ICON at Ten: We talk with Kurt Walter

Publish Date: 
Jun 27, 2012
By Bruce Steever

ICON has been one of the most successful yet divisive brands in the business. By focusing on a segment of the riding population that was at best under-represented, ICON during the last 10 years created a street-focused following composed of stunters, the bike night crowd, and a host of other riders whose demographics continue to confound dealers.

ICON’s birth set the stage for a fast-and-loose style the brand would take to heart. The point man is design director Kurt Walter, who brought the original ideas to life and pitched them to parent company, distributor LeMans/Parts Unlimited. Also on board was marketing expert Phil Davy (now with Leatt Brace), who helped push the brand forward during its starting years.

“The initial stuff started as an after-hours project at Thor around 1999, based on concept stuff I had already drawn up based on the pro-street, anti-race concept,” Walter says. “It started as a singular helmet, but the apparel came along to help sell the helmet.”

Walter’s initial designs were shown to the brass at Parts, and a green light was given. ICON Motorsports was formed with only a few basic guidelines but with a clear concept of its target customer.

“We stayed away from brands that Parts Unlimited already distributed,” Walter said. “ICON was about addressing street riders.”

By “street riders,” Walter refers to a diverse group of primarily younger riders who weren’t interested in racing their sportbikes on the track or going to the usual V-Twin hangouts on their customs. They were diverse in ethnicity, interests and riding styles. But because they weren’t influenced by the usual riding lifestyles, they were being ignored by mainstream riding gear producers, Walter says. ICON stepped in to create something that would get their attention. not influenced by motorcycling

The concept of focusing on street riders was a whole new ballgame in 2002. Up to that point, the majority of technical apparel was either derived from race-specific products or props from old westerns and ‘50s era biker movies. ICON looked to hip-hop fashion and military gear, comic books and the surfing lifestyle. “There were things out there; they just weren’t in the motorcycle industry,” Walter says. “As a brand, we aren’t influenced by what’s going in motorcycling. If you only look at what’s going on in motorcycling, you’re just going to regurgitate the things you’re seeing going on there.”

The company managed to create its own market share by bringing products to a market segment that simply didn’t exist beforehand. Put another way, ICON has grown because the core customer wasn’t buying protective apparel until ICON created something he (or she) wanted to wear. “We didn’t transfer dollars away from other brands just into our brand. All the dollars we generated were new dollars,” Walter says. “We didn’t take off an Alpinestars back protector to put on our Field Armor back protector. That rider simply didn’t have one.”

This ragtag street demographic is one of the reasons ICON ruffled more than a few feathers. “There are a chunk of dealers out there that genuinely do not like the message that ICON brings to the table: one, stunt riding exists, and two, you are going to crash your motorcycle, get used to it. Dealers don’t like us telling customers that you’re going to eat sh*t on this brand-new motorcycle that you’ve just bought.

“There is also a chunk of racism out there in the motorcycle industry,” Walter adds. “Some dealers out there just don’t want some of our customers in their dealerships. Add up all those chunks, and you get a segment of dealers that don’t want to have any part of what we are.” Yet ICON so far seems to thrive on this outcast status. “ICON’s unlike almost all brands, as there’s not a whole lot of brands out there that are saying ‘if you don’t like our brand, then f**k off,’” Walter explains. “I don’t care if you buy it or not, I really don’t. In fact, if you don’t really, really like us, then don’t buy our gear. But don’t make the mistake that we aren’t serious about what we do. It may look from the outside that professionalism and Icon don’t go hand-in-hand, but it’s actually the exact opposite. The people in here, in this office, would kill for the brand. Talk sh*t about ICON and people here might slit your throat.”

The Portland, Ore., headquarters is part design lab, part development studio and part custom bike garage. The crew lives and breathes motorcycles. “Everybody in the office rides,” Walter says. “The staff approaches whatever they’re working on as if it had their name on it when it goes out to the public. If you use that sort of ownership in [creating] the product, whatever the project is, you generally end up with a much better result at the end.”

While a sense of ownership certainly helps push staff, involvement in the street lifestyle is cited as one of the reasons ICON manages to consistently create innovative products. It was the first company to create a line of apparel aimed at military riders, a concept personal to Walter, a former naval air crewman. “The military guy is still the same guy that we normally market to — he just happens to be in the military,” he says. “They have a unique set of requirements that I know first-hand. I’ve lived through having to deal with that stupid-ass vest, lived through owning a sportbike while in the military and what it does to your reviews. But because of all the things that happen to military guys with sportbikes, they’re the guys we’re trying to reach out to.”

ICON also creates gear based on the unique needs and desires of its staff. Take the Justice touchscreen glove, designed to soothe stressed-out staff who reportedly hated trying to operate their touch devices while wearing gloves. When Touch-Tec material came to their attention, the glove was given the go signal.

ICON may come off as reckless, but Walter asserts that it is never irresponsible. “We put protection on people that never wore protection,” he says. “We made protection cool, and we saved people’s lives. Motorcycling apparel exists to reduce and prevent injury, and we’ve done both. I know for a fact that there are plenty of people out there that wouldn’t be out there if ICON didn’t exist. ICON needs customers, not corpses.”

Brand rebellion aside, ICON still operates under the framework of LeMans/Parts Unlimited. A large part of what makes ICON “ICON” is the ability to create a unique lifestyle brand and execute aggressive marketing campaigns, while remaining a valuable part of the LeMans empire. “I answer to Fred Fox, but he has enough confidence in what we do that they stay out of our day-to-day operations,” Walter says. “And, generally speaking, we’ve had a lot more successes than failures in what we think is cool.

“It’s something that people don’t see,” Walter explains. “They ask us how we do what we do, how do we put out lesbian photos, how do we put out gun photos, how do we blow up Porsches. But this is who we are. We’re not an all-ages brand and never have been. We’re an adults-only brand. We are cognizant that at the end of the day, we have to sell product. But nothing’s contrived.”

This frankness so far appeals to the rainmakers in Wisconsin. “As much as they don’t want to admit it, there is a sense of pride that Parts [Unlimited] is affiliated with this brand,” Walter says. “ICON is the one brand they can say, ‘Hey, this is our brand; we made this.’”

So by remaining irreverent, authentic and honest, Walter says ICON has managed to create a loyal fan base, and by creating solid product it has managed to keep those fans. “We’ve learned why certain things don’t work out. As far as the trust from Parts Unlimited, it’s something we have to earn every day, and it’s something we work hard to keep every day. The trust aspect is in the fact that we’ve never burned anybody, and we’ve never done anything that is not what I would consider inappropriate.”

Walter stresses that ICON is much more than just a rebellious upstart or niche lifestyle brand, and is keenly aware of shortcomings in the powersports retail industry and how to help dealers make the most of their relationship with ICON. “You have a group of dealers that are enthusiasts but don’t understand the business aspects too well,” Walter says. “They are lured in by consignment stuff that is easy to put in dealerships, but if the customer doesn’t want it, you just put in a bunch of useless gear in your dealership. If you want to sell what people want, then you need to invest yourself in what you’re selling.”

Maintaining communication among staff, dealers and consumers is essential.

“We make information readily available,” Walter says. “You can jump on our Facebook page and ask us a question. If you’re a parts guy at a dealership, or someone who cares about the brand, go ahead and post on our Facebook page. If you want direct contact with us, you don’t even have to look up our phone number, just find us on Facebook. It’s rare that dealers take advantage of it. We try to do as much as we can to help the guys out there on the floor talking to customers about ICON. Those front line guys are important to have on our side.”

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews July 2012 issue.