If you want your product to take off, first you need an audience, of course. Then it's crucial to speak to them using a language they understand, and to conjure images of a lifestyle to which they can relate. 

This is what UGG founder Brian Smith learned while first trying to sell sheepskin boots--his company's signature product and an iconic staple that would find its way into millions of American teenagers' closets. Smith was surfing in Malibu when he realized no one had sheepskin boots in the U.S., unlike in Australia, where, he says, "one in two people had them." The boots were comfortable, and surfers liked them because they kept their feet warm during the cooler months on the beach.

He raised $20,000 "on enthusiasm alone" from local surf shops and imported 500 pairs of boots to get the company started. In 1979, the company's first year of sales, UGG sold 28 pairs of boots, for a total of $1,000. The local surf shops didn't want to carry them because they didn't fit in with the surfboards, sandals, and other merchandise. 

Smith then started selling the boots out of a van in a Malibu Beach parking lot. Yearly sales increased to $5,000, then $10,000, but the product wasn't catching on.

It wasn't until Smith asked a few 12- and 13-year-old surfer kids what they thought of UGGs that he discovered the reason for his slow sales. They thought UGGs were fake, because the models in Smith's advertisements clearly couldn't surf. His target audience wasn't connecting with the brand, because they thought the marketing was inauthentic.

"Instantly, the light went on," Smith says in an Inc. video. "I'm sending the wrong message." 

So he asked a friend of his to connect him to a couple young surfers, Mike Parsons and Ted Robinson, who were going pro. They went surfing together at Black's Beach and Trestles, a couple of well-known surfing spots in Southern California. Smith took photos of them walking to and from the surf and ran the photos in ads. Sales spiked to $200,000 that year.

"I suddenly figured that you have to get immersed." Smith says. "I can imagine every little kid who reads a surfer magazine would die to be walking down those paths, the Trestles or Black's Beach."

Smith quickly realized that marketing a product was less about crafting a perfect image, with professional photographers and models, and more about showcasing a lifestyle--one that's reachable, attainable, and resonates with its desired audience.

"It was something, a theme of advertising, that I brought into the entire UGG program for the next 20 years," Smith says. "And that's probably why it's a billion dollars a year these days."

Published on: Sep 24, 2019