Best of the Rest
INTRO- Best careered into the kitesurfing market in 2004 with their brash, aggressive online tactics that saw them drastically undercut their competitors and rapidly acquire customers. in 2010 they are striving to shed the cheap 'beginner' brand stigma. Jim Gaunt met Best's R&D and marketing teams in Guincho, Portugal during the launch of their brand new Taboo kite to find out what really lies behind the hype and how the brand grew, from being the most unaccepted within the industy, to one of the biggest shifters of kites in the market.
Replacing two kites in the Best kite stable, the Nemesis HP and the iconic Waroo - the work horses and cash cows for the brand – will be no easy task for the Taboo. Go to most beaches in the world where there is kiting life and you're virtually assured of spotting a Waroo moving swiftly around the sky.
Best released their first kites, the Nemesis and Yarga kites in 2004 which were aggressively thrust into the market place at rock bottom pricing via a controversial direct sales strategy and unheard of deals, such as 'buy one get one free'. The release of the Waroo in 2006 solidified Best's position as a kite manufacturer that was here to stay, not only producing cheap alternatives, but easy-to-use and safe equipment. Tweaked and modified over the next few seasons, magazine tests revealed a more robust kite than many had suspected and their kites became as much weapons in the hands of advanced freeriders, freestylers and wave riders as they had a reliable ally for newbies.
As Best's slice of market share grew they realigned their product line, producing serious options for the seasoned rider looking for high-end products, a move well-illustrated with the release in 2008 of the Nemesis HP – a powerhouse of a kite for grunt-hungry twin-tippers looking for boost, oodles of power and fast handling in a bang-up-to-date product. The much publicised use of the rather exotic blend of Cuben Fibre and Dacron in the leading edge allowed not only for a super-thin yet bullet-proof leading edge, but the implementation of Twister Tech which helped the leading edge contort as it naturally would want to when turning; increasing turning speed and boost, ramming home the message that Best were no longer focussed only on claiming only the hearts and minds of the sport's first time or more economically swayed buyers. The Nemesis HP was in fact one of the most expensive kites on the market at the time, but became a successful product for the brand.
The kite range continued to expand alongside an evolving twin-tip and surfboard board range. The army of followers swelled, whether they were were wooed by Best with their tech-heavy adverts, persuasive beach opinion leaders or lured in by the harmless T&A splattered around the web and in magazines in the shape of the infamous Best girls. All marketing bases were covered.
Or so it was hoped. As loyal as the kitesurfing market can be, it's equally fickle. The more first time customers Best gained, there was an equal and opposite resistance among those who considered themselves more beach-wise to the brand's advances. So far Best had done a sterling job of making kitesurfing a realistic hobby option for people looking for a budget entry into the sport. The arrival of the bold flying fish logo heralded a changing approach and shake up in the way the industry sold kites and communicated with riders, but it also acted as a beacon to many other riders - warning them of the approach of an inexperienced kiter. Although they were fuelling the imagination of new riders who were thrilled with their new experiences and unaware of the image they represented to the more experienced 'been there done that' members of kite society,Best had a job on their hands to shake their unrefined reputation. But did they really care about that with an ever-growing market share? I asked Best's brand manager, Sebastian Heitman, at the press launch of their 2011 Taboo.
When did you start working for Best?
At the beginning, but initially only for the European section of the company, setting up the European distribution structure that is in place today. At the time the USA arm of the company operated on its own, very much online.Can you give me a brief history of the company up to the release of the first kite?
I became friends with Peter Stiewe back in the nineties during a surfing trip to Sri Lanka where I got to know him before I knew anything about kiting. We were the first to meet,stayed in contact over the years and I eventually started working with him on EH kites back in the day. We didn't have any money, it wasn't a full time job, but I was still a student, so it was interesting. Meanwhile in the States Alex Shogren teamed up with Shannon Best and Jeff Beige, founding Best Kiteboarding when they began making some kiteboards in 2003. They approached EH and Peter to make some kites for them. A design was commissioned, made and sold under the name of Best, but then later on Eric Hertsens, who owns EH, decided he wanted to continue with just his own thing,which was fine.
Can you tell me a bit about the characters involved?
Jeff Beige shaped surfboards, Shannon was a pro wakeboarder who recently turned into out unnecessary middlemen we were faced with a choice: make extra margins and quietly go about it in our industry, or pass the benefit through lower prices to our consumers and help the sport in general to grow? The answer is history.
The message seemed to be all about accessibility and value,something that was perhaps absent in the market at the time. Were you conscious of watersports being mainly a recreational sport for the white middle-class male?
Accessibility and value are distinguished attributes that at the time no one was focussing on. We had the opportunity to change things because,as opposed to most of our competitors, we had no windsurfing heritage and hence no existing distribution structure in place. The notion of being against the rest of the industry was actually heavily imposed on us. We saw an opportunity which turned out be a serious threat to our competitors. Today many of our competitors are trying to adopt our distribution model. The fact that we are now a large player in the industry proves that there was a need for this in the sport. I believe value for money is a proposition that is interesting for everyone.
There were accusations of irresponsibility and bringing about the corrosion of the shop network; something seen by many as vital to keeping beaches open and the sport safe.
Initially there was some cock blocking from our competitors, but if this lead to anything it was to more interest in our brand. Retailers and schools soon discovered that we are no threat at all to their business but actually a reliable partner to work with. Savvy customers gave us a chance and soon discovered that our gear is by no way inferior to what other brands had to offer and then asked themselves 'why pay more for something comparable?' In opposition to industries, like aviation, where companies strip down their offering to the very basics, we did not have to go down this path. We are able to sell a comparable product at a lower price due to our leaner business model.
Do you think it's fair to say that many people who perhaps saw themselves as more sophisticated riders didn't want to be associated with you?
I don't think its fair to say, but I guess I understand why some people might think that way. Being a lower priced brand has lead to a lot of new entrants into the sport choosing our gear, which in itself says a kiter and Alex Shogren had a background in finance and was initially the driving force behind the whole thing. He had sold his previous business and was basically able to retire. He thought kiteboarding was fun and that starting a company would be a good way to be able to write off his travelling expenses. It was quite hectic in the beginning, as with every start up, there really wasn't that much structure in place. Things became a lot more structured in 2005 when Ian Huschle came onboard as an external influence as CEO. These are the characters that are on the forefront, but as the size of company that we are, everyone has a meaningful impact.
What was the first objective for Best and how did you go about achieving it? The amount of attention you gained was meteoric?
We challenged the status-quo of the industry. Why were things done in certain ways? Were they done efficiently? Initially we sold kites online. This was just after the heydays of the internet remember, when everyone had their own Amazon ideas and it was a good way to get some decent global presence, fast. We knew that this could be a viable way to do business, but it couldn't be the only way to sell kiteboarding equipment, especially in Europe, where online retailing is just not as popular as it is in the USA. Analysing the distribution structure in the kiteboarding industry, it soon became apparent that there was room for improvement. We knew we needed retailers but we questioned the need of having a dedicated distributor for each market. There are markets in which it makes sense to work with distributors and some of them are doing a fantastic job, but politics created common markets and free trade zones for a reason and other industries have been capitalising on this situation. By taking nothing about the quality of the gear. What's not accounted for by some is that we are an innovator in this sport. We brought new materials like Cuben Fibre, new designs like the Waroo, and even a new distribution model itself into the market. But much of this innovation has been eclipsed by the extraordinary value that everyone sees first. As soon as riders give our gear a real test, the objective ones immediately recognise us as a high-quality brand. And I think that's the only fair way to come to a reasonable assessment.
The Waroo has been ultra successful. Does its removal – perhaps only in name as it basically continues in the Bullaroo – from the line up represent a shift in your branding? The new graphics of the Taboo certainly seem to indicate that and the infamous flying fish is getting more subtle.
The Waroo is simply a victim of evolution - survival of the fittest. In the internal competition between the Bularoo and Waroo, the Bularoo had the edge over the Waroo. This brings up an interesting question: What is more important in our industry? Continuity or novelty factor that sparks customers' curiosity? I can't answer this with all certainty. For the 2010 Waroo we opted for continuity in the name but evolved the shape to give customers a reason to upgrade from previous versions. When doing that we had to also serve abroad base of customers who just wanted to keep what they loved and decided to do that with our classic SLE shape in the Bularoo. The Taboo is the latest visible sign of the evolution of the entire brand. We never sit back and enjoy the fruits of our work. We are continuously working on new concepts,materials and graphics etc. to keep our customers stoked.
It's funny how there can be such hunger for evolution and change and yet such resistance to it as well. You can't please everyone can you?
I think everyone is struggling with that. We are not the only brand with a kite that has evolved through different shapes. We decided to at least give the name a rest and come up with something new; not just make a new kite and put the same old name on it. The Taboo is a completely new concept of a kite. It's not replacing any of our previous models.
Branding used to be everything it seemed, and to me the Taboo has a much more refined look.
Absolutely. We did some research with an external firm and one of the conclusions reached was that graphics can be less branding and more sophisticated design wise. Today we work with a few agencies that do some of their work in the skateboarding and snowboarding world and the results are starting to show throughout our product line. Graphics are a very thin line to balance on. We know that we will never be able to please everyone. The Taboo went through a long development cycle and we specifically placed a lot of attention to details that increase the perceived quality of the product. You guys are amongst the first people to see this kite, so I am glad that you have noticed it.
Where do you see the brand in the future?
As a brand we have been fairly successful at establishing a solid distribution structure and the retailers that work with us know that we have high level of service quality. We will continue improving these. Over the past few years we have directed more resources towards R&D, to keep innovations coming and to ensure that we have state-of-the-art product. Solid products will form the backbone of our marketing campaigns and improve the overall perception of the brand. We want to be seen as a brand that serves products for every kiteboarder, no matter what skill level. Watch out for new products that will hit the market in the near future that will give some credibility to this claim.
I've seen the way kite designer Peter works; it's full on, almost 365 days a year. He is now not on his own, has Jordi Modolell taking up the slack on some tasks, allowing him to focus more fully on more design. There's a lot of commitment and expense in R&D isn't there?
Working in R&D in a kiteboarding company is not a job - it's a lifestyle. Our R&D team works on three different continents 365 days per year, always following the wind for optimum conditions. April to September they normally spend time here in Portugal, October to November in Brazil and, from November to April, you can meet them in Cape Town. It's a rigorous schedule that requires full commitment and implies quite an expense, but, it's vital for us a company to invest in R&D as price is not the only driver in this industry. How else could there be other high-priced brands around?
What about price at the entry-level of the market?
Customer acquisition done that way (we've been doing it a long time; we know the game a bit) cannot be the only strategy because you're just stretching your margins and eventually you have to ask yourself if there's somewhere else you can better apply those resources, such as investing more into R&D or marketing to get the same result. The first steps of this can now be seen with Best.
What hazards do you think lie ahead for the sport and what do you think we, as a community of riders, need to take responsibility for?
Safety is a threat to the sport, not only the industry. We have to make sure beaches are not closed off. Knock on wood, today there isn't a precedent set for people suing shops and brands for selling them certain gear, because once that starts it will get ugly. Another threat are all these patents floating around. The rider community can do their part by not buying equipment that does not meet certain safety standards and make sure to have sufficient insurance cover.
You mentioned patents – do you mean in terms of other people being able to implement certain systems into their own product?
In general actually. There are a lot of patents for anything out there that are enforced in one way or another, in the USA, Europe, or both. One of them is for safety systems, and probably the most valuable is for the push-up safety system, owned by Naish. Patents make the industry complicated and expensive.
It's not compulsory to have a push-away system, though.
No, for sure you don't have to use it, but it's currently the most accepted in the market. It's fairly safe and it's very intuitive; you push something away, it's a good system. I'm not criticising the system. But pushup systems have been used in many different sports before, but then someone comes along and says they're going to put it underneath a kite bar. They file for a patent knowing that no one has the means to actually take any action against it. Then there is the patent officer who has little clue about kitesurfing and almost no resources to research on. The patent gets granted because of lack of knowledge. I am not against patents in general, I am just not sure if they are helping our sport in it's current stage.
Because it's hard to chase and enforce?
The technical detail questions are very difficult and it costs so much money to enforce. Getting a patent lawyer involved and suing someone is a huge drain and costs lots of money. Large companies are paying them one to another for each other's patents, while some smaller companies sometimes don't pay at all. It's simply not cost effective to chase them down for it. We might own a patent, Naish might own a patent and North might, and there's this whole trade going on and the only people making money out of it are the patent lawyers. It's ridiculously expensive. Fragmentation of the industry, safety and patents are the main threats to
this sport today.
this sport today.
Your ads used to be really techy. Recently there's been no hype or sexy selling, just a beautiful image portraying an understanding of what it is to be a kitesurfer. Where did that come from?
Our aim was to differentiate our ad from others and to come across as a brand whose lifestyle is driven by wind. This series of beautiful scenery shots was created to have the reader dream for a moment about kiteboarding in beautiful locations rather then just advertising product features and benefits.
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