If you have read about Billabong's recent faux pas with their website header image, then you will know how they responded to the backlash surrounding it. Many important figures within the industry have commented, ex- Billabong surfer Keala Kennelly is one of them.
She goes for a no holds barred approach when discussing her experience of being sponsored by Billabong and their attitude towards their female athletes. She titled the article, Keala Kennelly's Thank You Letter for the 'F*ck You Billabong...' Hysteria and it is quite clear that she does not seem particularly surprised at the recent turn of events and appreciated the opportune moment to voice her opinions.
Her statements about Billabong as a sponsor are pretty shocking and highlight an issue that always seems to be repeating itself. She writes that she was sponsored by them for fifteen years but actually had her salary cut every year in the final five years despite her surfing being at a record breaking level. However, the thing that makes that in itself so much worse is that as her paycheck was dramatically decreasing, models and surfers without much athletic ability were being paid huge amounts because they fitted the mould and had a "marketable look". The fact that her sponsor overlooked her surfing talent and more unconventional look meant that Kennelly experienced first hand the superficiality that the industry can run on.
Kennelly was then subsequently cut from the Billabong team after winning the Purescot Barrel of the Year Award at the XXL Big Wave Awards, which seems the opposite of what should have actually happened. She beat all the men yet was removed from their roster. Surely she should have been praised and a stronger team contender? Nope.
However, her invitation to be a part of the Eddie Aikau big wave invitational put her in the books as the first woman in attendance and showed her old sponsor that the world of female empowerment was moving forward without them.
Kennelly agrees with Karen Knowlton (author of the F*ck You Billabong. Seriously, f*ck you piece that got the ball rolling) that what this backlash really shows is that power is down to the consumer. If you are targeting something towards consumers that actually just offends them, they will stop buying your products. People want to buy something and represent a company that invests in them as people and stands at the forefront of discussing and representing contemporary issues.
There are cases of very successful marketing campaigns geared towards making women feel empowered and supported in industries other than surfing, so there is evidence that this is the right way to go. A general shift in marketing strategies in wider society has started to close the gender gap and show women to be unstoppable, so whilst surf companies should have gained inspiration and be empowering their female athletes by showing badass shots, Billabong amongst many others seem yet to realise the importance of taking this step. Instead of being the driving force behind this type of representation, they are actually doing the complete opposite and oppressing their female audience and athletes.
Keala Kennelly ends her discussion on a topical and open ended note by saying that if any brands out there would like to make their marketing strategy about female empowerment, then she's all up for being their figurehead. She recognises the importance of her status as a role model for young women and wants to represent a brand that works towards this instead of exploiting it.
Kennelly has always been a fighter when it comes to standing up for what needs to be said and by being one of the people to respond, she has acknowledged that this is not the time to remain silent and has given female surfers a powerful voice. She even did a shoutout to Billabong by saying that she would be willing to be sponsored by them again if they changed their attitudes towards their female athletes and consumers. That's the kind of thing that we like to hear.