Tilted 45 degrees in bubbly rapids, Ben Brown poses for the ultimate selfie. Brown, a professional kayaker who goes by the nickname Brownie, delivers a look of steely-eyed intensity at the GoPro camera strapped to his oar. Another camera affixed to his helmet captures the waves swirling around him. It’s the third GoPro, situated on the tip of his kayak, that makes the shot. Later, in an unadorned conference room at a Canadian resort, Brown reviews the footage. Fueled by adrenaline and beer, he crafts a polished action video ready for sharing on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
The whitewater excursion in Banff, Alta., and the scheduled video editing session were part of a weeklong event in September organized by Brown’s sponsor, GoPro. The Silicon Valley camera company aspires to make money not just by selling gadgets to extreme-sports enthusiasts, but also from the content they create. A big part of GoPro’s media strategy relies on athletes like Brown. The New Zealander’s name won’t fill a stadium or sell jerseys, but he’s skilled at his sport and perhaps better at marketing those abilities. “I’ve been good at kayaking; it only gets you so far if you want to turn it into a career,” Brown says. “It used to be about getting a magazine cover or video part. Now, with the evolution of social media and the work I do with GoPro, it’s become a lot about content, capture, and creation.”
GoPro customers post thousands of hours of footage a day online. Those include videos from amateur kayakers and sky divers, along with content that doesn’t play as well to a millennial viewership, such as tourism clips and baby videos. GoPro is happy to sell those people cameras—it’s releasing a $200 entry-level model on Oct. 4—but its brand is about sports, mainly of the extreme variety. The company carefully curates video from its sponsored athletes and other contributors, who earn $1,000 per million YouTube views, to display on GoPro’s social media accounts, which have more than 16 million combined followers. The YouTube channel has racked up 956 million views, on pace to pass a billion by the end of the year. The content is also streamed to various set-top boxes, and on Sept. 29 Comcast unveiled a video app called Watchable, with GoPro among its first content providers.
GoPro Chief Executive Officer Nick Woodman has been talking about the company’s media ambitions since before it went public in June 2014. GoPro strives to create a new kind of adventure-lifestyle brand along the lines of Red Bull energy drinks, but progress has been slow. “They’re still in the formation phase,” says Paul Coster, an analyst at JPMorgan. While he’s optimistic about the company’s prospects, success is far from guaranteed. “I could see them going in 100 different directions here and failing at them all, so it probably has to do with focus,” Coster says. GoPro spent nearly $120 million on sales and marketing during the first half of 2015, up 41 percent from the same period last year. Its marketing expenses, which include the media group, outpace even the camera company’s R&D budget.
Investors may be losing patience. The company is trading at a lower price-earnings ratio than Nikon, a Japanese camera maker that’s almost a century old. GoPro shares are down 68 percent from their high a year earlier. Onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference on Sept. 22, Woodman says the company was selling fewer of the new Hero4 Session cameras than expected. The media strategy didn’t even come up. Analysts, such as Gus Richard of Northland Capital Markets, are now asking who could buy the company.
Zander Lurie, the senior vice president for media at GoPro, says the company is committed to the media plan and to turning it into a moneymaker. “Today, the vast majority of GoPro’s revenue comes from hardware sales—primarily cameras and accessories,” he says. “We will be a player in the streaming media business in 2016 and beyond.” One challenge is laziness. Video often languishes on GoPro memory cards because it’s just too time-intensive and difficult to cut and upload. If GoPro were to create better video editing software, it would give the media project a big boost, says Jitendra Waral, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. GoPro says it’s working on software improvements and recently hired Erik Lammerding, the former senior manager for worldwide developer relations at Apple. “What we’re going to do is create sick entertainment products,” says Lurie. “Those will take all different forms.”
There are plenty of believers in GoPro’s strategy. “That’s a company that’s built perfectly for the future,” says Jason Stein, CEO of online marketing company Laundry Service. “They are experts in creating entertaining advertising.”
GoPro sponsors 145 athletes, including star snowboarder Shaun White. It also teamed with the National Hockey League to shoot live in-game footage for the All-Star Game in January. But GoPro has built its brand mainly on unknown adventure-sport athletes. Kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, and sky diving aren’t the typical spectator sports you’ll find on ESPN or Fox, but they play well on YouTube. As an added bonus, the athletes are a lot cheaper to sponsor, though GoPro declined to say how much it pays them. Todd Ballard, the company’s senior director for lifestyle marketing, says he looks for brand ambassadors who are skilled shooters and entertainers first, not famous athletes. “For the most part, we’re choosing athletes who are already using our cameras at this point, and they’ve already created a résumé for us to look at,” Ballard says.
Neil Amonson is just happy to be able to make a living jumping from high places. The former U.S. Air Force combat controller is part of a four-person human flight team in Salt Lake City called the GoPro Bomb Squad. “What maybe separates us from some other people who do the same sports is, there’s a certain element of—I don’t know if ‘showmanship’ is the right word, but we like to share,” he says. Amonson attended GoPro’s first adventure athlete boot camp in September, which the company expects to make a regular event. Also among more than a dozen athletes at the resort was Erik Roner, an MTV star who died on Sept. 28 in a sky-diving accident.
Sitting on a screwed-down bench in the back of a van driving through rural Canada, Brown is wearing neon yellow at the behest of GoPro staff, who suggested it would make his footage “pop.” Brown is an experienced cameraman and video editor, as well as an exceptional kayaker, but he appreciates the tips from GoPro and his fellow athletes. In addition to online video sales and the GoPro deal, he pieces together a living from several corporate sponsorships. He drives a Peugeot, one of his sponsors.
One of Brown’s biggest moments of stardom was during the 2011 Super Bowl, when GoPro used one of his kayaking videos as part of a camera commercial. The company didn’t pay Brown anything extra for the spot—GoPro’s licensing agreement allows it to do whatever it wants with the footage—and he didn’t find out about the commercial until after it aired, when text messages from friends began flooding his phone. “I went out and just shot a video, and I would have done that anyway,” Brown says. “It’s not like they were trying to exploit me.” Plus, he says the Super Bowl ad made another sponsor very happy: “I was wearing a Red Bull helmet.”