The Accidental Hero – An interview with Ken Block

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This week we’ve been celebrating the Top 20 Global Social Video Ads of 2011 with Unruly Media, and while Volkswagen’s The Force has been the phenomenon of the year, there is another which vies for the crown and which has not benefited from the full-on promotional boost of the NFL Super Bowl.

This interview was originally published on Dec 9th, 2011.

DC Shoes’ Gymkhana 4 – The Hollywood Megamercial, reached 2nd place in this year’s chart, but unlike Volkswagen’s Super Bowl ad released in February, Gymkhana 4 has only been out for just 3 months. We were interested in speaking with the Hoonigan himself, finding out what motivates him to be so successful and what he’s got in store for us in 2012.

Over the course of an enjoyable hour with Ken Block, I got to know the businessman, motorsport fan and driver, during which time I learned how little of the enormous success of Gymkhana had gone to his head. We also explored whether his two seasons in WRC had made him a better driver, his attitude to driving stunts on the public road and his reflections on competing against Kimi Raikkonen in rallying.

We covered a lot of ground, so bear with me as I try to relay the conversation, which was squeezed into his busy schedule whilst testing his H.F.H.V. Ford Fiesta at the Dirtfish Rally School, east of Seattle.

Let’s start with the commercial side of his life, namely his behind-the-scenes role as Chief Brand Officer of DC Shoes.

DC Shoes and the Gymkhana videos

If you don’t already know, 44-year old Block co-founded DC Shoes together with Damon Way back in 1993, before selling to surf clothing giant Quiksilver Inc. for $87 million in 2003. Back in 2003/2004 DC Shoes was generating nearly $100 million in revenue which has since grown to around $500 million (in 2010), so if you’d pictured Block as a fun loving daredevil without any work ethic, think again.

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DC Shoes was one of the first skateboard shoe companies to make extensive use of professional endorsements, and in Block’s role as Chief Brand Officer he joined Travis Pastrana in 2006 to compete for Subaru Rally Team USA. After competing successfully in the 2006 Rally America National Championship (finishing 2nd overall), Block embraced the world of X Games – finishing 3rd in the very first event.

The original Gymkhana video appeared in September 2008, but like all the best viral marketing success stories, Block really didn’t plan to create his own Internet meme. Earlier in the year with plans to enter himself in a local Gymkhana event in Southern California, Block invited California-based Crawford Performance to build him a 530hp Subaru Impreza STi, but when the competition was cancelled Block decided to put his car to use and filmed the 4:25 minute video ‘Ken Block Gymkhana Practice’. He’d basically built a car, but had nothing else to do with it.

KB:  “I didn’t think it was going to be as successful as it has been, but it’s been a nice bonus.” admits Block. “When the first video came out DC wasn’t so involved with YouTube, so it went up on my personal website and in 3 months it had 11 million views. I eventually took it down because it cost so much money to host, so then we put it up on YouTube”.

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Since then the original Gymkhana video has clocked up 11.2 million views on YouTube, so that’s over 22 million views at his first attempt.

Ken Block takes to the streets of Los Angeles to test out Ford’s new SYNC system in his H.F.H.V. Ford Fiesta race car.

I then asked Ken what effect has Gymkhana, as a series from 1 to 4, had on the DC Shoes brand and on the personality of the brand in the way that they are able to convey what it is about DC Shoes that people should engage with?

KB: The success of Gymkhana has been quite unexpected, because from the beginning DC Shoes has always been a skateboard brand and skateboarding is more of a lifestyle experience, whereas motorsport is kind of the flipside of that and is all about racing in competitions. So basically I took all my experience from skateboarding and snowboarding and just applied that to doing something different and unique with motorsport. So as far as DC is concerned, we’ve been very happy with the global exposure and it’s definitely helped increase sales and increased the awareness of DC Shoes to people outside of our core markets.”

When the first video came out DC wasn’t so involved with YouTube, so it went up on my personal website and in 3 months it had 11 million views. I eventually took it down because it cost so much money to host, so then we put it up on YouTube.

“Whilst DC has always spent its marketing dollars selling product to the core skateboarders, snowboarders and surfers, we needed a way to reach people who shop in the larger mall chains such as Pacific Sunwear here in the States, so that’s where this Gymkhana series has really been successful for us – getting the name and product in front of the kids that go shop at those more mainstream outlets.”

“For us it’s been a huge success in that way, doing exactly what viral marketing is supposed to do – you put something out there that’s great eye-candy that people enjoy watching and that in turn ends up being a way to promote and sell those products.”

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SD:  But obviously it’s more than just eye-candy, isn’t it Ken? Because people wouldn’t carry on being engaged with the Gymkhana series if they didn’t identify with the videos, either because they aspire to be like you, or they recognise something in you that they see in themselves.

KB: “Yeah, absolutely, that’s the great thing about cars, almost everybody can relate to a car, unlike a skateboard – if a guy does a kick-flip down 25 stairs, does the consumer really know that it’s harder than 10 stairs? Whereas most people have been in cars and can relate to it and figure that what I do is not so easy. But the reason I say eye-candy is I could go do that stuff and if it’s badly produced, badly put together or doesn’t give you the full experience then people wouldn’t enjoy it and would be less likely to share it with their friends.”

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SD:  I am sure you are aware that Gymkhana 2 wasn’t initially as successful as your first video when it came out, mainly because the marketing message was more prominent. Are you conscious of that feedback and have you then adjusted your approach to better meet the expectations of the audience?

KB: “Ah (he laughs), that’s a good question. That’s why we called it an ‘Infomercial’ – we were just poking fun at branded videos. Like I said earlier, it’s all marketing and if you just did the same thing over and over, people would get very bored and not come back to watch again, so I just think that certain ideas are more popular than others and I actually think Gymkhana 2 is an exceptionally well produced and fun video and has some very dangerous driving in it.”

“In Gymkhana 3 we took what we knew from the first two videos and just made it the best we could make it, and as we go along with the series we take our lessons from what we’ve tried and just keep improving. But sometimes you can make mistakes.”

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SD:  This week we’ve been celebrating the Viral Video Chart’s Top 20 branded videos of all time in which Gymkhana 4 is the 5th most viral with 2.1 million shares, whilst Gymkhana 3 is 2nd with 2.7 million shared (incidentally top is Volkswagen’s ‘The Force’ with 4.7 million shares).

Visit Unruly Media’s Viral Video Chart for more information and to read the article, “Darth Vader can’t Gymkhana”.

Whilst Volkswagen’s ad has been viewed 46 million times and shared socially an incredible 4.71 million times, Gymkhana 4 has so far received 12.9 million views in the 3 months since it was launched. That’s a share/view rate of 16.3% compared to 10.2% for the pocket-sized Vader meme, and compares against 6.3% for Gymkhana 3. All in all, Gymkhana is on target to have clocked up 150 million views since its inception in 2008. That makes it the most successful series of branded videos of all time.

Naturally I asked Block, why he believed the series has been so successful, and what he can do to top this again with Gymkhana 5?

KB: “Yeah, it’s really kind of funny, I started off doing this (Gymkhana) because I absolutely love doing it and I’m just very lucky that so many people enjoy what I do with the car and not only that, the creativity side of how these come together, so I’m really a lucky bastard and really appreciate where I sit in this world and I know eventually people will get bored of it – there’s only so many things I can do with the car. But in the meantime I’m going to enjoy it, appreciate it and keep doing it as long as I can, but also knowing that at some point this is most likely going to come to an end.

A lot of people don’t understand the perspective of that. I look at it because I’m a marketing person and have won awards for the marketing things I’ve done, so I realise how crazy these numbers are. If you look at the major categories that I’m in – footwear, action sports and automotive – then you’re talking about big companies we’re competing against like Nike, Ferrari and companies like Burton Snowboards all the way to energy drink companies such as Red Bull, and we’ve destroyed everybody in these categories as far as viral marketing. That’s something for me that I’m incredibly proud of.

The first time was a bit of a fluke, it was not really intended to be that successful – it was just for fun – but since then it’s been a very calculated and deliberate marketing exercise.”

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Some words of advice for other marketeers

SD:  Without giving away any trade secrets, what would be your advice to other marketers seeking to connect with their audiences and emulate your success with their own campaigns?

KB: “That’s a difficult question, all I can do is relate to what I’ve done over the years.

I’m very lucky to be in the position of having had this company (DC Shoes) for a long time, I was a skateboarder when I was a kid, then a snowboarder when I was older and I raced motorcycles when I was in my teens, so I lived those lifestyles and to be running a company providing products to these groups all came from my passion as a kid and my love of what I did.

I’m not a marketing educated person, so I came from the perspective of expressing what came from the heart. It sounds kind of cheesy, but it was easy to market to myself.”

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ken block interview I6 The Accidental Hero   An interview with Ken BlockYou watch the videos. Then you buy the shoes. Capiche?

SD:  I think what a lot of brands haven’t got their heads around yet is that social media marketing is all about truth, and integrity and engaging with an audience on real values – not because it’s a more honourable medium, but there’s no hiding place, so the brands that succeed are the ones who allow their customers to come inside and engage with them on an equal level.

And it plays to those brands who are able to speak from a personal, rather than corporate, level and that’s very much what Gymkhana enables DC Shoes to do.

KB: “That’s right, with the amount of content online, it’s so much easier for people to see what is fake and not aligned with what else is going on in their marketplace – so it’s actually getting more difficult to have stand-out marketing that’s also authentic. That’s where the authenticity and touchpoints of really being involved with the market really are becoming really important.”

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SD:  And there’s also you as a personality. A lot of brands don’t have a person that people can connect to, nor do they express much in the way of a personality for the brand as a whole. Consumers need to connect with a brand at this personal level in order for social marketing to work.

KB: “Yeah absolutely, I totally agree.”

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Combining his love of design and creativity with driving

SD:  You started out designing silk-screen T-shirts, do you still enjoy creative design and how much of your input goes into the Gymkhana videos?

KB: “I have a very varied background, from product development to marketing to photography to ad layouts, the fun thing about these videos is that it combines my love of driving and racing a car with all these experiences and skills I have for doing business. So, I go from developing and designing the livery, taking that livery and applying it to apparel and footwear, to helping design the apparel and footwear then there’s the whole marketing and concept side of the videos to physically going driving and making the videos. So it’s pretty wild – I guess I really am a lucky bastard – I get to combine all these things that I truly love to do all in one 7-minute video.”

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if a guy does a kick-flip down 25 stairs, does the consumer really know that it’s harder than 10 stairs? Whereas most people have been in cars and can relate to it and figure that what I do is not so easy.

Before he allows me to move on, Ken then asks me a question about the appetite of audiences for feature-length videos.

KB: “I said something there at the end, I mentioned the 7-minute video, have you guys been surprised at all about the popularity given how long these videos are?

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SD:  Not really. Several years ago we were one of the first content provoiders to produce videos longer than 10-minutes and found that if the content was rich and engaging enough, then people would sit through 10 or even 20 minutes of automotive content with very little drop off – in fact 80% or more would watch these videos from beginning to end.

On our branded content platform, SkiddPlayer, we regularly see the longer-form version of adverts (2 mins or more) outperforming the 15 or 30 second spots and as more people view these videos from portable devices such as iPads, the time people are prepared to spend will most likely increase. Online viewers are now so used to watching Top Gear and other TV programs online (on Hulu or BBC iPlayer), that they’re often looking for something with a story which provides good entertainment. You simply cannot achieve that within 30 seconds or even 1 minute.

Whilst the average time spent online is still half of that spent watching TV, it is growing and will soon be 3 hours per day for adults. So it’s getting easier to find room for 7-minutes of self-indulgent automotive hoonery.

The Gymkhana World Tour

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SD:  This year’s 3-stop Gymkhana World Tour was hugely successful – tell us more about your plans to make the tour “bigger and better” in 2012.

KB: “The idea behind the world tour is that we get appearance requests from around the world and I enjoy doing these, because it’s one thing to watch the video but to experience the engine noise, and seeing me sliding around really close to obstacles is something very cool.

It’s also nice being able to go out and do it in front of people. Monster and Ford have a huge presence in Australia and Europe, so we started with that and obviously it was great to do something here in the States too, but next year it looks like it might jump up to 5 stops included places like China and the Middle-East, so I’m really looking forward to it.

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Partnering with other brands

SD:  Since choosing to drive with Ford (Focus & Fiesta) your promotional connection with the car you drive has become more prominent (i.e. 43 Fiestas campaign) – how do you balance the interests of each brand? (Monster Energy, Ford, DC Shoes, Mobil 1 etc)

KB: “I am very particular about the brands that I work with, we have a great set of sponsors now, so a lot of it is just a coordinated effort between myself, my agent and those brands. It’s not an easy thing, but each brand has their unique competence and we all share the same desire to produce the best quality product. Like I said, I’m a lucky bastard getting to work with all these great brands.”

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SD:  I then mention the DiRT3 launch at Battersea, London earlier this year which I joined.

KB: “DiRT3 launch is like a perfect example – I’ve got a good relationship with the Codemasters guys, they listen and take feedback very well, they want my ideas and to be able to put together an event like we did at Battersea is amazing. Not only did they do a great job at incorporating Gymkhana into the game, but I really enjoy working with sponsors who integrate the marketing and the message and the performance side of the driving all into one thing.”

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The meaning of #43

SD:  Ken, there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you, what’s the significance of your trademark No.43 race number?

KB: “It doesn’t really mean anything, it actually was my favourite number as a kid, so I was using it on my dirt bike and then when I started racing cars.

On top of that, coincidentally, I would love to claim this is the thought behind it, although it really isn’t – but the letters ‘D’ and ‘C’ are the 4th and 3rd letters of the alphabet. That’s just a wonderful coincidence, but I can’t really claim any such intelligence behind choosing it.”

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Yo Australia! Please hoon responsibly.

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SD:  When at the Melbourne leg of the Gymkhana World Tour you spent time appealing to your fans to hoon ‘responsibly’ – are you concerned about fans trying to copy your stunts on the road?

KB: “Well, there’s a couple of things there in your question. Number one is the fact that the word ‘Hoon’ has a different connotation in Australia, that anywhere else in the world. That’s where the word comes from and people are hearing it constantly, and the police use it – there’s even ‘Hoon Laws’. Whereas here in America and in Europe it has taken on as a term of endearment, so when I went to Australia I had to be very careful to make sure the correct meaning was understood.

And also from my perspective, I also want to promote safety. Driving aggressively and the things that I do, are all done in the safest place possible – I don’t encourage anybody doing something outside of the controlled situation. You won’t find a video anywhere, or photos of me actually doing something on the street that might put anyone else in danger or myself.”

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SD:  Are you involved in any road safety programs yourself?

KB: “No I’m not, it’s not that I wouldn’t want to be – in fact I would like to be, but we just haven’t been approached or haven’t seen anything that necessarily appeals to me.

In fact the first thing I say to people who ask me how to get into racing is, go to rally school, learn how to operate the vehicle before you go out an operate it on a stage road.”

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The World Rally Championship (WRC)

SD:  How have you found your first 2 seasons in WRC?

KB: “I’ve had two ‘short’ seasons, I haven’t actually raced an entire season – I did 6 or 7 events in the first year and 9 this year, so technically I’ve only just done slightly more than 1 full season.”

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SD:  How did you feel being the sole American in a mainly European-dominated championship?

KB: “I knew that what I was doing was quite a daunting task, it’s like jumping from high-school sports right into professional sports without a huge amount of experience.

So, I was very upfront with my sponsors, my fans and anyone else who would listen and I knew that I was going to struggle, but the only way to get to that level is to go out there and do it. By racing and winning events in a national championship isn’t going to get me to that level, so it was a really big step for me to go do that, but I knew that I had to do it to find out if I was good enough.

I’ve come a long way, this year I had a couple of top-5 stage finishes and my best ever was a top-4 stage finish in Rally France and that’s something I’m really proud of. I often like to say, that as Americans we aren’t known for rallying and there’s only been 3 other American’s before me that have won WRC points – so actually more Americans have been on the Moon than have won WRC points!”

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SD:  Has it helped you become a better driver?

KB: “Oh yeah, definitely – I’m a much, much better driver than I was before entering the WRC 2 years ago.

A lot of people just don’t have a sense for how hard rally is – it’s incredibly hard. There’s an incredibly high level on closed track racing and the feel of a guy like Sebastian Vettel has for the car, tyres and the speed of the track is just insane, but when you go into rallying and understand how the notes work and how they make you faster, that’s a whole game unto itself.

Outside of how well a guy can drive a car, or set-up the car. I’ve had to learn a lot of new things and adapt what I’ve learned over the years, but it’s been an amazing challenge and I’ve proved that I can actually do it, but I’d really like to be closer to the top guys but that all comes with experience.”

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SD:  What do you think is the main difference between you and the more experienced competitors such as Hirvonen, Loeb and Solberg?

KB: “Yeah, the notes are a really big deal – coming from America we don’t have 2-pass recce where you write your own notes, starting from scratch against guys who’ve doing it for many years has been a huge learning experience.

On top of that coming in as a ‘customer driver’, you know renting a car from M-Sport, you just don’t have the time and the resources of the factory guys who are constantly testing and developing the car. But I don’t like to make excuses, I like to do the best job that I can.

But at the end of the day I’m racing against guys like Sebastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and Petter Solberg – hell, Matthew Wilson has been racing a WRC car longer than I’ve actually been racing a rally car. So it’s tough, but I’m very lucky to be able to go out and race in an amazing championship and along the way I’m going to try and enjoy it as much as I possibly can.”

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SD:  Rallying is much closer to the Gymkhana style of driving, but do you have an interest in circuit racing as well?

KB: “I’ve done some testing on circuits and I enjoy it, but I love the stage rallying where you are out on these amazing roads out in the countryside – where every corner is different. That’s what I get a little bored with in circuit racing.

Eventually I’d like to return to Gymkhana competition and race against Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust and even some of the rally guys like Petter Solberg. That would eventually be the outlet when the Gymkhana videos are over. We’re just looking for people who are good competition organisers to help put this together.”

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SD:  Ok, we’re on the home straight – last few thoughts now. Colin McRae would have loved Gymkhana wouldn’t he?

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KB: “Absolutely, Colin loved the side of motorsports where you got to go out and have fun in your vehicle, and even right before he passed away he called me when I was down in New Zealand filming with my car and some snowboarders (as part of Gymkhana 1) and when I told him about it, he was so stoked to hear about it.

Unfortunately he never got to see it because he passed away before it came out. But it was that sort of thing that he and I shared a real bond for. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to share Gymkhana with him and all the great things that happened afterwards.”

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SD:  You’ve raced against Kimi Raikkonen in WRC and he’s now heading back to F1 in 2012. How do you rate him?

KB: “I really like him. I was already a fan before he came to rally and I got to know him, he’s just an exceptionally talented driver, just well beyond what I could aspire to. He has more talent in his little pinky (finger) than I do in my whole body, I enjoy interacting and watching people like Kimi because it’s quite amazing to witness that much skill.

I mean just the fact of how well he did in WRC, without years of racing in national championships, just shows the depth of his talent. And I think a lot of people take that for granted, you know saying he didn’t do that well in the WRC, but actually he did. Yes, he had more crashes than he probably should have but that’s just because he didn’t spend 10 years of his life driving on gravel like these other guys, so really I’m blown away by how well he actually did when he was out there.”

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SD:  Would you expect Kimi to be a better driver than when he was last in F1?

KB: “Well I can’t see how it would hurt, you know driving on loose surfaces like we do gives you a whole other sense of how to feel what the car is doing, so I am sure it will have benefitted his overall skills but how that will translate into Forumula 1, I have no idea.”

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SD:  Would you like to drive Formula 1 yourself?

KB: “I would like to. As anybody that has competed in a car and been a car fan, F1 is the epitome of cars and car technology and to get into one of those cars and take a quick spin for a lap would just be amazing.

Pirelli with their involvement in F1 tried to get me in a car to do a fun experience, but their agreement was with Toyota (whose old chassis Pirelli use to develop tyres for F1), but I physically do not fit in the Toyota car because I’m too tall.”

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SD:  Finally, last weekend was the annual Race of Champions event in Dusseldorf. We would love to see you take part, have you been asked?

KB: “No, I’ve never been asked. It looks like a very interesting event, it also looks very difficult jumping from car to car on cold tyres.

Talking to Travis (Pastrana) over the years, because he’s done it a bunch of times, I hear nightmares of certain cars working better than other cars, because someone bends a control arm or something – it seems like a bit of a nightmare for a driver, but hey if you’re able to pull it off and do well like Ogier did this year, then there’s a great pay-off. I’d love to experience it someday.

I’ve met Michael (Schumacher) and obviously raced against Sebastien (Loeb) but it’s always very interesting to meet those guys and interact with them. You know, I come from the standpoint of a fan so it’s very cool for me to meet those guys, because genuinely inside I’m still just a fan.”

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SD:  Ken, thanks very much for your time. We are very impressed with what you have achieved in your business and in your sport, so keep doing what you do so well and we’ll keep watching.

Images: Kindly provided by DC Shoes and Ken Block Racing.

Disclosure: This article is sponsored in part by DC Shoes, however all views expressed within are entirely our own. Sponsored articles are accepted at our own discretion and only where we believe such focus or analysis will benefit our readers. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this article further, then please get in touch via email or using the contact tab on this page.

dc shoes gymkhana infographic The Accidental Hero   An interview with Ken Block