Branding Life and Death
It occurred to me while working at Eastern Mountain Sports that in the outdoor equipment industry brands don’t simply represent commercial decisions, but in extreme cases the difference between life and death–the gear has to be trusted. The risk in a strong brand influencing buyer decisions more than a product’s benefits can result in casualty. It’s a step beyond buyer’s remorse.
Like most companies in any industry, the vast majority of outdoor gear companies started because they felt that they could do things better or bring products closer to the consumer than existing providers. They are only able to succeed by simply making better, more durable and effective equipment–and when a life is literally on the line–that matters.
Expansion and growth are natural phenomenon for any brand making great products and keeping their consumers happy. The problem arises however when people start to see logos and not product benefits. From a selling standpoint, I still remember our EMS training when Arturo Quinones, EMS SoHo Climbing Guru, said that “climbing is chess with the devil, if you don’t know what you’re selling you can get someone killed.” That speech encouraged us as salespeople to know what we’re selling and to know why it’s the best gear for the task, void of branding.
It’s not uncommon in my concentration, the camping department, for people to ask automatically for The North Face sleeping bags, or Marmot and Arc’teryx packs, when there are many options better-suited for their needs. Some people are willing to listen and will walk away with an Osprey or Gregory, two small companies that specialize in making packs. Others will leave empty handed and for their sake I hope they can figure out how to make The North Face logo keep them warm at night. True enthusiasts generally come in looking for specific products–those customers are looking for a use, a benefit and not a logo.
What most customers don’t realize, is that brands like The North Face, Marmot, and Mountain Hardwear all used to be tiny mom-and-pop shops making limited-run and in some cases custom products because the owners themselves were avid outdoorsmen. The North Face started in the Bay Area of California, shared their original manufacturing space with Credence Clearwater Revival, and decades later was bought by the massive VF Corp. Marmot, once a tiny company specializing in down jackets was bought by K2, and Mountain Hardwear, another Bay Area outerwear company was bought by Columbia. Now people who won’t set foot on a patch of dirt, let alone a mountain, are sporting it on city streets all over the world.
Some say the latest casualty is Arc’teryx, which was bought by Solomon in 2002 but just in the last few years started moving production to Asia. When I moved to New York in 2007, Arc’teryx was on the streets, but infrequently and only worn by enthusiasts. Lately in EMS I’ve seen droves of Arc’teryx shells, softshells, fleeces, hats and bags. They’re thinning out and losing touch with their original constituents.
People running the brands argue that nothing has been lost, nothing has been compromised. Enthusiast consumers however, are noticing a decline in quality and overall a lack of fit and durability. I guess for us crazy guys actually depending on the gear, having it made in North America still means something in correlation to its quality.
For a few years now I’ve loved my Canadian-made Arc’teryx Bora 80 pack and still see its quality as being far-superior to the new Arc’teryx packs and the packs of any other overseas-made company. It has tangible durability and exquisite attention to detail. Customers still come in showing me pre-buyout TNF, Mountain Smith and Arc’teryx gear and they rue the day they’ll need to part with it.
The gap between big brand and small, artisan shop has been quickly filled in the case of Arc’teryx. Westcomb, another Canadian company started supposedly by former Arc’teryx designers has been dubbed by many as “the new Arc’teryx.” Everything is made in Canada, and has the sort of athletic fit that well, doesn’t fit the masses, no pun intended, that the other brands are now servicing. Their brand is growing and picking up the orphans that Arc’teryx left behind.
So what does it mean for a brand to get “too big for its britches” and to lose their core audience? Well, in the case of most–more money in their pockets. The problem with making good gear is that it just lasts too darn long to need replacing; that gets in the way of cash flow. Corporate ownership means that their customer is no longer the loyal enthusiast, but the mass-market; “how can we make as many products as possible to appeal to as many as possible?” At EMS The North Face representative told me specifically that TNF manufactures “every single type of garment I could imagine.”
Growing big doesn’t mean that all quality is lost in a brand’s products, but for the skeptical outdoorsman it does raise the question of “what am I really paying for?” I have gear from a lot of the companies, big ones and small but the reality is that my most important pieces, the things that can make or break my trip-or save my life for that matter, are all from the small brands, the ones who cater to the enthusiast and are all made in North America or Italy.
For brands, I would just say to heed the words of Kenneth Roman in How to Advertise,”tell the truth, show the truth.” It’s fine if fortune leads your brand to great heights of influence, but either keep making things just as well as you did or stop doing it and don’t act like you still do. People’s lives just might depend on it.