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The Rise, Fall and Return of Popwar! Brand Breakdowns

Before we look too deep into Popwar, we have to take a quick look at New Deal. They came out around 1990, and lasted until around 2002. They were really big for a while, but had apparently lost some steam around the turn of the century. They actually released their last video, 7 Year Glitch, in 2002, but it didn’t have the kind of effect they were hoping for, and they ended up closing their doors shortly afterward in Summer or Fall of ‘02. The same Transworld article says ‘summer’ and ‘october,’ weirdly. But they didn’t exactly go out of business – it was more like a re-branding/re-structuring than anything.

Dave Smith was the team manager then, and he says that the problem with New Deal wasn’t the team, exactly.

“It was more because kids didn’t like the name. The name New Deal was holding some of the riders back, though it was a company with a history. Kids know New Deal but just wouldn’t buy it. I don’t know why-I never understood it.”

So it just kind of lost its edge and started to get overlooked. Other brands were more exciting and interesting. New Deal stuff was a little more cartoony, and it just wasn’t working out. Giant Distribution decided to shut down the brand, and start a new brand with some of the team – Chad Bartie, Ricky Oyola, Lincoln Ueda, Fabrizio Santos, and Ryan Johnson. They didn’t all make that switch though.

Cairo Foster was also involved, but he had a little different path to get there. He had been riding for Real for 4 years, and he really wanted to do his own company, but through Deluxe. And he probably should have, considering how it eventually went down with Giant. But Deluxe had just launched a couple of brands, and they weren’t looking to do another one.

Cairo quote: I was friends with Kenny Reed and he mentioned Steve Douglas and Bod Boyle at Giant as a potential option. I spoke with them and originally started it as Populis before it morphed into Popwar. It wasn’t solely my company, though. Not that I invested money in it necessarily but I was definitely a shareholder.

So this new team started as Populis. Supposedly, Kenny Reed is skating a Populis deck in at least part of his Static II part. But that’s just a rumor and it’s pretty much impossible to tell with how video quality was back in the day. As far as I know, Populis never released anything. After only a couple of months, they decided they needed a more defined focus. Which is a good call, considering how Seek turned out, which failed, in part, due to bad focus and art direction. See my video about that here.

So they tapped Yogi Proctor, who worked at Tum Yeto, Sole Technology and TransWorld SNOWboarding as a graphic designer. He was down to work up some concepts with them, and they developed Popwar. What was Popwar all about?

Proctor said, “It’s kind of like a tongue-in-cheek war on popular culture. It’s like a contradiction in terms. This thing called street or urban culture is a huge commodity, and as (with) skating, it lingers around the forefront somewhere. Popwar is new, and it’s still forming. It’s a vehicle for these messages-but the messages themselves are still forming. It’s a fun project.Vague statements represent broader stuff. That’s kind of what we’re doing.”

I don’t know about you, but that didn’t make any sense whatsoever. I don’t know what he’s talking about. But back in the day in the forums, people thought that Popwar was just named Raw Pop backward, and I think that makes a lot more sense. Shorty’s would brag about their pop and they were successful. Skaters would debate which decks had the most pop. I think it’s pretty obvious that they started with ‘pop’, and then built everything around that. Whether it was supposed to be ‘raw’ or ‘war’ originally, they ended up with Popwar, and then built that concept around it.

Anyway, decks started to come out in 2002, pretty much immediately after New Deal stopped. There were decks for Cairo Foster and Kenny Reed of course, but also Rob Gonzalez and Chad Tim Tim. That’s the core team throughout the life of the company. The graphics were very good. They used a lot of bright, saturated colors, flat illustrated graphics and iconography, and you always knew you were looking at a Popwar deck. The graphics might give a hint to what the war on popular culture was all about. They have graphics with old cars, businessmen in suits with dollar signs – it almost seems like some kind of anti consumerism type of stuff, but that faded away with time. The graphic style remained, but the content was pretty much all over the board as the next couple of years came and went.

In 2003, they came out with the Drops Technical series. This ad was released, saying they were lighter, stronger, and had more pop. But they don’t really say how. I looked up some reviews from the time, and apparently they used a fiberglass insert. Kind of like an early version of the deck inserts from today, but only on the back truck. I found some mixed reviews of these, but most of them were really positive. Seems like people were into them.

They also had slick drops, which were exactly what you’d think they were.

Later they did a Health and Medical Products graphic series, that looked like this. These were a pretty cool idea, and looked iconic. I had a Popwar deck at one point, and I can’t remember for sure, but it might have been one of these.

They were also making wheels too, and I saw some pretty positive reviews about these from back then as well.

So they had strong graphics, a strong team, good boards with interesting technology… What’s missing? A video! And they were working on one. There’s actually a short teaser video that is available online now of the team. They were filming on tours and everything. It’s weird that it never came out, because they were around for another couple of years. But we’ll talk about all of that in a minute.

Although Popwar was doing really well at the time, Giant Distribution wasn’t. In 2005, they were going through some big changes, apparently being sold. They hired a new VP of marketing – Anthony Fraude, who came in from Volcom.

Pretty much right away, they canceled their program for selling clothing for their brands.

From a news article: “Giant Skateboard Distribution announced today a refocus on traditional skateboard products for the brands it distributes.Giant Skateboard Distribution launched cut and sew clothing lines from each of the current brands in 2004. With a turn in the skate market the clothing brands did not end up being as successful as hoped. With this said Giant has cancelled the cut and sew program going forward along with the outside road rep sales force.”

So they reshuffled, went through some changes. Popwar was still safe, for now. But Stereo, their sister company at Giant, did not.

Stereo made boards, but they considered themselves more of a lifestyle brand. Selling sweaters and hats and stuff were a really big deal for their brand and business model. This caused a lot of issues between them and a little over a year later, Stereo decided to leave Giant. Stereo and Giant both released press releases on it, and it’s funny to see what they say.

From Giant’s press release: “Currently, Giant and Stereo have different objectives. Stereo has redefined their business model and is branching out as more of a lifestyle brand. Stereo will always make boards and will always be rooted in skateboarding. However, its time for them to explore more areas as the design and lifestyle brand that Stereo has always been. We wish Stereo the best of luck on their future adventures.”

It sounds pretty respectful and fair. Probably because they’re an established brand that has a PR person writing their releases. Stereo’s on the other hand, is riddled in typos, but I wanted to read this part:

“Our brand represents individuality, and not following “industry” standards. We use this same approach with business and we feel it’s time for Stereo to expand into the lifestyle skateboard brand it was meant to be. This will also allow our team to put their focus back on what got them into skating in the first place, having fun. … If you love both skateboarding and art / design then let’s face it, you’re probably not 10 years old. We have looked at the skate market and felt it was time to evolve. Instead of Stereo trying to cash in by marketing only to the 10-15 year old demographic (which seems to be the direction of many of our corporate counterparts), by dumbing down our product and our marketing, we are reworking the brand for the educated Stereo consumer. In short we are choosing creativity over cash.”

I thought that was pretty funny. Giant wishes them the best, and they just passive aggressively call them out.

So that gives you an idea about the kind of stuff that was going on at Giant. And it gives us a hint about what happened to the Popwar video. They were filming it in 2004. Here it is, 2006, and it’s still not out. With the refocusing of Giant, it seems like it just didn’t fit their new business model. Popwar was still going on tours, at least as far as February 2006.

But the writing had been on the wall for a while.

cairo:
“I think that in regards to Popwar, we did everything right. We just didn’t have the right infrastructure once ownership switched over. I don’t know the fine details but when the distribution was sold, I don’t think whoever bought it was told all the facts. It was a complete uphill battle from then on. Everything got basically sabotaged… which sucks because it not only affected us but also companies like Bueno, Accel and even Stereo at the time. It was just an unfortunate series of events that caused it all to fall apart.

If I were to do it again, I’d make sure that I was part of really strong distribution so that same thing wouldn’t happen again. Distribution is a huge thing. You have to get that sorted.”

And that was it. The distribution just couldn’t handle what they were trying to do. Their visions clashed, and it just didn’t work anymore. It’s pretty crazy that it was bungled so bad. Rumor had it, they wanted Popwar and Stereo to be just as popular as Element, and they were upset that they weren’t. I don’t really know what was said behind closed doors though.

Could Popwar ever come back?

“Unfortunately, I think Popwar was tied directly to Giant Distribution, so it wasn’t like any of us could take Popwar out of there and shop it around. It’d be awesome to bring that brand back, but in hindsight I’m thankful that I had such a rad opportunity to do something with a group of friends.”

So, they couldn’t bring it back… or could they?

Around 2011, Popwar was brought back from the dead, as a reanimated corpse. Popwar decks started to appear on Amazon, like this one. Supposedly this was posted new around this time, a good 4 or 5 years after Popwar went under.

A new Popwar facebook account went up. It’s down now, but I found this screenshot of something they posted. What’s going on? Did Popwar really come back?

No. Apparently, a guy who owned a skate shop in Utah bought the rights to Popwar and tried to bring it back. But he didn’t have the team, or the Drops decks or anything like that. Supposedly the ‘team’ was just locals from around his shop in Utah. They were basically shop decks, but being sold online with the original name and graphics from Popwar.

The shop he owned was called Happy Rabbit, and the logo is very similar to Popwar… he must have been a big fan. But, before you know it, they were closed again. What happened?

This is interesting – it basically never took off anywhere, and died before anyone took notice. Most of the information out there is just on skate forums, so it’s tough to say for sure. But someone noticed that the Popwar website wasn’t back up when the brand relaunched.

You’d think, if he bought the rights to Popwar, that he would get ownership of the URL. It’s possible that Giant let it die, and some random person bought it and held it ransom, but here’s my theory.

There’s a guy I know who runs a big coin minting company. He told a story about how, when renewing his own LLC, he checked to see if a famous old mining company’s name was available. And it was. Although their old coins were very collectible, the company itself had died out long long ago. Nobody had kept it registered, and so he registered it, and he now legally owns that name, and he makes coins under their name. He didn’t have to buy any rights, and there’s nobody to sue him if he ‘rips off’ their old designs since they’re all out of copyright.

I think that might be what happened here. The name expired, and the guy just took it over. The graphics were all flat, making them easy to recreate without having original files for it. It’s completely possible that he just did it, and got in trouble for using someone else’s art. But I don’t really know, I just think it’s an interesting possibility.

So as of right now, it doesn’t look like Popwar could ever come back for real. It’s been too long – the original graphic designer and skate team aren’t all going to be able to come back, and it just wouldn’t be the same without the original crew. So hopefully it stays dead.

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