WSL – A dream that became a marketing opportunity that became our biggest marketing error (so far)

Afonso and I at a WSL QS championship
Afonso and I at a WSL QS – Ericeira 2017

We started to test Van der Waal in 2015 and in 2016 we officially launched as product our Performance Series 1.0. Afonso was still working at his full day job, while I was working as a freelancer, so naturally, I had more time for Van der Waal.

My days were split between working at BluePepper social media agency and answering emails, managing Van der Waal social media and, most of the time, dropping packs at local post offices. Not a fun way to spend my time, but surprisingly, I was really ablaze with this new ‘work’. My mind was always surfing through remote goals, like having an office at the beach, be able to hire Afonso and Joana for a full-time job at Van der Waal, or to be, one far far away day, at a WSL event with all pro surfers.

Probably because we had a huge smile on our faces and due to our enthusiasm with our product, suddenly seemed like everybody wanted to help us. Quicker than I could ever imagine, people like João Costa (from Portuguese Surf Association — ASP) were guiding and introducing us through stores and dealers.

The day we were introduced to ORG, Polen, Xen&Co and Semente in a row
The day we were introduced to ORG, Polen, Xen&Co and Semente in a row

People from blogs and magazines started to talk about us. Suddenly we were featured at SurfBunker, Surfing Sections, Beachcam, Surftotal, The Inertia (!!!) and so many other sites, with cool and nice reviews.

I’m completely honest when I say that was not expecting anything this to happen in such a short period of time. Remember that none of us was from the surf industry and on top of that we knew absolutely no one at surf industry. [Read We are amateurs]

And then everything changed for us. Especially to me and to my child’s mind.

Out of nowhere, Francisco Spinola and Frederico Teixeira invited us to offer samples to all surfers competing at WSL Championship Tour in Peniche.
Can you imagine my face when I knew that I was going to offer my product to names like Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Julian Wilson, among all other top surfers in the world? No, you can’t, neither do I. It must have been a very silly face that kept that way for a really long time.

Again, my mind was surfing much higher ‘waves’ than it was possible. For weeks I was dreaming with Kelly Slater calling me to discuss my product, or about Mick Fanning posting a review at our website, or any pro surfer tagging us on Instagram. I know that those are impossible dreams, but if someone told me that 3 months after our first online sale we were going to be invited to offer our product to all top surfers of WSL, I would have said that was a beautiful but impossible dream.

So we worked really hard all night to pack everything and to talk about what we were going to do differently from all other brands that were offering their products to those surfers.

I decided that we should write a personal note to each surfer, wishing them all the best for the Championship Tour event and explaining that we were not looking for any kind of advertising but rather sincere feedback from the best surfers in the world. I was totally honest with this and really committed to that the first thing that surfers would see was our words about don’t wanting any kind of free publicity. We really just wanted sincere feedback.

Note: As a new product and concept, none of us was completely sure that it would work at all possible surf environments. So if a pro surfer had told us at the time ‘This thing works!’ we could vanish our doubts.

That way, instead of just giving them a pack (that in my mind they would never open it) with a note inside, I convinced Afonso that the best was to cover our boxes with this handwritten letter to them.

I woke up early and drive to Peniche, with a silly smile on my face, a heart beating fast and my mind rambling around the idea that John John Florence would have later that day our product on his hands (and, hopefully, one later day at his feet). There, I gave the packs to the organization girl that would place them at their lockers and after receiving my VIP wrist went to the beach to watch the championship.

Was an amazing day. Waves were pumping, the beach was crowded and I had, for the first time, a shadow to protect me from the sun and free beer at the VIP tent. And a flutter of nervousness for knowing that our product was waiting for the surfers at their locker room.

By the end of the day, I got back home and called Afonso to share with him the experience of watching the championship side by side with all my surf idols, share with them all the ‘wows’ every time a huge set arrives and that our packs were successfully placed at the lockers.

Sit at my couch, I’ve opened my laptop to watch replays of my favorite sets. As soon as I hit play I understood my (huge) mistake and felt a slap on my silly smile. At the video player of the WSL website was Sebastien Sietz, getting ready for his heat, with a pack of Van der Waal rightly placed behind him.

WSL / POULLENOT/AQUASHOT
WSL / POULLENOT/AQUASHOT

My heart just fired up, and looked closely to watch our Van der Waal pack…In that moment my silly smile just turned to a silly face. I felt (and still feel) the slap on my face.

Instead of our logo and package displayed to all (millions?) of WSL website visitors was a big white unreadable letter. Handwritten by Afonso.

As a marketing guy, I should have known, from the moment we were called to offer our product to all top surfers, that our strategy should have been to make some special packaging for them, with bigger logos and personalized messages at their back.

But never, ever, covered our brand with a big white paper.

I knew that at that time, and if it was a client of any agency I worked for, probably it would be my advice. But as a new business and trying to stand out of the crowd, my ingenious option was clearly a big mistake.

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