The Split Personalities of Outdoor Brands
A brand’s cultural involvement makes up 25% of a consumer’s purchasing decision.
It’s a staggering statistic that illustrates our modern consumption habits, a materialistic wokeness where we prefer knowing where, how and why something is made. We want to know brands, relate to them and share their interests and values so that they become our brands. It’s the basis of branding, the opportunity for a company to create its own identity by showing people exactly what they want people to see, like an insecure 18-year-old who just arrived at college.
For outdoor companies, branding is essential. Consumers want a tent from a brand that likes camping and, better yet, one that advocates for public lands on your behalf so we can all enjoy camping for generations to come. As gear becomes more commodified, branding rivals quality and function as a fulcrum to rise above the crowded industry. In fact, combined with brand perceptions, cultural involvement outweighs price and quality 56-44%. Patagonia has used this insight masterfully for the past quarter century.
Directing our spending toward companies we feel are contributing positively to our culture is admirable but we’re directing the money at brands, not companies. Brands are like our Instagram feeds. Companies are like actual lives, full of the mundane, the embarrassing and sometimes disgraceful.
Take the North Face. Great story. Doug Tompkins, one of the OG dirtbags, makes and sells gear in bohemian San Francisco and Berkeley. Brand becomes a massive phenomenon for outdoor enthusiasts, white suburban teens and black hip hop culture. Sponsors the sickest athletes. The only thing most people would say makes the North Face uncool is it’s too popular.
Less can be said by the North Face’s parent company VF Corporation. VF Corporation is a publicly traded company that you can own a piece of for 83 bucks a share at last bell. They have a portfolio of over thirty brands that include Vans, Wrangler and Jansport. More cool brands that you may find common cause with! But if you don’t hike or skate, and fossil fuels are more your thing, give Workrite a look, a uniform brand that makes flame resistant apparel for the oil and gas industry. Maybe law enforcement speaks to you. VF owns Horace Small which makes uniforms for cops.
If you want to support the North Face because they made a shirt that says Walls Are Meant For Climbing, go for it. But you’re also supporting ‘cultural involvement’ that includes torching the planet and getting black and brown people locked up and murdered.
VF separates their goods into brand silos because rock climbers don’t want to be associated with oil wells. We’d be hard pressed to support any company with such opposing attitudes without the illusion of brand independence. In reality, whether public lands are used for recreation or for drilling, VF Corporation is going to make money. Walls may be meant for climbing but if you instead want harsher immigration enforcement, to hire more ICE and CBP officers, VF Corporation is going to make money. VF gets to have it both ways, no matter your political or moral leaning.
Consumers aren’t total marks. As mass shootings piled up over 2018, individuals and retailers began boycotting outdoor gear, ammo and firearm conglomerate Vista Outdoor’s brands that included CamelBak, Blackburn, Bell and Giro. By last month, after spending a year getting savaged on the stock market, Vista had sold off its gun manufacturing companies. That’s great. But Vista Outdoor was born out of blood in the first place, a spin-off from Alliant Techsystems, itself now owned by Northrop Grumman, a conglomerate of some of the most evil weapons and war machine manufacturers in the world.
Voting with our pocketbook, so to speak, whether with our spending or lack thereof, is important. Boycott is an incredibly successful strategy to affect change, so much so the powerful have been furiously attempting to outlaw it. Support good companies and fuck the bad ones. Get the gear you need to enjoy yourself in the outdoors. Just don’t fall for branding. Brands aren’t alive, they’re not your friends and don’t deserve your loyalty.
This isn’t a consumer scold. Rather, it’s on companies to change how branding is used in general, the way 56% of Americans want them to, honestly.