3 Questions for Freewaters’ John Vance

John Vance is off and running as Freewaters’ new CEO and president.

Appointed to the head position in July, Vance has previous experience at Quiksilver, OP, Airwalk and Sanuk. And he’s unsurprisingly upbeat about Freewaters’ potential in the outdoor industry.

“The timing is right [for a new brand]. The industry is ready for something new,” he said of the year-old label. “The established sandal brands [have become the brands of] dads and granddads. We offer a fresh perspective. Our product is probably more modern, and frankly, to our audience, more relevant than the other product.”

With that in mind, Vance said, he will push growth alongside brand founders Martin Kim and Eli Marmar. “Their philosophy and mine is the same, but our goals are a lot more dramatic than they were a year ago,” he said.

Here, Vance talks about new marketing plans and the importance of the specialty channel.

1. In its first year, Freewaters has been in the sandal and house shoe/slipper categories. Where do you want to take the brand?
We’re working hard to create relevant, functional product that appeals to a casual lifestyle. Inherently, outdoor people are travelers, so when we’re developing product, we have an eye to travel all the time — [making styles that are] light and pack down as flat as possible. The next thing is comfort; there is no such thing as too soft. In our current spring season selling now, we have a category for travel-specific usage. The line is still very tight, but that category is called the “escape artist group,” and we do men’s and women’s styles that pack down very tightly. It’s what we call TSA-friendly.

2. What projects do you have lined up for the year ahead?
We’re initiating our first print ad campaign. We’ll be running monthly ads in surfer magazines, starting in January. It’s a mix of aspirational imagery and product, with the idea of driving [readers] to our website to learn more about our brand. We’ll be launching a new website in another four to six weeks, and the landing page focuses directly on Project Freewaters, [the brand’s charitable initiative that funds well building and clean water initiatives]. It’s a big part of our website and our messaging. It also ties into overall message management — the look for everything we do going forward starts with the ad campaign. All the new product badging, flags, end caps, POS, license plates on our pegs in stores will incorporate a singular color, our corporate blue shade. We have limited resources as a small company, so we have to maximize [that impact].

3. Freewaters is distributed largely in the independent channel. Is that something you’re looking to change as you grow?
This is one of my big soapbox issues. The specialty retailer today is under attack and they’re underserved. Most of the large companies have forgotten about [independent retailers]. They give lip service to the specialty stores but are not really focused on them. They’re selling to department stores and national chains, and that’s not our focus. We’ll largely be in surf and outdoor specialty shops. We also have an interesting relationship with Whole Foods Market, which does Toms Shoes.

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