While many brands initially struggled to figure out how to respond to the pandemic, skateboarding shoe and apparel brand Vans did not.
According to Vans’ April Vitkus, that’s because the 54-year-old brand has always had a strong sense of purpose.
“Brand purpose is not just for one function or one campaign or one product, it is existential to why the brand exists,” said Vitkus, senior director of global brand marketing and strategy at Vans, speaking at Adweek’s Commerce Week event. “So everyone not only has to know it, but everyone has to own it.”
That is certainly true of Vans, whose purpose is enabling creative expression and inspiring youth culture.
“It’s something that our creative team, our designers, our product team stop and ask anytime anything is about to go out of the building: ‘What’s the creative expression story here?’” she said.
Having this strong sense of purpose throughout the organization is precisely how Vans was able to quickly pivot during the pandemic and focus on programs for consumers and small businesses. That, in turn, has stretched Vans’ brand purpose into new territory, like mental health and wellness.
“It has been our anchor over the past eight months and will continue to be,” she added. “It’s allowed us to really go in multiple directions.”
Its Foot the Bill initiative, for example, allowed 160 small businesses to tap into Vans’ custom web platform to design shoes and apparel they could then sell—with 100% of the $4 million in net proceeds helping those businesses stay afloat.
“It was such a simple gesture, but something that allowed a lot of these businesses to pay next month’s rent,” Vitkus said. “These are businesses like music venues, small art galleries, small [skate shops] that are all part of the creative community that has really supported Vans over the years. And so we felt like we have to support them as well during this time, but it was through creative expressions.”
Meanwhile, Vans’ Shoebox Challenge called on at-home consumers to get crafty with their empty shoeboxes and share their creations, resulting in thousands of submissions.
“What we found is … we can’t create community physically together, right? And so we’ve used our brand for good to create these platforms,” she added.
An example of how Vans tries to promote community action can be found with its Checkerboard Day initiative. The program was established in 2019 as a day of action. Last year, Vans donated $1 million to Imagination.org, a nonprofit that fosters creativity and entrepreneurship in children, through the program. Per Vitkus, the organization used the funds to create 100 new chapters in 20 countries, which benefited 10,000 children.
“We live our brand purpose every day, but we wanted to ensure that we could truly activate it and rally people around the world on one day to have some meaningful social impact,” Vitkus said.
This year, Checkerboard Day—which will take place Nov. 19—will look a little different.
“We knew that we were going to continue the message of Checkerboard Day, but we had to be really thoughtful about what our consumer was facing and how we could have true impact around the world,” she added.
Pointing to the pandemic, racial and social injustice and the presidential election, Vitkus said the brand saw an emerging global mental health crisis this year.
“We decided in 2020 to really sharpen our focus specifically on the vital role that creativity plays in helping individuals address mental health and wellness,” she added.