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Vipe Desai on what is next for Project Blue

By Tiffany Montgomery
July 24, 2008 5:37 AM

I caught up with Vipe Desai this week to talk about Project Blue as the program celebrates its one-year anniversary with an invitation-only party tonight in Long Beach.


Project Blue products are made by industry brands such as Billabong, Reef, O'Neill, Electric, Nixon and DaKine, and a portion of the proceeds go to the Surfrider Foundation to protect coastline protection initiatives worldwide.


I asked Vipe about how the Project Blue got started, how the products are selling and what's next.


How did Project Blue start?

I've been surfing for more than 20 years and along the way I've seen increased stress to our coastlines, mostly in terms of water quality. It seems that more and more problems keep bubbling up and the organizations that are tackling these issues are overworked and most of the time under financed. I've been supporting Surfrider Foundation for almost 15 years and about eight years ago I had the opportunity to provide pro-bono services thru my agency, Propaganda. Through my involvement, I was invited to become a board member of the Foundation.


Ever since becoming involved, I've seen how much hard work this organization does. The people that work at Surfrider are the hardest working bunch around and in my mind, absolute heroes. I'm always thinking of ways to create onramps to the organization and that's where project BLUE comes in. It was a simple idea where popular, surf related products by the best brands in the surf industry would help generate an ongoing revenue stream for Surfrider. Billabong, DAKINE, Electric, Nixon, O'Neill and Reef have each taken ownership of one product category and built project BLUE into one of the most exciting brand collections.


What were the biggest challenges?

On the whole, managing the project BLUE initiative is like trying to steer a freighter to the perfect surf break. The biggest challenge was in the first six months with the question being, "Will the product move at retail?" The surf industry is $7 billion-plus dollars and the brands involved in project BLUE, while friendly, are competitors at the end of the day. This sort of cooperation for a cause is something you don't see very often in big business. I don't believe Ford and Toyota get together all that often, nor do Microsoft and Apple.


The question of will consumers embrace project BLUE was quickly put to rest when I started hearing from the brands and retailers like Swell.com, PacSun and core shops that product was selling and moving because of what project BLUE was all about. People were consciously seeking out project BLUE product as an alternative to existing product in similar colorways and styles that didn't have the philanthropic ideals of project BLUE and Surfrider.


After the initial response, the next challenge was working with the brands to get the products into the seasonal development cycle so the product was updated, evolving and consistently in catalogs when shown to retailers. We're on the right path now and everyone involved is excited with the progress.


Reef FanningWhat was the biggest "win" for Project Blue this year?

Creating a movement. The past year has seen a number of brands not just move towards making their products with better managed resources but also channel dollars directly from the sale of items to charities. Our industry has embraced the challenges as opportunities and is wholly determined to make things better. I think project BLUE has proven that brands can do something good and be rewarded with support from retailers who will carry the product and from consumers who will purchase these items. This initiative has made consumers, retailers and brands conscious participants in making our world just a little better.


How have Project Blue products sold at retail?

All the products have performed very well. The Billabong boardshorts made from recycled materials and the Reef Mick Fanning project BLUE edition sandals have done exceptionally well.


O'Neill Shoreline jacketWe were conservative in our projection for the first six months of the 2007 campaign, but it's really started to kick into gear the past few months. All the brands are happy with the sales and response from retailers. This year we're looking at a $100k+ to be donated to Surfrider. As a matter of fact, the Billabong Recycler boardshort was voted "Environmental Product of the Year" by SIMA at this year's Image Awards.


What's next for Project Blue?

There are a few things we're working on.


Locally:

We're developing communication pieces that will help retailers to build this product story into a section. We'd like to help guide consumers toward this "products with a purpose" section. I think if done right it could be a very powerful piece of real estate within a retail store that educates consumers while providing them with product choices made with responsible practices. Retailers have a big opportunity to add this type of messaging into their store strategy.


Internationally:

We're looking to grow this initiative into other regions around the world and help channel funds to regions where our brands do business and Surfrider Foundation has a foot in the sand. This initiative works best when there's a Surfrider Foundation chapter or affiliate that can work with brands to leverage what both have to offer. We started dialogues in Australia last fall and have been gently moving to ramp up our initiative down there. We'll also look to expand efforts into South America, Europe and Japan over the next 18 months.


Blue Sky:

We're working towards a project BLUE Eco Board Challenge, a high profile innovation challenge to inspire new methods of surfboard construction to represent the surfing community's ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship. We're currently working with key board builders and industry leaders to develop this competition and are hoping to be able to move into a public comment period to really flush out all the guidelines. This challenge would come with a prize package including money, marketing, media, retail, etc. The winner will have a launch pad for their innovation, backed with strong support from key groups within our industry. I'm really looking forward to launching this particular program.


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