Imagine you’re a time traveler from the year 2000, and you’ve been beamed into present-day Jacksonville Beach. As you walk down the street, an interesting car decal catches your eye: it’s an image of a sea turtle sandwiched between the words “Salt” and “Life.” With no prior knowledge of this brand, what would you presume it means? According to Salt Life president Jeff Stillwell, “If that lifestyle appeals to you, it takes you about five seconds to get it.”
Stillwell knows that a good brand conveys meaning in a simple way to a specific audience. In this case, it is a shared love of all things coastal; not only for divers and surfers, but for beach folks of all stripes.
Maybe the “Salt Life” is not for everyone, but we’ve all seen the t-shirts and bumper stickers. Not only that, but copycat brands flood the market. Salt Life’s tattoo-style design came first, so the explosion of knockoff brands such as “swamp life” can be frustrating for stakeholders in the company.
But this trend underscores the broad appeal of Salt Life’s concept. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, after all. Stillwell says that the brand is extremely successful not only because of its meaning, but because of its story. It all started when a group of friends were on a scuba trip several years ago, and one guy popped his head out of the water and said to his buddies, “Man, we are living the salt life.”
Stillwell explains that these guys would get together every weekend to fish, surf and dive. “That was the genesis of the whole thing. That became the code phrase for their little weekend adventures: ‘we’re going to live the salt life this weekend,’” he says.
This, in turn, inspired one of them to create a design. Before the t-shirts and car decals, Salt Life was simply a tattoo. One of the original founders sketched out the Salt Life text and image and had it tattooed on the back of his neck.
After that, others started to notice. The guys began to manufacture stickers and t-shirts and sold the merchandise to local businesses.
That’s when Salt Life restaurant owner, Greg Saig, took notice. He saw the design, and he recognized its cult following. At the time, he owned and operated Harry’s Seafood in Jacksonville Beach. He recalls that a couple of the Salt Life founders had a tattoo parlor right behind his store. “They became a viable company, and I started seeing it everywhere,” he says.
A longtime resident of the beach, Saig already knew the original founders; they used to travel to different destinations together, like Mexico and California. This “salt life” concept was a very tangible thing to Saig, and he had an idea to turn the brand into a restaurant. “I remember one of the guys, Richard, coming into Harry’s one day and we started talking about it. Originally, we were just going to renovate Harry’s, but then I realized that maybe we should make it the first Salt Life restaurant instead.”
He became a licensee of their brand and started to develop the restaurant idea. Currently, Saig operates the Salt Life Restaurant Group, which includes two restaurants, one in Jacksonville Beach and one in St. Augustine. “We oversee the brand development, concept development and ongoing improvements of the restaurant, including future locations,” he says. “We’re searching hard for that next salty, coastal city where the brand would do well.”
Saig says they have a broad clientele base of customers who really embrace the idea of living a beach life. “The brand grew organically out of this community,” he says. He and Stillwell are both excited about the new restaurant in St. Augustine. It has live entertainment and rooftop dining. “That one is a prototype we hope to develop in the future,” says Saig. Because of its touristy location, it’s more of a destination spot than the first restaurant.
Shortly after the first restaurant opened, Delta Apparel (Salt Life’s current parent company) entered the picture. Stillwell headed up the project, and became a licensee of the merchandise brand for a couple of years before they officially acquired the company in 2013.
Before becoming involved, Stillwell remembers visiting the Northeast Florida area to attend the THE PLAYERS Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, and seeing the logo everywhere. Scuba diving is his passion, and it was the dive logo that really caught his eye. Stillwell, who is from Columbus, Ga., now juggles his time between three different locations: the store and office in Jacksonville Beach, a design office in California, and his home office in Columbus.
When Stillwell stepped in, he began developing the store idea right away. It opened in Jacksonville Beach in 2012. “Creating the store was more about branding than about retail, having a year-round presence at the beach,” he says.
Stillwell knows what’s involved in making a brand that sticks. “There has to be an emotional connection with the consumer,” he says. There have been apparel brands that come and go very quickly and might do well for a short period of time. “But brands that stick are ones with that emotional connection. Ones that you aspire to,” he says. Stillwell uses Nike as an example. Like Salt Life, it is an “aspirational brand.” Nike’s fundamental draw is the desire that many people have to be an athlete. “Either you used to be an athlete, you are one, or you wish you were,” he says. The same goes for Salt Life: “It doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas City…it’s something that you love, even if you can’t do it all the time.”
Saig adds that a good brand like Salt Life always “has a culture behind it. It’s not just fishing and diving; it’s about living in a coastal community.” Stillwell agrees. Although it began as a brand that was mainly about watersports like fishing and diving, he took it in a different direction when Delta Apparel got involved. His vision was to broaden it into what he calls an “interpretive brand.” In other words, it depends on the audience: whether you like spearfishing, paddle boarding, or simply relaxing on the beach, Salt Life speaks to the way the individual connects with coastal living.