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  • You don't need a beach to have a surfer's soul
  • You don't need a beach to have a surfer's soul
    El Condor, Creative Commons (2011) ©
CASE STUDY

Teen America: the Coasties

From Fangirls to JK Poppers, the US is home to a range of teen subcultures. In the first of a series exploring American Gen Y and Z tribes, Andrea Graham – founder of Youth Tribes – delves into the sun-bleached world of Coasties. How is this group redefining the beach and action sports enthusiast?

Location United States

Scope
California dreaming has long held a powerful grasp over the psyche of American youth. From beach music and neon surfwear to sun-bleached hair and teeny bikinis, the surfer and skater lifestyle has been synonymous with endless summers and trendsetting cool. Surf culture alone is worth an estimated $6.3 billion in the US, and the global surf industry – including surfing gear and lifestyle clothing – could generate more than $13 billion by 2017. [1]

But today’s surfer girls and skater boys, or ‘Coasties’, are quite different from the archetypes developed by brands like Rip Curl and Quiksilver. As a more inclusive and geographically diverse group than in years past, this new generation of youth is redefining what it means to be a beach and action sports enthusiast. New expectations and changes in behaviour among these coastal bohemians have opened up exciting opportunities for brands looking to reach a passionate group with a Golden State of mind.

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Who are they?
It's an 82 degree day in late June in beautiful Orange County. Travis, a sandy blonde 17-year-old, is decked out in his usual uniform of knee length chino shorts, faded blue Vans sneakers and a striped tank top. He stands with his longboard at the top of a hill and stares down to its depths. He pushes his board forward and begins his descent, swerving back and forth as if he was riding a long paved wave. The wind blows in his hair and a huge smile covers his face. He could do this forever – spend every day hanging out with his bros, cruising around and enjoying the sun. Surprisingly, Travis is not from Orange County, California, but the OC way out east in New York, about 70 miles from the ocean. To Travis and his friends, you don’t need a beach to embrace the mellow life of a soul surfer; there are many other sports and terrains to take on.

Travis and his peers embody a new breed of action sports and outdoors enthusiasts – Coasties. Sharing many similarities with teens from Australia's Gold Coast, this subculture is generally located around coastal regions and beach, lake and river communities of the US. Coasties embrace their reputation for having a relaxed demeanor and inclusive attitude, pursuing a wide variety of water, sand and board-based activities. While traditional surfing and skateboarding are still popular with this group, many are branching out to new activities. Longboarding, a skateboarding style inspired by classic surfing maneuvers and board shapes, has played a significant role in the rebirth of surf and skate culture.

It's cool if you can't pull off a kick-flip; just relax and enjoy the ride It's cool if you can't pull off a kick-flip; just relax and enjoy the ride
Tatl Melo, Creative Commons (2010) ©

What do they do?
Longboards are starting to outgrow traditional skateboard sales, with retailers reporting growth of 50% in 2011. [2] A welcoming community free of clear cut divisions, the street sport has brought in more women and people of colour, simultaneously introducing them to skateboarding, surfing, paddleboarding and fat biking. The shift in emphasis from performing tricks to skating around and enjoying the ride is illustrative of the core values among chilled out Coastie types. “I actually have a lot more fun riding long boards,” writes Reddit user and_of_four. “I stopped caring about learning tricks and I was just having more fun cruising around.” [3]

Jeff Gaites, owner of Uncle Funky’s, a longboard shop in New York, emphasises how the activity welcomes all participants. “With longboarding among women, it’s nice to learn and more inviting,” Gaites says. “People are more willing to teach somebody.” [4] Jeff Budro, team manager for Sector 9, a manufacturer of longboard skateboards, agrees that longboarding has helped shed the skating scene’s exclusive, unwelcoming reputation. “If you couldn’t kick-flip on your skateboard and you had your skateboard under your arm, you were a dork,” Budro says. “With longboarding, there really are not any expectations. Your mom can do it. Your dad can do it. Your sister can do it.” [4]

If you couldn’t kick-flip on your skateboard and you had your skateboard under your arm, you were a dork. With longboarding, there really are not any expectations. Your mom can do it. Your dad can do it. Your sister can do it

Jeff Budro, team manager for Sector 9

The hybridisation of these action sports has also opened up new recreational opportunities for those stuck miles away from the beach. Paddleboarding, which utilises a long surfer-style board and a paddle to navigate waterways, has become a big success for the boarding industry, especially in landlocked areas in the Midwest.

Stand-up paddleboard sales accounted for 22% of all surfboard sales in the US in 2012, making it the fastest growing segment in water-based board sports. [5] And according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, sales of paddleboards were up 41% in 2013. [6] Despite the lack of an ocean, this new group of boarders still keeps up the Coastie lifestyle. “The strong showing of stand-up paddleboard sales illustrates the expanding influence of surf into river and lake communities and other new demographics,” said Shea Weber, Chairman of the SIMA Board Builders Committee.

Surf and skate culture are enjoying a renaissance Surf and skate culture are enjoying a renaissance
Stephane, Creative Commons (2012) ©

What they love and where they shop
Aesthetically speaking, Coasties have adopted pared-down, logo-free tastes. The Coastie look tends to be a blend of styles favoring natural – organic when possible – fabrics that borrow elements from vintage surfwear, ethnic prints, preppy-inspired tailoring and bohemian motifs. While previous generations looked to surf and skate shops for fashion guidance, today’s beach-loving teens are blending their wardrobes with a variety of styles, iconic brand pieces and thrift store chic. While they tend to step away from logo-heavy goods, Coasties still love authentic and well-made branded products. Herschel Supply Co. backpacks, Vans sneakers, Raybans Wayfarers and Rainbows flip-flops are valued for their clean lines and timeless look.

Younger coasties still rely on surf and skatewear retailers like PacSun, Zumiez and Tilly’s, but many more are heading to fashion forward budget retailers – such as H&M, Zara, Target and Old Navy – where they can find the same looks for considerably lower prices. [7] This shift in brand loyalty has been particularly challenging for specialist retailers who once relied on aspirational shoppers for a large chunk of their revenues. “We had a great year last year and we are continuing to be above last year but definitely we are finding the way tough,’’ said Rip Curl director Tony Robert in 2015, adding that the aspirational side of the business had, however, “taken a battering”. [8]

From Rayban sunglasses to Rainbows flip flops, authentic branding is big with the Coasties From Rayban sunglasses to Rainbows flip flops, authentic branding is big with the Coasties
Herschel Supply Co (2013) ©

Insights and opportunities
Coasties love being behind the camera. GoPro camcorders offer users the ability to record first-person perspectives of their adventures, and have helped introduce young people to new action sports. Mike Mahoney of Honey Skateboards credits tech-savvy youth, GoPro and YouTube for helping spread the popularity of longboarding, paddle boarding, and fat biking in particular. “This group is posting videos on social networks and it’s spreading like crazy,” he says. [2]

There are nearly 18 million GoPro videos on YouTube, and their popularity among teens shows no signs of abating.  GoPro's share of the US camcorder market is growing at a phenomenal rate, up from 11% in 2012 to more than 45% in 2014. Revenues have similarly skyrocketed, growing to just under $1 billion in 2013 after a year-on-year increase of 87%. [9] The brand taps into its fans’ desire to share experiences by inviting customers to co-create with GoPro and share photos and videos on social platforms. The best images and clips are subsequently hosted on the brand’s own channels. While GoPro appeals to the selfie sharing generation, it also has a unique appeal to adventure seeking Coasties, allowing them to record incredible moments without interrupting the experience.  

No longer a lifestyle exclusive to those in California, Hawaii or Australia, the Coastie is being embraced by youth all over the world and has spread to communities far from the ocean

Coasties are well informed consumers who are health- and eco-conscious. With so many of their activities tied to outdoor pursuits, these teens witness the effects of consumer waste and pollution first-hand. Whether eschewing cars for beach cruisers and longboards, supporting companies like Patagonia for their dedication to corporate responsibility or eating at Chipotle for their sustainable and ethical farming, Coasties are eager to align themselves with efforts to preserve the places they love.

No longer a lifestyle exclusive to those in California, Hawaii or Australia, the Coastie is being embraced by youth all over the world and has spread to communities far from the ocean.  The evolution of surf and skate culture into a more inclusive saltwater and coastal lifestyle is indicative of how current generations of youth prefer to self identify and form communities.

Today’s action sports and outdoor enthusiasts are less concerned than previous generations about labels, wearing the ‘right brands’ or proving their credibility to others. Instead they’re focusing on finding a sense of personal fulfillment, their friendships and discovering the natural world around them.

Andrea Graham is a New York-based writer and consumer anthropologist studying why people love what they love. She specialises in youth culture, gaming, fandoms, social media, new media and gaming. She is the founder of Youth Tribes.

Related behaviours
Brand Me: Managing your personal image and reputation.
Byegender: Men acting like women; women acting like men.
Neo-Tribalism: People are moving fluidly between subcultures.

Sources  
1. ’U.S. Open of Surfing 2014: it’s about surfing passion but also profits’, The Los Angeles Times (August 2014)
2. ’The Longboard Industry: A Look Forward’, AXS Longboard Retailer Magazine (December 2011)
3. ’Why do skateboarders hate longboarders/longboarding?’, Reddit (February 2012)
4. ’Skateboarding Glides Into New Phase’, The New York Times (July 2010)
5. ’Riding swell of paddleboard popularity’, The San Diego Union Tribune (April 2013)
6. ’2013 Retail Distribution Study’, SIMA (2014)*
7. ’Billabong’s demise is emblematic of a wider crisis in the surfwear industry’, The Guardian (November 2013)
8. ’Surfwear retailer Rip Curl valued at $310m after share buyback’, The Australian (March 2015)*
9. ’Millennials drive cocreation marketing’, CRM (September 2014)
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Author
Andrea Graham