If you're looking to market to hip, influential youngsters, ride the wave to surfers. They tend to be affluent—after all, living near the ocean isn't cheap—and they represent the elusive young male demographic.
Even better, nonsurfers who live the surfing lifestyle are another market to target, giving you more bang for your marketing buck. This means you don't have to stick to the coasts with your marketing, as surfing products are popular with even those who live far from the beaches. "They just want to have the feel of that relaxed Southern California lifestyle," says Charlie Anderson, associate publisher of Transworld SURF magazine. "We're very fortunate that way, because it draws more than just the sports-specific market."
There are about 2.3 million surfers in the U.S., concentrated in coastal regions like California, Florida, the Carolinas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. For surfers, surfing is more a lifestyle than a sport. It can be difficult for nonsurfers to understand the reasons behind the devotion that surfers show to this way of life. "Pro surfer Brad Gerlach has said it's like going to Mars and coming back and trying to explain to someone who's never been to Mars what the experience is like," says Greg Cruse, director of the Western Surfing Association. "It's addictive, and it gets in your blood."
It's not only surfers who long for this lifestyle. "People who buy products that are influenced by surf marketing is quadruple the number of surfers, because the guys in the Midwest who are playing surf video games and watching surf videos consider themselves surfers at some level and are buying the products that appeal to that community," says Anderson.
The market also tends to be young—Transworld SURF magazine hits the 16 to 22 age range—and is 80 percent male. But you can also find older surfers, who favor the longboard over the shortboard because it floats better and is easier to paddle. Surfers are also health-oriented. "They're people who want to have a healthy life and a healthy atmosphere," says Anderson. "The ocean is kind of the fountain of youth."
Though surfers typically need to be on the affluent side to be able to live near the ocean, their income varies widely. "I had kids who couldn't afford to buy a surfboard and then kids who were sponsored and making $60,000 a year already in the sixth grade," Cruse claims about his students.
Regardless of how much money they have, surfers are a good market for another reason: This age group influences the purchases of the entire family, according to Lenore Cunningham, sales director of Lake Group Media, which manages the Transworld SURF mailing list. Marketers who used to target mothers are now targeting teens because they have more purchasing power than was previously thought.
What They Buy
Of course, surfers buy surfing products: board shorts, sandals, sunscreen, surfboards, cars that can accommodate surfboards, four-wheel drive vehicles that let surfers get to the best spots, etc. Travel is another large category for surfers, says Cunningham. In addition, surfers pride themselves on being watermen, so they also purchase kayaks, fishing equipment, spearguns, canoes ... "anything to keep them on the water and physically fit," says Cruse.
Then there are the other action sports that attract surfers. "There is a huge cross-market in the action sports world," says Anderson. "Snowboarding and skateboarding are definitely part of that, and there is crossover in motocross. Some surfers do events that are surf one day and then go to a motocross track the next day."
Catching the Wave
It can be tough to target surfers because they are a counterculture movement that, well, doesn't like to be targeted, says Cruse. Surfers are sensitive to marketers co-opting surfing imagery to sell their wares. "It's almost like a cliché ... the advertising world's attempt at using surfing imagery to sell their products is almost universally completely off the mark," Cruse says.
To make waves with the surfer market you need to be authentic, and that means truly understanding the market. "A big mistake marketers make is coming off not knowing the market and branding to them in an unauthentic way," says Anderson. A part of being authentic is to use respected surfers in your marketing. "Don't use people outside the market ... Use people that these kids are following, the Kelly Slaters and the Dane Reynolds of the world," Anderson says.
The best way to create messaging that rings authentic is to have a surfer write or vet the material for you. Reps at Transworld SURF magazine, for example, help advertisers create messaging that works with surfers. And if you can't get someone who's surfing-savvy to help you, it may be best to leave out the surfing references altogether. "It's difficult for marketers to target surfers with a surfing message," says Cruse. "Surfers will figure out the advantages for themselves. So if it's a health product, if you just portray the health benefits of it they'll see that and put it into their own world."
As for reaching surfers, this market is digitally savvy and responds well to e-mail newsletters, social media like blogs and Facebook, and search engine advertising. Another way to reach surfers is through events. Surfers are viewed as early adopters, so many businesses lavish free products on them at competitions. The U.S. Open of Surfing attracts 400,000 to Huntington Beach, Calif., and is a good place to get products into the hands of surfers. The Eastern Surfing Association is the largest amateur surfing association in the world, with 10,000 members and 600 events annually, says Anderson, and retailers and manufacturers of surfing products often sponsor their own events.
Surfers can be a hard market to target. But it's worth the effort, because they're also early adopters who influence the purchasing decisions of their families and of nonsurfers who want to live the lifestyle. Be authentic, get help with your messaging if you need it and be ready to surf your way to success.
Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. She wrote about marketing to facility managers in Target Marketing's August Issue.