Here at Create & Cultivate, we love learning more about the women who have built the careers of their dreams. Today, we’re profiling one of the top ladies at Vans, April Vitkus. As the Senior Director of Global Brand Marketing Strategy for the famous shoe and skate wear brand, April does everything from targeting worldwide audiences to creating empowering and inspiring campaigns for all people. After speaking at our Chicago conference in August, we knew we had to catch up and learn more about her journey, her career advice, and bringing women together. Keep on reading for the full interview.
Create & Cultivate: Can you tell us a bit about your career journey and how you began working at Vans?
April Vitkus: Two days after graduating from UCLA, I accepted a role in account management at an advertising agency working on campaigns for major consumer brands ranging from finance to automotive. Advertising gave me a solid foundation, though I quickly learned that my true love was working directly on a brand and closer to the consumer. I made the jump from the agency to the in-house marketing department of a contemporary designer fashion brand. After six incredible years leading the marketing function for a portfolio of 16 brands, an opportunity to work for a designer startup presented itself. It was a wild ride where I wore many hats juggling PR, marketing, sales, and business development. I considered going to business school for my MBA at that time, but two years at the startup taught me what I needed to know about business strategy, organization management, merchandising and design. A very good friend from the fashion industry who is one of those ‘people who knows everyone’ brought the Vans opportunity to me. Back in the day after hours of working runway shows in stilettos, I was always the first one to change into my Slip-Ons. Vans has been part of my life since I was 12 years old, so the opportunity to work for an iconic brand that held such a deep, personal meaning to me made it an easy decision. I had one interview, fell in love with the team and haven’t looked back. Since my arrival in 2008, I’ve held several leadership positions. From a stint in product development and merchandising to building a lifestyle marketing division to the role I’m in today leading our global brand marketing and strategy, it has been amazing to contribute to the growth of a 52-year old brand and to continue to grow my career as well. Ten years have gone by so fast and there is still more work to do!
As the Director of Global Brand Marketing, what are some of your day to day tasks?
I’m fortunate to work with an incredible team of people in the office and around the world who inspire me to take a creative approach to my job every day. My team and I are tasked with developing strategies to connect Vans to people around the world through our global brand campaigns, cultural pillars, and experiential brand events. One-third of my time is spent learning and listening, one third asking ‘what if’ and ideating with the team, and in the other third I’m articulating it all and getting it out to the world. Many mornings start on a call with our Europe team and I end the day driving home hearing about emerging trends from China. In-between I am meeting with cross-functional leaders in the office, listening to a new band that we are supporting, working directly with the musicians, artists, and tastemakers who are moving creative culture forward and ideating on the next brand strategies to engage and enable people.
One thing everyone loves about Vans is the brand’s ability to connect with so many cultures. What does into creating the perfect campaign for consumers in different demographics?
We’re inherently curious people and love to listen and understand the nuances of cultures across different geographies, markets, and demographics. What’s most compelling for me is recognizing those differences and then finding the stories that connect us all and resonate in a deeper way. The stories that tell you about what a brand values and champions. The people who you may never meet from across the globe that are trying to express themselves through creative outlets. The best stories are the true stories that can’t be perfectly planned and produced. The ones that speak to a deeper emotion that we’ve all likely experienced. We look for those things and never shy away from anything that may be perceived as thinking differently or going against the norm.
Vans isn’t your traditional sneaker brand. It’s become an empire that embodies self-expression. How did Vans shift from promoting mainly skateboard culture all the way to building and growing House of Vans?
The creative, determined and committed mindset and collaborative attitude that comes from skateboarding is at the core of everything we do at Vans. A global platform like the House of Vans celebrates that “Off The Wall” mindset and aims to cultivate and support the local, creative communities while uplifting skateboarding and action sports along with art, music and street culture. House of Vans is a place where we celebrate and champion creativity within individuals and communities. Our approach to music, art and street culture remains authentic because we make decisions through that lens and the history and experiences of those who came before us.
And you don’t just have skaters wearing Vans. We have the everyday career girl wearing them, rappers wearing them, etc. How does the brand manage to stay fresh and relevant to people from all walks of life?
Vans is both grounded in history and stays fresh and relevant by listening to our family of artists, athletes, and musicians. The evolution of our products and experiences can be directly traced to the needs of the creative communities that support us. In 1966, when Vans first opened Paul Van Doren used to make custom Vans shoes if you brought in your own fabric. We use that same ethos and continue to uplift creative expression and personal style through our Vans Customs Platform online today. You can choose any one of our Classic silhouettes, Pro-Skate or All-Weather MTE models and customize them with various prints, materials or user-generated art to make them your very own.
We’re always learning and evolving, but never for the sake of trends or fads. That commitment to our people is something I’m proud of and hope that’s why people are attracted to Vans. Our president says something that is so brilliant, “Vans is open to anyone, but not for everyone.” Vans is a tapestry and you don’t have to be one thing to fit in. Vans is an icon who isn’t afraid to try something new, but we never ever abandon our roots and always give back to the people who put us here.
Vans also does a lot to empower women and girls. A great example being the Girls Skate initiative, which teaches girls from several global cities how to skate. Can you tell us more about how that came about and any other steps Vans takes to support women and girls?
The Girls Skate India story came after discovering that our local Vans India team rider, Atita Verghese was working to teach and empower girls in and around India how to skate. Vans professional team rider, Lizzie Armanto joined Atita in India to help build a local skate park and worked with each of the girls to learn how to skate. Vans was there to capture the awe-inspiring story and just how empowering the act of skateboarding and sense of community can bring. Vans continues to support women and girls through our Get on Board and Skate Skool Sundays programming run through our House of Vans platform where we invite women of all ages to take part in board building and skate lessons. Vans also hosts female-centric skate and surf contests through the Vans Park Series, Vans Girls Combi Skate Jam and Duct Tape Invitational.
What is your favorite thing about working at Vans?
100% the people, and the belief in leadership that Vans is a people business first. It’s so refreshing to be in a space where you’re encouraged to take risks, try new things, speak up and speak out and most of all to have fun building the business together. The people I’ve had the honor of working alongside truly feel like family. That spirit of family is tangible around the world. I’m a better leader because of the lessons I’ve learned at Vans and the opportunities and examples of the leaders before me. I never take a day at this place for granted. People say that working here feels like high school or college and it does. It’s hard work, but full of incredibly intellectual, thoughtful people with a ton of passion.
Is there anything from Vans we should be looking out for in the coming year?
We are excited to continue to tell the multifaceted story of Vans as the icon of creative expression and getting consumers around the world to join us. There’s also some really incredible product and collaborations coming this holiday and spring that I can’t wait for the world to see!