Learning from Jack O’Neill, an empathetic founder

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On 2 June 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.

“I'm just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer,” said O’Neill, summing up the the nature of the empathetic founder.

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.

Participate in culture to be accepted by it

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, has 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 its core product arguably provides little added functional benefit compared to the rest of its category, Mountain Dew has 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. Its 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 contributed to 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.

Stef de Jong is the founder and owner of LikeFriends, an independent creative agency based in Amsterdam