Interview with Mr. Zog by Philip Petrovitch.
I had a certain tee shirt in sixth grade, and this special tee shirt had magical powers to confound and perplex. Donning it was a "full-on rad" statement to the world of a little surf rat's mind, a statement that this little duck-tailed grom has thrown his lot in with the surfing life and this tee shirt proves it. The rest of you be damned. The iconic Sex Wax tee shirt is this magic shirt of which I speak. Then and every bit as much today, it's the preferred way to make this statement even if it is now more widely understood. The magic in the shirt has strongest effect against people who don't surf of course, as the shirt screams "SEX" in odd combination with the word "wax", which usually sounds to non-surfing folks like some kind of personal lubrication brand....or does it provide pleasurable friction?. It grabs attention, funny looks, scornful disapproval from confused elders- especially when you are a kid wearing it. It's both baffling and offensive, and most importantly it provided a clear separation of comprehension between tribes in southern California at that time. Either you get it, or you don't. The world in my mind, at this time, was divided between these two groups; one cool and the other, "lame-o", So for a kid in sixth grade what's not to love, right? I think my elementary school gave up on banning the damn shirt, I mean the stickers were absolutely everywhere, which was perhaps the biggest marketing coup of all for the Zog's brand. In Solana Beach, North county San Diego in the mid 80's, we were in the midst of the absolute glory days for surf brands like Vaurnet sunglasses and Jimmy Z pants, Op, Offshore and on and on. Those brands have disappeared from the landscape now and few have survived the era. It goes without saying that Sex Wax is a brand that has passed the ultimate test of time. If any marketing company could figure out how to bottle this business success mojo, or even replicate it consistently, untold riches would await them. Fortunately we can ask the man behind the brand, the wizard of Zog, what goes into the special sauce of the brand. Here's what he said:
PP: Surf brands that have been around for as long as yours more often than not come from very humble beginnings. So i'm going to go out on a limb and say that your company, a company that started making a wax special for surfing in the 70's, didn't get any venture capital money. Tell me a little bit about that moment in time when you thought "Hey, I think this can be a big thing". Did people tell you that you were crazy? So yeah, how did it all start?
Zog: In 1969 I had a surf shop at the Santa Barbara Airport and met Nate Skinner who was also renting space in that area. He was familiar with wax and the various materials that could be used to alter its characteristics. Over a period 3 to 5 months month’s Nate created surf wax formulations and I would test them. By 1972 I was ready to start producing and selling Sex Wax. I had no idea what to expect. Initially two college friends gave me $5000 each in exchange for 5% partnerships in the new business.
Sometime within our first two years of operation, I was able to buy them out and give them double their money back. Nate held a 15% partnership for his instrumental role in developing the formula and helping to design some of the original homemade equipment we used at the time. Back then, I was making and wrapping the wax in a friend’s run-down garage, so overhead was very low. During the first 1 to 2 years, Sex Wax was a part time “gig” and I continued to supplement my income by shaping and glassing Zog Surfboards.
PP: Im 41 and realize now that I'm not old enough to understand what it was like to surf in the era before specialized waxes were developed. I'm not even sure how paraffin, or whatever other substances were used were applied. Did you drip on beads of wax from a melting candle? What sort of substances were used then to adhere your feet to your board besides paraffin, and was paraffin waxing awful enough that you saw a big improvement in the experience of surfing to be had in the existence of a special wax?
Zog: Parawax was the brand name of what was probably the most popular wax to be used for surfing on the West Coast during the 1960’s. This was a basic paraffin wax which was sold in grocery stores primarily for canning fruits and other perishables. Parawax was much more difficult to use on surfboards than the softer surfboard waxes we have today. A number of different techniques were employed to apply the first coat of paraffin wax to your surfboard……………..
You could try and just rub it on at room temperature for the first coat, but this was very difficult
You could submerge block of paraffin in warm or hot water to soften it and then rub it on.
You could melt the wax and either drip unto the surface of your board or paint it on with a brush
Once the first coat of wax was established you would just rub on additional wax prior to each new surf session. If you had forgotten to take any wax with you to the beach, you could always put your board face down in water to cool the waxed deck and then rub by hand with wet sand to rough up the wax surface.
PP: We went through a period in the early 90's where a lot of pros were using full deck traction pads. Was there a time when you thought that wax might disappear from surfing forever? I had one board with full deck traction, and I think I still have scars on my ribs from an epic day of surfing where I forgot a rash guard, so there were obvious flaws in the full-deck traction design. You would think that they could reformulate the foam so that it didn't take meat off your bones, but that didn't really happen and wax is still a staple. What is it about wax that makes it superior as traction to have survived these wax-less technologies?
Zog: I was somewhat concerned when tail pads and full deck traction pads first appeared on the market. As it turned out the full deck pads never really took hold and these days a lot of surfers are waxing their tail pads. The full deck pads for the most part were too rough and caused too much skin irritation. Full deck pads were also too expensive and to my mind quite ugly. With surfboard wax you can select from different levels of softness and stickiness to get whatever combination of traction and paddling comfort works best for you when you “trunk it”. Last but not least, there is the ritualistic aspect of “waxing up” just before you enter the water. Surfing is often described as being somewhat of a religious experience by many of its devotees, and “waxing up” has become a meditative “time out” that is the precursor to this holy experience..
PP: Just out of curiosity. You must have a great idea of where in the world surfing is really getting popular because you get to ship out wax all over the world. Are there some countries out there that are sending you orders for wax that would really surprise us? Where in the world have you see the most dramatic, increased demand for Sex Wax? I imagine for the embryonic surf scene in Yemen, the brand name might get nabbed at customs for being obscene. Does this sort of thing happen?
Zog: When we first started exporting Sex Wax, I was probably most surprised by the market in Japan. Japan ranks much higher than most people would think when it comes to the number of active surfers. At this point Sex Wax export sales are fairly stable within most coastal countries. Some of the other surf wax market countries that might seem a bit unexpected include the following:
PP: Okay, I'll stop beating around the bush-SEX WAX "the best for your stick"- these are trademarks of the brand that should probably be case studies in post-grad marketing classes. I read on your website that this was you and the chemist Nate Skinner's homage to the truism that sex sells. What's amazing is that it's not the image of hot bikini models suggesting the idea, or you presenting a lifestyle of adventure and exotic women, whats amazing is that you proved that presenting the word alone, simply S-E-X in big letters, is enough to summon the marketing magic that follows. In my opinion, I feel like the trademark shirt graphic presents the words "Sex Wax" so boldly, yet so purposelessly (for non-surfers of course), that a persons brain goes haywire trying to understand why they are seeing this everywhere (even on kids!) and that they must be missing out on something; something like some plain, good ol' fashioned sex perhaps? In short, it makes people not in-the-know feel like they are missing out on something and they cannot stand it, In your opinion, what is your theory behind why people in places, places even thousands of miles away from breaking waves, are ordering your shirts on a daily basis?
Zog: Nate Skinner helped me out with the Sex Wax formulas but didn’t have anything to do with the name. When it came time to come up with a brand name, I asked a good friend, Hank Pitcher to come up with something for our wax. Hank, who is now a well known artist and teaches at the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, didn’t take very long. A few days after I made my request, Hank showed me what was to become the Sex Wax label that is so well known today. Mr Zog’s, Sex Wax, The Best for your Stick, and Never Spoils was all there and encapsulated within semi circular segments which comprised the overall circular label with an “old fashioned” feel. To be honest, I did not know what to think of it at first. Initially I felt this label was extremely strange and probably too controversial to use with for our surf wax. After a few days thought, I decided that being outrageous would be fun and consistent with my sarcastic nature. It was a happy go lucky period for me with very few responsibilities so why not! I realized that the Sex Wax label would bring immediate attention to our product, and I felt that we had a very good surf wax formula. If our surf wax was not up to snuff, then the outrageous name would have “back fired”.
People respond to the Sex Wax label in any number of ways, but it is a good fit for the psyche of most surfers. Outside the surf market “Sex Wax” is a bit too edgy for some people. We do sell a lot of t-shirts, but the controversial nature of the Sex Wax name does impose limits to our apparel market share. Sex Wax apparel sales will most likely never be as big as the other major surf brands, but the public’s brand awareness of Sex Wax is huge.
I do like the straight forwardness of the Sex Wax label; it is direct and thoughtfully provoking. As mentioned in your question, Sex Wax is not akin to the titillating visual imagery of a Carl’s Jr. Commercial. When Mom discovers a bar of Sex Wax in Junior’s closet, Mom may decide that it’s time for that long delayed discussion about the “Birds and Bees” which is good thing, but probably a little embarrassing for Mom when she finds out what Sex Wax really is.
PP: I'm not sure if Sex Wax has a place in the Surfing Hall of Fame, but it goes without saying that it has become one of the most uniquely identifiable and original of surf brands to people worldwide, whether they surf or not. Any brand dreams for that sort of recognition, so the fact that you have secured your place in the mainstream as a surf brand selling wax and a tee shirt, without selling in Target or even changing a damn thing, is rather remarkable. A solid surf team through the years helps, a consistent product that always performs on demand and is is widely available is definitely key, but most importantly- an amazing bit of marketing magic that makes you stand out from the crowd by a wide margin. You must be incredibly proud of your achievement, I mean, how could you not?. When you look back to the very beginning, from where you are now, what thoughts enter your mind? Say the gameshow Family Feud had a question like, "Name some things that have to do with surfing", you can bet one of the top three answers is going to be "SEX WAX" along with "The Beach Boys" and "Gidget", with "Laird Hamilton" coming in a close fourth. It's no longer just an iconic brand in surfing, but it's been appropriated as a wider part of American culture. That is pretty damn incredible when you think about it.
ZOG: I am proud of both the quality of the surfboard wax we have produced over the years and the success of the “Sex Wax” brand name. In many ways, I have been very lucky and I have also relied a great deal on others to help me along the way. Sex Wax has been fortunate to enjoy a favored status within the entertainment industry starting with the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and most recently being the answer to one of the questions on Jeopardy. The Sex Wax brand has reached an amazing level of recognition as millions of bars of Sex Wax have migrated around the globe based on a reputation for quality that has been spread primarily by word of mouth..It has been an amazing journey, and a bit of blur looking back. The one thing that I can take credit for is all the effort I have put into Sex Wax. Sometimes I feel like I am running this business and other times it feels like this business is running me. It’s a double edged sword.