Learning from Jack O’Neill, an empathetic founder

Written by Stef de Jong, Founder Likefriends. Photo credit, Valeur Magazine.

“I’m just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer”. Such is the nature of the empathetic founder, and such was the nature of Jack O’Neill.

On June 2nd 2017, surfing pioneer and founder of the O’Neill brand, Jack O’Neill, passed away. He leaves behind him a legacy of innovation and commitment towards a culture he himself was a product of. Widely credited with the invention of the wetsuit, he pushed forward a global tribe of surfers, allowing his peers to comfortably conquer even the coldest of waves. His place in surfing culture -and history- should serve as a simple lesson of empathy for all businesses looking for long term growth.

Jack O’Neill understood surfers. Being one himself allowed him to understand their needs, and develop and popularize a sustainable solution that not only would benefit his entire community, but manifest the O’Neill brand at the center of it. Such cultural impact is reserved for only a few brands, and regarded as a utopian prospect to most. However, every business, founder-led or not, holds the potential to create, maintain and grow their impact on culture; either through its core product or service, or through strategic initiatives that provide proof of a brand’s cultural understanding and commitment. Even if you’re a soft drink company.

Mountain Dew, the fluorescent green citrus flavored soft drink, have managed to evolve and grow its cultural footprint through a range of subcultural branding efforts. Since 2004, the brand has been sponsoring its namesake festival, the Dew Tour. This has grown into an ever-present contest series and content platform, bringing together performers and fans of skateboarding, snowboarding, skiing, and the world of arts. While their core product arguably provide little added functional benefit compared to the rest of its category, Mountain Dew have managed to differentiate through its association among core consumers as a facilitator of valuable experiences.

Despite not having originated from the culture it currently inhabits (originally founded by two “hillbillies” looking for a whiskey mixer), Mountain Dew has managed to establish and maintain significant cultural relevance. Their success is proving how established brands can imitate the role of the empathetic founder to identify the role they can play in people’s lives.

Jack O’Neill’s invention fulfilled a human need through its inherent qualities. Once his solution was proven to be better than anything else available in the market at the time, costumers followed. More than 60 years after launching the world’s first wetsuit, O’Neill still holds more than half of the global market share within the category. Effective advertising and smart business decisions have undoubtedly had its share of this success, but the core of what keeps the brand relevant has remained throughout: Paying attention to people, understanding their needs, and pushing to fulfill these.