The North Face Does an About-face

February 16, 2016

San Francisco. A city known for water sports, Full House, and artful expression. A city constructed on a peninsula with the Pacific on one side, the Bay on the other. Snowfall is nonexistent here—the sun is too bright, the weather foggy and windy, but rarely below freezing. And yet just a few hours away lies the Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile north-to-south mountain range that boasts 13 fourteeners, including Mount Whitney—the highest point in the contiguous United States.

The range attracts climbers from near and far, ones looking for height and a challenge. Ones who when they’ve conquered the peaks can take a well-deserved break at the beach.

Everyone in Chicago has a North Face jacket.

It’s this culture of climbing and exploring and daring to face the elements that must have compelled Douglas Tompkins to open a small camping and backpacking store in the 1960s. His vision was to offer the very best European equipment. The toughest gear, the warmest apparel.

A specialty cold-weather store in the middle of sunny San Francisco was a gamble, but Tompkins knew that those serious about mountain sports would rather go to one place for the best gear than shop around for deals. And why not stop at his store on your way to conquering your next Sierra Nevada peak? Why not make San Francisco part of the trip?

His gamble paid off, and the store was a success. Shortly after opening, he added another location in the Berkeley area, where he began testing and developing his own products. He wanted to offer even better gear than the premier items already in his inventory; he wanted to improve the sport of mountaineering in a big way.

A mere two years later, Tompkins sold his business for approximately $50,000($350,000 in today’s terms).

He went on to launch the brand currently known as Esprit—becoming a multimillionaire in his own right—but as for Tompkins’ earlier startup? The new owner, Kenneth “Hap” Klopp, bought not only Tompkins’ store but also a few others. He had a vision that was much greater than a small specialty retail store.

There were three things, however, that Klopp didn’t change about Tompkins’ vision and direction: the focus on outdoor mountain sports, the push for proprietary materials and products, and, lastly, the name.

And so the North Face lived on.

Fast-Forward to Present Day

The North Face is everywhere. Its users are young and old, urban professionals, and rural ranchers. They wear North Face gear because it’s warm. Because it can handle wind and rain. And because it’s sleek. Stylish even.

Many of these folks aren’t mountain climbers, though the North Face still appeals to that demographic. Instead, they’re the kind of people you find walking your neighborhood or at the local gym. They’re the ones jumping on the athleisure, wilderness chic, whatever-you-want-to-call-it bandwagon. They want to fit in.

Company dollars throughout were spent on funding unique expeditions and developing new technologies.

It must have been six or more years ago now that I first became aware of the power of the North Face. The holidays were approaching, and my family and I were busy shopping, planning, making wish lists. At the top of my sister-in-law’s list was a request for a North Face jacket in black. You know the style I’m talking about—the one that looks like a much cuter version of an Old Navy fleece pullover. I remember being shocked not only by the price but also by the item itself. Two hundred dollars for a plain fall jacket?!

I couldn’t figure out why she wanted such a thing. She lived in downtown Chicago, after all. Surely if she were going to spend that kind of money on a jacket, she should get something more appropriate for dead-of-winter temperatures.

So, I asked her about it. Her response was something to the tune of “They’re expensive, but really warm.” And then very quickly she blurted out, “Plus, everyone in Chicago has one.”

Everyone has one. That was the key.

How did this happen? How did a company so focused on the purity of mountaineering and backpacking become a fashion statement?

High Expectations

Back in 2010, the company optimistically projected its sales to double. The North Face had plans to go from roughly $1.5 billion to $3 billion in sales by the time 2015 rolled around—a feat that they said would require an annual growth rate of 16 percent.

How did they plan to do this?

Two years ago, current North Face president Todd Spaletto would have told you that the North Face didn’t concern itself with knowing or understanding its demographics. In 2013, Alina Tugend wrote in the New York Times that Spaletto “says he doesn’t even know who the company’s typical consumer is.”

“We don’t measure. We don’t look at average age or where they live,” he said. “We know where our products are being purchased, but we don’t track or market around specific household levels.”

Tugend added, “Instead, he [Spaletto] said, North Face decided four years ago to divide its products and marketing into four ‘activity based’ models: hiking, trekking and mountaineering; running and training; snow sports; and youth (aimed at those 12 and under).”

“We do consider our core customer to be someone who is centered in one of those activities,” Spaletto said.

How did a company so focused on the purity of mountaineering and backpacking become a fashion statement?

This mindset perfectly reflected everything the company had done up to that 2013 interview. As explained on the North Face website, company dollars throughout the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s were spent on funding unique expeditions and developing new technologies. Growing or nurturing a consumer base outside of the “outdoor enthusiast” profile wasn’t even a consideration.

While this grassroots strategy worked for decades, the year 2013 came and went and the North Face was sitting on $2 billion in annual revenue. With only one year to go before its 2015 deadline, it needed to come up with an extra $1 billion in only 12 months. It seemed Spaletto’s we-don’t-measure-consumer-demographics strategy wasn’t working for the kind of growth the company was after.

North Face Does an About-Face

Starting in 2014, the North Face rolled out bigger and bigger marketing campaigns—each of them focused on expanding the company’s target demographic to include all kinds of athletes and activity-seeking users. It was as if the brand realized its extremely niche-focused strategy might not work for the kind of growth it was after, and so Spaletto and his team zoomed out, going from a core focus on backpacking and mountaineering to including suburban America. Joggers. Gym rats. Everyday people.

The first campaign that reflected this shift was called “Your Land.” It launched in 2014 and proved to be the company’s largest marketing spend ever. Advertising Agereported an increase of 50 percent, when compared with the brand’s previous big campaign.

But was throwing more money at marketing enough? The North Face didn’t want to risk it.

Last year saw the launch of “I Train For,” another ad campaign from the North Face, but what was unique about it was its timing. It came out in the spring—something nearly unheard of for the cold-weather brand. Advertising Age called the campaign“a departure for a retailer that typically only runs big pushes during the fall and winter seasons.”

Advertising Age went on to say, “The year-round strategy is part of The North Face’s shift from an outdoor apparel retailer to an active and lifestyle brand.”

Spaletto himself even weighed in, his opinion decidedly different from his 2013 stance of not knowing who the company’s consumer was. “[Consumers] see the North Face as a powerful growing active brand that has a key connection to their life. It’s important to maintain that connection with consumers year-round.”

“The idea is to make the North Face a one-stop shop for athletes to buy gear, exercise with like-minded people and track their progress.”

Along with this rejuvenated presence in the ad world, the North Face amped up its social media prowess. In 2015, North Face was “more active on Twitter than any other network,” and yet Twitter isn’t even its best platform. The company dominates Instagram with epic photos of nature and with numerous tags and reposts from its 1.2 million followers. The brand has created this wonderful sense that we’re all in this together, that we’re all exploring and learning and experiencing this great world we live on, together.

To top off this wonderful shift in broadening its audience and diversifying its brand, the North Face launched its first-ever global campaign last September. The spot, “Never Stop ____.,” encourages consumers to explore a range of activities while championing the North Face’s products’ ability to stick with you every step of the way.

It’s a play off the company’s timeless mantra “Never Stop Exploring,” but it reaches the true North Face user. The summer-weather athlete, the world traveler, the urban business owner—and yes, the mountain climber.

A 2015 North Face article on TheStreet reported, “Recent introductions from the North Face brand have also been tailored to meet the new needs of consumers who now want to escape the urban environment on weekends to go camping, but then return home to the city Sunday night and go for a run.”

The Future Is Bright

As for the $3 billion? From what I could find, the North Face came up about $750 million shy of the goal. But onward, right? According to Spaletto, “The North Face is on track to reach its current revenue goal of $3.3 billion by 2017, up from $2.3 billion in 2014.”

A specialty cold-weather store in the middle of sunny San Francisco was a gamble.

With its new direction, the North Face is being positioned to go after brands like Nike and Adidas, according to Adweek. “The idea is to make the North Face a one-stop shop for athletes to buy gear, exercise with like-minded people and track their progress.”

It’s a huge opportunity for America’s favorite cold-weather brand, and one that may not have come about had it not reevaluated its customer and marketing strategies—had it not chased after such intense revenue goals.

The North Face has been on a unique journey these past few years, but it all could very well be worth it, as its new consumer-focused direction just may take the company all the way to the top of the athlete market.

Photos: Patrick Poendl / Shutterstock, testing/Shutterstock, and YouTube

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