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Nike hopes to ride the wave of surfing culture

2011 Nike US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, CA.
2011 Nike US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, CA.
Nike 6 Brazil/Facebook

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The U.S. Open of Surfing wraps up this weekend in Huntington Beach. Tens of thousands of fans flock to the beach to watch their favorite surfers compete. Anyone checking out the waves and riders will also see a ton of advertising from Nike - the big money behind the event. Does Nike's swift move into action sports play with the fans?

As pro surfer Kelly Slater rides, an announcer narrates the action. "Slater up on the back end driving down the line, cracks it with the aerial rotation – double one. Oh! Nearly rode out of it."

The crowd cheers. Fans pack the beach to watch Slater punch through the crest of a tumbling wave.

The surf is small today. That does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the mobs moving across this sandy stretch of Huntington Beach.

The space crawls with guys in baseball caps and board shorts. Teenage girls rock bikinis. Many bare stomachs are stamped with logos from Nike-owned brands, like Hurley. Nice free advertising.

Logos for Nike also hang from the pier, on tents. They’re everywhere. A few high schoolers say what “Nike” means to them, and give answers that include shoes, sports, clothes and athletics.

No one says surfing, or skating, or BMX bikes, or snowboarding. Nike’s in new territory by sponsoring the U.S. Open of Surfing under its action sports brand Nike 6.0.

"Yeah, I was actually curious about their 6.0, like where that came from?" says longtime surfer and skateboarder Brad Goodwin. "It seems like they spent a lot of money to brand it but I don’t get the correlation between that and anything else."

Goodwin’s from San Luis Obispo. He’s looking through T-shirts at Huntington Surf & Sport near the pier. Goodwin says he can’t imagine wearing a Nike or a 6.0 logo.

"You know, I think it’s kind of counter to the culture of surfing and skateboarding, which is a little bit more kind of iconoclast and rebellious against big institutions," says Goodwin. "So it seems like an uphill battle to get the Nike brand adopted by the surf and skating culture."

Nike’s going toe-to-toe with Quiksilver, Volcom, Billabong and other established action sports brands – and still its own action sports division is blowing up. Last year, it brought in around $390 million in sales. Nike wants to double that in five years. And it knows not all of those buyers will ride boards.

"Nike is not branding with the sport. Nike is branding with the feeling of the sport," says Graeme Newell. Newell is an emotional marketing specialist. He says Nike connects with consumers through hero stories – one person against the odds.

"Almost nobody surfs, but yet I look at that surf person and I say, 'I could be out there making that happen despite the fact that I can barely walk to the end of the block,'" says Newell.

Newell points to Nike’s commercials, like a beautifully-shot black-and-white ad with Orange County surfer Kolohe Andino riding a wave.

"You know fear is good," Andino says in the commercial. "How you control your fear and use it to your advantage. That’s what makes the best surfers in the world. They use that adrenaline to be invincible."

Newell says Nike shakes things up to stays invincible. It drew heat recently with its T-shirt slogans: “Get High,” “Ride Pipe” and “Dope.” Boston’s mayor complained about store displays.

"That is exactly what Nike wants," says Newell. "They’re looking for someone to say, 'Wow, too far! You are just too edgy! Your incredible boldness scares us!'"

At the U.S. Open, some non-surfers say they don’t care so much about boldness. Gabby Monsour-Kempton and Samantha Woodward like brands they recognize – like Nike.

"I guess it’s because I’ve already bought stuff from them so I know it’s good, and it’s like a big brand name and I’m into brands," says Monsour-Kempton.

"We’re very into brands," says Woodward.

Newell says it’s a fine line for Nike – capitalizing on mainstream customers while still looking cool. "Their greatest haunting fear, one I’m sure that Nike executives wake up at night screaming, is that they’ll be seen as the gigantic corporation that they are."

Nike has three local action sports stores. One’s in Malibu with a workshop to customize shoes, clothes and accessories. So if Nike shoppers want to be edgy, they can, as Nike says, "just do it."