Meet The Industry : Fox Racing’s Warren Johnson

Since launching in 1974, Fox Racing has become one of the largest brands in motocross, if not all of action sports. From its humble gear beginnings, they are now known worldwide as “the” brand that defines motocross and are touching every aspect of the clothing world. Despite growth in every market, motocross has remained the focus and backbone of the brand. While at the Irvine, California, offices we talked with Warren Johnson about what has helped the company grow.

Fox Racing’s Warren Johnson

Warren, what is your job title at Fox, how long have you been with the company, and what is your background?

I am the Marketing Communications Director and I have been with Fox for 11 years. After graduating from college I started working for Toyota (Corporation) and was always a motorcycle enthusiast. I raced until I went to college, and when I graduated, I wanted to work for a motorcycle manufacturer. I went through Toyota's management training program and learned the aspect of automotive distribution in the United States, but I always had that inkling of wanting to be in the  motorcycle industry. So while at Toyota I started making great connections, got back into riding, and went to work for Kawasaki in their accessories division. I moved up to be their accessories manager and was at Kawi for 4 years. I left, did a short stint with Yamaha in Product Planning, and have been at Fox ever since. I come from a large corporate background and it has been really exciting to see Fox grow from a small, family owned business to the larger, more corporate structure we experience today.

How do you put together a marketing campaign?

It's a collective effort for sure. Our different divisions are run by different managers and I strictly focus on motocross. We are a product driven company and our DNA is motocross. There's a performance focus in all of our products. Depending on what the product line is, the marketing campaign reflects the design goals & objectives for the brand and that specific product.

How involved are you in Fox's placement in stores like PacSun, Tilly's, and Zumiez?

Again, my focus is motocross. The distribution plan comes from our clothing sales team. However, if the clothing account is looking for MX action inspired POP or visuals, the request comes through print design. From a core motocross perspective, I will sign off on any imagery that is used to make sure it is authentic and what we want to convey.

The lobby of Fox’s Irvine, CA, office displays its rich history in the sport. Bikes from the company’s early days as a race team to those from their current riders all have a place.

Somewhat of a sore subject is how any brand in a niche sport is deemed a "sellout" once they get too big. Is that something Fox takes to heart or something you cannot worry about?

Every business wants to increase their sales base and grow accordingly. At Fox, we have never given up on our roots and who we are as a brand. We try to grow the sport of motocross more than anybody and are involved in these core sports, to reach those loyal customers. It's a connection with the consumer that surfs and rides that recognizes Fox as a premium brand leader. There are action sport influences within the family have made Fox what it is today.

To do a product from start to finish, how long does it take?  The Instinct boot took three or four years, the helmet may take two, and gear is always changing.

Product is king! There is a development process we implement and adhere to. That takes time. We will never rush a product to market before it is ready. The goal is to produce the best products in their categories. They need to have amazing function and look insane as well.

With a market base that is so diverse, where you have to have a core line for some and then a more graphic line for others, how do you appeal to all markets?

Our goal is to have a product line that can connect with the consumer in one way or another. With our premium product line, the 360, we offer the same functionality with different styling & graphics inspirations. For example, our 360 Flight line offers traditional race inspired styling with solid color blocking and clean lines. Machina, which draws from last year's extremely popular Covert line, has some bolder graphics & design cues. Even more aggressive would be something like Fallout, which has large Fox branding across the chest and down the leg, asymmetrical in design, and different colorways. The HC/180 line has a price point that's below the premium race wear line, but the product attributes are not far off. You have leather knee panels, articulated leg design, and 600D material instead of 900D. It is intended for the guy that doesn't want to spend as much money but still wants the quality, style, and design.

Making a campaign from start to finish is an extensive process. The cubicle walls of the actual office space are lined with photos and inspiration.

When the market changed to four-strokes, Fox was among the first to add leather knees to their lower priced pant...

For that consumer, we want to give that guy that value and function. There is no reason he should pay that price for a race pant that he isn't going to use all of the time, but still expects the quality to be the same.

Have there ever been designs that have been "too wild" for the market, or is it worth the risk because it will catch somewhere?

It's funny, because design can influence people in certain ways. Every person is different and have different taste levels. That is the beauty in having such a broad line, because we have the product range that speaks to just about everyone. You'll mix inspired graphics on tees, hoodys, hats and boardshorts. There is always a really nice collection and the merchandising element is there.

With a presence in numerous retailers, Fox has recently branched out into more markets, including women’s fashion.

Having the list of riders that Fox does with Ken, Ricky, and Chad, who is the most influential and involved in the technical aspect of gear?

All of our pro riders wear test our products. It's a part of the process. The design team makes sure all products go through Fox's highest standards of R&D and testing. We have an amazing group of developers and designers, and these guys are responsible in making sure the products get put through those tough testing standards long before they reach the public. It's a full on group effort.

In the past two years, Shift has started to make a comeback, but many people don't realize that it is Fox. Even though they are two different companies, how much do the two brands intersect?

Shift's vibe is a diversity of personality. In the beginning it was with Seth Enslow and Jeff Emig, and we launched the brand with Emig. It was about free riding, being with your friends, having fun on your dirt bike, performance, and attitude. There is not another brand that can do both. A lot of brands have attitude and others that have performance, but Shift mixes the best of both. If you look at who we have with Chad, Bilko, Taka, and Twitch, there is a lot of personality and performance built into it, which is really what Shift is all about.

For a few years, it was extremely different than what it is now. What was the push behind bringing it back?

I don't think it ever went away, but with any brand, you have to keep it fresh. Shift has gone through an insurgence in the past few years with the signing of Chad Reed. The new styling direction that the designers have implemented has been extremely well received by our riders, the media and consumers.

Acquiring Chad Reed, among other riders, gave Shift new life. Many know that Fox and Shift are under the same umbrella, but there are still some that are unaware of the connection. To clarify, Shift was started in the mid-90’s around the free riding movement with Jeff Emig and Seth Enslow.

To sign Chad after he was a Thor and Alpinestars rider, was it the products that impressed him the most?

The product speaks for itself. You would be surprised how many riders off the record say they want to ride for our brand because it is the coolest and most functional gear. There is the design element, what we do with marketing, the cool factor, and the pure functionality where they go, "Wow, this stuff is the best." The performance there speaks for itself. You want to wear a product that looks bitchin' and performs at its best. The professional riders are the same way.

Is there a rider who is exact on how he has to have his gear with colors, styles, or fit? Like when Ricky only wanted to race in orange gear, for example.

It is part of our marketing initiative from our product team to put the riders a diverse range of our racewear line. It keeps it fresh for consumers to see them in different products and the racers enjoy wearing different colors and styles as well. For some of the riders, there are restrictions in contracts with the teams and they can only wear certain colors. If it were totally up to the riders, they would mix it up all the time. It's like an extension of their personalities.

Is there a schedule that you have riders on? Like, "At this race, you wear this gear and this gear at another."

Our Motocross Team Manager, Chris Onstott, along with the product team, devises a plan that the guys will wear throughout the year. We then build a calendar around that plan to let the MX Sales Reps know what the riders are wearing and to make sure the dealers have it in stock. It is a group effort.

How important is it to have a rider covered from head to toe?

It's very important, because it's a commitment that we've made to our dealers and consumers: Fox produces the best premium products in each category. I recently had a magazine test rider say to me, "I feel like everything I use from you (Fox) feels like it is the very best thing." We make products for everyone. We have the most extensive and broadest range of gloves. We have styles that are lightweight and have no palm padding, to some with top of the hand protection, double-layered palms, to other that offer internal padding and top of hand protection. We offer over 12 different glove styles in total!

The Fox Racing tour bus and Toyota Tundra.

Would you say that Fox helped usher in the trend of great stock helmet graphics and that custom painted helmets died away because of it?

Helmet painting is expensive and it adds a lot of weight to the helmet. Our product team has put a lot into our helmet designs. The graphic is a selling point for the consumer. They look at the styling and think, "Wow, this thing is sick," then put it on, sees that it is comfortable and decide if it's within their price range. Graphics and the look of the helmet definitely influence the consumers purchase habits.

Every few rounds, Fox will do somewhat of a mid-season launch and put the riders in new gear. How big of a driver are those?

Our LE product lines are exciting for us. We market them around key mx events like Anaheim 1, Houston, Daytona, the last Supercross in Vegas, and the Motocross of Nations. The LE line gives us the chance to inject additional retail sales. We offer an integrated marketing plan to support the LE line. Consumer awareness is very high. We announce it to the dealers & consumer before the race on Saturday, then it is available for sale on the Monday afterwards.

What has been the best selling line of the LE Fox has done?

All of the offerings have sold out. Every item produced has been a hit. None of it is ever redone, because we have a steep heritage to pull inspiration from. Not all of it is retro, but Daytona typically is.

You mentioned earlier that Fox has become more corporate in status. Not that it is owned by a "big brother" company, but that it had to refocus how it was organized. Does that bring restrictions in any way?

Growth with the company in personnel is a byproduct of growth in terms of sales. The head count additions were totally welcome. We moved our current building here in Irvine 4-5 years ago. There were 60 or 70 people. Now we are double or even triple the size. We will be moving to a new building that is double the square footage as well come the new year.

When the economy went down a few years ago, the offerings from many companies were limited down to just red, blue, and black in the core lines. For Fox, did it limit what was made or did the need for consistency no matter what come through?

When the economy took a tough turn, we knew that we needed to do to drive our business. We weren't going to make consumers go out and buy, but we rolled up our sleeves, work harder and smarter, but never offered less. We still had our design focus and had the products we wanted to bring to market. We did tighten our belts and operate leaner and reduce expenses. As other companies floundered and went away, we gained market share.

One of the brand’s latest endeavors is in the eyewear and footwear markets. There are currently eight shoes in various colors for men and women. 

The company is growing in every market, including surf, wake, BMX, footwear, and now eyewear. How much of that still tracks back to moto and what was the basis behind that? Fox could have easily stayed a moto brand...

We are a performance driven brand and it is in our DNA. Footwear is a key focus for us and is performance driven, especially in the categories we are in with the combination of function, comfort and styling. There is the performance element with several styles built for training. Then we have the more casual collection, but that still utilizes the function, comfort styling story.

What does the future hold for Fox?

We are coming off the successful launches of the V4 helmet and the Instinct boot, two amazing premium products. Every year we are reinventing something in the product mix that raises the bar. If you see the reader surveys, we are the number one brand in gloves, pants, jersey, and chest protectors and now we are in the top with our boots and helmet. We want to be known at the premium brand from top to bottom. I don't want to let too much out of the bag, but we have a lot of new things coming. A new premium goggle that Reed & Roczen will debut at Anaheim 1 and will be available later that Spring with a graphic story that ties into the race wear line. It will blow people away!