Doug Palladini, Vans

At Vans, the bottom line may be about making a profit, but the top line is about being true to the brand’s cultural heritage while keeping its shoes, apparel, accessories—and marketing—real for consumers.

Thank you, Sean Penn, they say at Vans, for creating a memorable character in Jeff Spicoli, the iconic surfer dude from the 1982 cult flick, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who wore Vans’ checkered slip-ons as a symbol of his slacker status and helped propel the company from regional to national fame.

Thank you, rap group The Pack, for recording the song “Vans” on your CD, Unknown (Jive Records, 2006). We really appreciate the video on MTV and BET, which is a shout-out about the virtues of our shoes and drives awareness of the company among urban consumers.

Thank you, flip-kickers at Vans Skate Parks, and guys and gals who compete in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. Thank you, music fans of the Vans Warped Tour and enthusiasts at the Dew Action Sports Tour, for supporting the events that are getting our name and products top of mind with kids and young adults. And thank you, Web surfers, who’ve made an interactive community by listening to our music, blogging and downloading our podcasts.

“In my 20 years of marketing, Vans is probably the closest I’ve seen to the true definition of a brand as it expresses an emotional connection between consumers and a product,” said Doug Palladini, vp-marketing at Vans, Santa Fe Springs, Calif., which was founded in 1966. “Despite some really awful business decisions over the 40 years, Vans has been able to maintain an amazing emotional connection with its consumers.”

Although Penn’s take on stoner-surfer Spicoli was a Hollywood caricature—”All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine”—his love of Vans was the catalyst that turned a Southern California success story into a nationally recognized brand. Fast forward to 1996, when The Suicide Machines recorded “The Vans Song” on Destruction by Definition: “Get a pair of Chukas or some checkerboard slip-ons/Worship Jeff Spicoli not Chris Cornell/Get a pair of Vans or God will send you to Hell.” Fast forward again to The Pack’s rap: “I wear checkered Vans the same color as snow . . . Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers . . . They slip in and out real easy, like blunts/U can get different colors, like rainbows/Since 1966, Vans had set a trend/I got a blue pair, yea, in a size 10.”

According to Vans, sales in urban markets have gone up since the song dropped in early summer. “The best thing about [this type of association] is that is that it’s been organic,” said Palladini. “We don’t endorse celebrities, they endorse us. We sponsor skateboarders, snowboarders, surfers. If celebrities call us and they love Vans and they ask us for shoes, we send them to them. And that has been great for us.”

Back in the day, Vans DNA began and ended with shoes. Now it includes 150 retail outlets and two company-owned skate parks in Orlando, Fla., and Orange, Calif. The brand promotes itself around what Palladini calls “the four pillars of Vans culture”: action sports, music, street culture and art. The Warped Tour began in 1995 and has recently ramped up to include more venues and hundreds of cutting-edge bands. The marketing partnership with the five-city Dew Action Sports Tour is now in its second season, with programming featured on NBC, USA and Fuel. This is anchored by sponsorship of the three-day Vans International event in August in Portland, Ore., featuring skateboarding, BMX and freestyle motocross. More than 232,000 attended the Tour in 2005; this season ends Oct. 17 in Orlando.