Growing golf ball and accessory company Vice was nearly called Flake Golf. That was the original name of the company created by Ingo Duellmann and Rainer Stoeckl; two German law students turned entrepreneurs who met while surfing the Eisbach River in Munich.
Fortuitously, Flake was lost in translation.
Flakes, while unique, are dainty, fragile and unreliable. Not exactly a strong foundation on which to build an edgy golf brand. Vice, on the other hand, conjures adjectives like bold, maybe even dangerous. Flakes are placid; Vices have energy and conviction behind them. And while the strict definition of “wicked and immoral behavior” is perhaps a bit too literal, Vice is built on the idea that being a little bad is always right.
With Vice, it’s not just the model; it’s the execution
Like other upstarts in its space, Vice Golf’s mission is to make premium golf balls, sell them directly to the consumer, and with the middlemen removed from the equation, save golfers serious money in the process. Oh, and Vice does it without sacrificing an iota of performance.
Success in the direct-to-consumer space begins with a product that is as good or better than that of your traditionally-distributed competitors. When you’re asking the consumer to shell out cash for a product he can’t walk into a store to see, feel and touch, he needs to be convinced what he’s getting is the equal, if not the superior, of what he can get from the store down the road. If it isn’t, what’s the point? Where’s the value proposition? Vice understands that as an outsider in an industry that thrives on tradition, its product, marketing and branding can’t have glitches or missteps. In particular, the user interface must be clean, engaging and simple to navigate. Products must meet or exceed expectations, and they need to arrive on time. Consumers only need one reason to return to the comfort of the familiar, but thus far Vice has done an outstanding job of bucking the system and building a loyal following.
IT ALL STARTS WITH THE BALL
Vice golf balls are damn good – every last one of them. You want evidence? In a recent Golf Lab’s test, the Vice Pro and Pro Plus were shown to be the clear equal (or dare I suggest superior) to everyone’s favorite industry benchmark. That’s no small accomplishment given that Ingo and Rainer had no background in golf before founding Vice in 2012.
If the past is a prologue, Vice’s new Pro Soft will do for pedestrian swing speed players what the Vice Pro and Pro Plus have done for the Pro V1x, B330 series contingent. The Vice Pro Soft offers a super-low core compression of 35, which helps slower swings generate more ball speed. The Pro Soft is a three-piece ball with a cast urethane cover that is finished with a nanotechnology matte clear coating to provide extra grip and spin around the greens.
Once released, it will serve as a further example of Vice’s strict adherence to its “philosophy and mission to produce premium quality products, whether that is the golf ball or the bag, the glove, the caps,… and offer it at affordable, fair prices.”
Or in other words, Vice is committed to providing the consumer with high-performance alternatives to mainstream products, and with the golf ball in particular, for significantly less money than traditional golf brands.
A chance encounter while working on a separate project enlightened the pair to the excessive margins and bloated retail costs of golf balls. Large ball manufacturers have to account for raw materials, physical production/distribution, R&D, support staff (both back-office and in the field), staff players (including professional tours) as well as marketing and advertising. The pair partnered with some very bright German aerospace engineers and quickly concluded that if they sold directly to consumers, they might just have a viable business.
Five years removed from its beginnings, Vice runs a much leaner operation that it’s big OEM competitors. It still has basic raw material and distribution costs, but because its sales platform is entirely online, the distribution is more efficient and the approach does not require a team of sales reps to manage accounts. Perhaps most importantly, Vice doesn’t have to inflate costs to pay Tour staff or run multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns in hopes of gaining exposure and market share.
This isn’t a purely philanthropic exercise, of course. Like most any going concern, Vice needs to make a profit to stay in business, but the Vice team is passionate about working to change the golf industry in a manner which will ultimately benefit the consumer. If Vice can make a ball that performs as well (or better) than those of the industry leaders and can sell it for approximately 30% less, that’s a win for Vice, but more importantly, it’s a win for golfers.
The Fair Price for a Dozen Balls
Ball manufacturers are excessively secretive about what it actually costs to make a golf ball. Some of this is due to the variability in pricing structures, some of it stems from the competitive nature of the industry, and the reality is that some of it boils down to them not wanting you to know how little of your $50/dozen goes towards the actual cost of the ball.
While we may never know the specific numbers, there are reasonable inferences to be drawn.
If the Vice Pro/Pro Plus costs $34.95/dozen and performs just as well (using any reasonable metric of performance you choose) as balls which cost $40-$50/dozen, it’s reasonable to conclude that beyond $30-$35/dozen, you’re not gaining much in the way of an additional performance benefit for your added dollars spent. Unfortunately for the consumer, the OEMs are more than happy to have us pick up the tab for the added expense that comes with greater exposure. Caveat Emptor.
AND THEN COMES EVERYTHING ELSE
Part of the execution for e-commerce businesses is exemplified by the interface between potential customers and the brand. For comparisons, look to the websites for companies like Warby Parker or Harry’s (razors). The designs are clean, appealing, and most importantly, inviting.
Helge Meyer, Head of Marketing for Vice says, “It (user interface) has to be attractive from the very beginning…with our design, we want to appeal to every golfer, from the most traditional one to the new, hip golfer who just started to play.”
Spend a couple of minutes browsing the website, and it’s clear the template isn’t simply an information platform, but something Vice expects people to engage with and explore. Helge continues, “The highest priority for us in everything we do is premium quality and cutting-edge design. The ball, the packaging, our website, everything.”
The entire package is designed to define the Vice culture.
It’s as though Vice can’t divorce itself from the details other companies generally miss… or haven’t even considered. It’s vitally important for any company to differentiate its branding and marketing. Not only that, the message needs to resonate with consumers. Vice is a bit edgy, but in a way which transcends gender and plays to the fun, we all enjoy having with the game.
Exhibit A: The Vice Pure glove is made from 100% lamb leather, and the cuff is accented in light gray. The fit is ideal, and it’s almost bizarre how comfortable it is. It’s just different enough to garner attention without requiring a large neon “LOOK AT ME” sign on the front.
Any company can pump out a serviceable glove made from synthetic leather in bleach white – and many do – but that’s run of the mill and ordinary. Vice is anything but.
Exhibit B: The Vice Force carry bag. Rather than traditional solid colors, Vice uses a gray mélange paired with neon lime or a black mélange coupled with cool gray. The feet are over-sized to provide better stability (which is entirely lacking in most stand bags), and an ultralight carbon frame keeps the weight down and stability up. The entire bag is waterproof and strategically located hook, and eye loops make it simple to access your gloves while carrying the bag. Speaking of which, the strap system is ergonomically designed to alleviate all risk of back strain, and extra padding on both the straps and bag maximize comfort.
While the soft goods don’t offer the same cost savings as the ball, the quality and utility speak for themselves. During the 2017 Most Wanted testing, consumers spoke, and the message was clear – both the Pure Glove and Force Carry Bag are among the top five in the industry in their respective categories. You can’t fake that.
It’s one thing to claim to be detail oriented, but it’s something entirely different to obsess over it. It’s why Vice adds a carabiner to each towel and uses carbon fiber in its umbrellas. It’s why, when sourcing suppliers, Vice visits them in person and holds out for the best products, not the cheapest. Vice sweats the details and, in the case of the golf balls, delivers them at prices below more-familiar brands.
As consumers become more focused on actual performance and less manipulated by hype, hyperbole, and the comfort of the familiar, companies like Vice will have a welcome role in reshaping the industry moving forward.
What started in 2012 has spread throughout the rest of Europe, into Australia, and now, the United States. Not bad for two guys who met surfing a river in Germany.
Rainer and Ingo have a grasp on Vice’s personality and the quality product to match. Given this, there’s no reason Vice won’t continue to make noise – the kind of noise you hear when consumers shove a bunch of money back in their wallets.