Patagonia and the Marketability of Antimaterialism

September 3, 2015

In 2011, high-end outdoor clothier and gear provider Patagonia purchased an ad in a November edition of the New York Times entreating customers not to buy one of its impeccable parkas. The reason given in the ad copy was that we live in a wasteful, rapacious world with swiftly diminishing resources and that people should not buy what they don’t need.

Some cynics accused Patagonia of anti-marketing, the peril-fraught practice of selling a product by mocking it.

But even Patagonia’s marketing sorcery is anti-sorcery. Its sorcery is sincerity.

But is that what really went on here? Probably not. Patagonia is what people who use poultry-based marketing metaphors call an odd duck. Its wild success is based on an ostensible rejection of some conventional marketing wisdom.

Of course, we live in a fast-changing world where some conventional marketing wisdom no longer seems especially wise.

The Roots of Patagonia’s Marketing Metaphysics

Patagonia was founded in 1973 by outdoorsman, entrepreneur and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard. In 1985, the company began to donate significant amounts of money to environmental groups.

When Patagonia ran into financial trouble in the early ’90s, according to an article by Phillip Haid on the Financial Post website, Chouinard decided that the answer was not to abandon his ideals, but become truer to them.

“Actions most companies would never dream of taking because they are so counter to common business practice, have been wildly successful for Patagonia,” Haid wrote, “because at their core they embody the idea of ‘profitable good,’ namely, embracing profit and purpose to drive a better bottom line.”

These days, Chouinard and his executives appear genuinely to want to accomplish two seemingly disparate goals: have a profitable company based on the sale of items to consumers while denouncing materialism and encouraging conservation.

Patagonia doesn’t just talk the environmental talk, wrote Poonkulali Thangavelu for the Investopedia website. It walks the walk. “The company donates a portion of its revenue to environmental causes and uses recycled, Fair Trade–certified and organic material in its clothing. It also uses solar energy at its company headquarters, and it is one of the founders of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of companies that has promised to reduce its environmental footprint.”

For two years running, Patagonia has taken second place to Unilever on the Sustainability Leaders Report. Other companies that often make the list are Nestlé, GE, Coca-Cola, Nike, Tesla and Etsy. But sustainability and social-impact consultant Alice Mann argued on her blog that Patagonia deserves to be in its own category.

“One reason Patagonia stands alone,” she wrote, “particularly among first-generation social-impact companies, is Yvon Chouinard’s fierce commitment to staying independent. Yvon and his wife own 100 percent of Patagonia’s shares. Many first-generation social-impact companies, once peer companies of Patagonia, have since sold to multinational corporations.”

To Buy or Not to Buy? That Is the Question

Noting that national pundits haven’t been able to generate widespread interest in an anti-consumerism message, the New Yorker’s J.B. MacKinnon wrote in May 2015, “Yet anti-consumerism is clearly helping to build the Patagonia brand. Indeed, the company is seeing double-digit annual growth.”

One is reminded of a popular Harry Potter meme with the caption “What sorcery is this?” But even Patagonia’s sorcery is anti-sorcery. Its sorcery is sincerity.

“How do you equate increased sales with consuming less stuff?” Martin Wright of the Guardian newspaper asked Patagonia’s vice president of global marketing, Rob BonDurant, in 2011. “We’re saying, ‘Only buy what you need,’” BonDurant told him. “We want our customers to do some research and make an educated decision about whether they really need the product, and how to use it. So it’s a case of ‘Buy less, buy smart.’”

“The discerning consumer targeted by Patagonia,” wrote Wright, “will be more likely to buy one of the company’s (relatively pricey) fleeces rather than those of its (mostly cheaper) rivals. And that fleece will last for years, so avoiding the need to buy replacements every other season or so.”

Patagonia offers a free repair service to encourage customers to make the fullest possible use of its products, he wrote. “Hence, while Patagonia itself sells more stuff, the argument goes, the overall volume of stuff sold goes down.”

The company’s four-year-old Common Threads Initiative “aims to minimize the environmental cost of clothing through its programs to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle clothing,” wrote David Aker for the Fast Company website.

“At their core they embody the idea of ‘profitable good,’ namely, embracing profit and purpose to drive a better bottom line.”

Worn clothing returned to Patagonia is recycled into new clothing. And Patagonia actually helps customers who want to resell the company’s clothing. Not many companies do that.

Customers are even asked to take a Common Threads Initiative pledge. A pledge such as this is one way Patagonia creates so many brand evangelists. 

Patagonia’s Volunteer Army — Brand Evangelists

Igniting and propagating brand evangelism (i.e., customers becoming voluntary cheerleaders) is every marketer’s dream, but there’s no snake oil that can achieve it in this day and age. What customers want from brands is prompt and effusive responsiveness to their needs. What they don’t want is any whiff of deception or what comes out of the back end of the bull.

Brands don’t have to become customers’ friends, but they may have to become friendly collaborators. Brands have to convince customers that everybody is on the same page. The way Patagonia goes about this is as innovative as everything else it does.

Enthusiastic customers are producing compelling content and communicating with other enthusiastic customers.

Most companies entered the social media sphere tentatively, and many are still assessing its value with a gimlet eye. Patagonia, on the other hand, “invests next to nothing in traditional advertising,” according to a company blog post from 2012.

Instead, it “focuses mainly on affiliate and buzz marketing to creative a credible image in the eyes of the consumer.”

Patagonia’s biggest marketing innovations are online, in the form of its Web pages titled The Cleanest Line and The Footprint Chronicles. The Cleanest Line, a 10-year-old blog, features substantive and compelling long-form content about environmental issues and outdoor adventures. And The Footprint Chronicles allows customers to track the lifecycle of a product from creation to decrepitude to resurrection.

Patagonia also maintains blogs on fly-fishing, trail running, surfing, climbing, skiing and snowboarding on Tumblr.

“Our content stays away from the hard sell,” Bill Boland, Patagonia’s digital creative director, told Giselle Abramovich at Digiday. “But we are finding that our customers are interested in talking about our products. Even with the climbers out at Patagonia, customers want to know what gear they are wearing, what works for them and what does not.”

Enthusiastic customers are producing compelling content and enthusiastic customers are communicating with other enthusiastic customers.

Bad Times Bring Out the Best in Patagonia

Despite Patagonia’s apparent earnestness and authenticity — and its almost psychic link to its customers — the company has not avoided controversy.

Four years ago, internal audits at Patagonia “turned up multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation in Patagonia’s supply chain,” according to an article in the Atlantic by Gillian B. White. White wrote that Patagonia was “working with companies and the U.S. State Department to tackle these issues” and that the company “is actively trying to improve conditions throughout its supply chain.”

In an era of unprecedented connectivity between consumers and brands, the companies that win might be the ones who eschew sleight of hand in favor of virtual handshakes.

More recently, Patagonia was presented with evidence by the animal rights activist group PETA of cruelty to sheep on an Argentine farm in its supply group called Ovis 21. On the website of Outside magazine, Megan Michelson characterized the company’s response as “fast and “honest.”

“Patagonia immediately issued a response to the video in a statement posted online Thursday,” she wrote.

The release stated: “While we previously understood the need to adopt a strict standard to ensure animal welfare and worked toward that goal, we were not aware of any animal welfare issues with Ovis 21 farms until now. We begin an urgent investigation into the practices shown in PETA’s video and commit to working with Ovis 21 to make needed improvements, reporting back to our customers and the public on steps we are taking.”

Patagonia has since parted ways with Ovis 21.

The Heart of the Matter

In both of these instances, it seems fairly clear that Patagonia was as surprised by these revelations as anyone. And its response was not to hem, haw and furiously spin, as some companies do when confronted with inconvenient facts.

There may be many aspects of the Patagonia business model that are not easily imitated, but its trustworthiness is not among them. In an era of unprecedented connectivity between consumers and brands, the companies that win might be the ones who eschew sleight of hand in favor of virtual handshakes.

Photos: Shutterstock

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