdoors appeal. They are developing a range of hard goods in flagship stores such as axes, knives, fly fishing equipment. They even have wooden sunglasses and watch bands.

Sitka has a sustainable business in keeping with its values and focusing on its core market and cold water brand. To some extent this could limit the growth of the company, and, according to Greene, they are trying to determine if they really want to grow too much. To me this is a rather refreshing approach to doing business and living your passion through your work, which could just be the secret ingredient to surf business survival in the cold winters of the Pacific north-west. 

Where can we find Sitka online? 


Posted by: Phil Gee, on May 6, 2014
Categories: Interviews, Articles