More Than a Global Brand

Why build a product, when you can build a culture.

Brian Hickling
May 21 · 6 min read

“Do what’s right. Stand behind what you do every single minute of every day. Take care of people.” — Paul Van Doren

Paul Van Doren, who co-founded the footwear brand Vans out of a small retail operation in Anaheim California more than five decades ago, died yesterday. He was 90.

He, along with his and his brother Steve built an awesome brand that gave skaters and skater-minded people an identity and a true sense of community.

People do not just buy your product, they buy what you stand for. Paul and his brother knew this. They did not just build a shoe company or a sports brand. They built a culture. A culture built on an idea. You see, while the Van shoes had amazing functionality for skaters, it was the spirit of the brand that helped it survive all these years.

People want to be part of a movement, part of something bigger than themselves.

People don’t just buy shoes, or cars, or power tools. They buy the IDEA of the company: Independence, creativity and rebelliousness of youth. They buy the VALUES of the company. Brands are a form of self-expression. Of aligning one’s values and beliefs with the brands you support.

Wearing Vans (which I did for some years in the ’80s) was a way to make a personal statement. To broadcast your individuality and creativity.

The brand was not built by clever marketers, ad people or investment bankers, the Vans brand was built by two people with strong human values and ethics of the Van Doren family. Honesty. Integrity. Creativity.

The “Off The Wall” Story

It all started a small retail operation in Anaheim California more than five decades ago.

In 1965, Paul and James Van Doren left the Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Company where they had worked for years (Paul for 20 years and James for 10) to found their own shoe company. Unlike their previous employer, the brothers hoped to circumvent wholesale and cut out retailers entirely. We now call this Direct To Consumer or D2C.

Brothers Paul Van Doren and James Van Doren, along with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, officially opened The Van Doren Rubber Company, on March 16, 1966, at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California.

They embraced some revolutionary business model concepts.

The Van Doren brothers used some revolutionary business model concepts. They were one of the first brands to embrace direct to customers, product personalization and On-Demand (or Just In Time) Manufacturing, three topics that are in marketing vogue today.

These revolutionary approaches allowed the Van Dorens both a viable economic model for a start-up and to build the brand around the concept of individualism.

By selling directly to the customer, it allowed them to drastically increasing profitability

In terms of customization, Vans was decades ahead of its time. As manufacturing and retail were so closely intertwined (they had a factory outback and retail out front), customers could literally design their shoes themselves. If a potential buyer brought in a viable fabric, Vans would make them a unique pair of shoes literally overnight.

In the beginning, the brothers had only made demonstration models in the showroom. When an order was made, the shoes were assembled the next day and ready for pick-up that evening. This meant low inventory — and a need to discount unpopular models.

It worked! Customers started to line up to buy Vans shoes, prompting the company to open more retail outlets, beginning with a standalone store in Costa Mesa and soon expanding to nine more.

In the ’70s the company saw tremendous growth and opened a new store practically every week. Paul would scout locations on Monday, sign a lease on Tuesday, remodel on Wednesday, add shoe racks on Thursday and displays on Friday, hiring a store manager on Saturday, and training staff on Sunday. Despite his rapid-fire strategy, Paul’s business model was only moderately successful at best. For the first 10 years, the company barely stayed afloat.

Still, even with innovations in next-level personalization, the company did not truly gain its footing until the mid-’70s when it decided to start producing skateboard sneakers.

As the story goes, California surfers and skaters were already wearing Vans, including Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta, who approached the company in 1975 with the idea of producing a custom sneaker made specifically for skateboarding. Alva and Peralta are credited with being the driving force behind Van’s success as a product. Acting as creative consultants, they helped to design new styles to reflect both the functionality they wanted and the style they craved. Seem others craved them too.

In the late-’70s, Vans fully embraced its predominantly skater customer base, introducing three additional skate-friendly models in the span of two years.

The “Off the wall” brand was born. Here is a video that gives you the history:

From 2008 to 2016, Vans tripled its revenue from $750 million to 2.3 billion, an unprecedented figure even within the sneaker industry.

Now, the multi-billion dollar entity is not only the predominant force in skate culture but a major player in sportswear worldwide.

Selling a great product is not enough. You need to sell a movement.

From their humble beginnings in Southern California, Vans has grown beyond a small family-owned shoe company into a global brand that stands for so much more.

Built on the foundation of values, innovation and the “culture is everything” obsession, Vans has become more than a brand, it has become a true brand movement. Its purpose is the same as it was when Paul founded the company. To enable creative expression and inspire youth culture -by celebrating and encouraging the Off the Wall attitude that comes from expressing your true self.

In many ways, the Vans brand, at least up until recently, has survived in spite of itself. Although Vans now boasts healthy profits, a strong identity and a cult-like following, the California sneaker brand had far from a smooth ride. Even though the company rode the waves of economic volatility, and even filed for bankruptcy, closed factories and changed ownership multiple times in its 55-year history, it was the “idea” of the brand that kept it going.

Despite questionable business choices and many failed ventures, it was the idea of culture and movement building that help to transform from a little casual footwear manufacturer into a symbol of American counterculture and independence.

Originally published at on May 21, 2021.

Elsewhere: LinkedInFacebookInstagramTwitterFlipboard

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Brian Hickling

Written by

I believe in the power of creativity to change the world. I help brands to leverage the accelerated growth potential of Social Impact Branding.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store