How The North Face rediscovered its brand purpose

Internal Queen Victoria Building
Source: The North Face Instagram.
Source: The North Face Instagram.

In retail, people like to say the only constant is change.

US-based outdoor retailer The North Face has been immune to this fact in one key area. It has had the same tagline for the past 50 years: never stop exploring.

But does that motto still make sense for the brand in 2019? A lot has changed since The North Face founders started making clothes to sell to their friends in the 1960s. The team realised it needed to redefine the meaning of exploration in a modern context.

“What is the future of exploration? How do we define exploration,” Ian Dewar, director of consumer lifecycle and analytics at The North Face, asked in a presentation at the Online Retailer conference last week.

“Thirty-five years ago, exploring meant going to a mountain you’ve never been to. Crossing a range you’ve never skied before. Climbing a peak that has never been climbed.

“And exploration still means that. But, it means so much more today.”

For Dewar and The North Face team, exploration began to take on a more abstract sense of bettering oneself – emotional, cultural and creative exploration.

“Not every customer cares about photography, or culture, or emotional exploration, or physical climbing. But all of our customers have that curiosity, which drives them to a brand like ours,” Dewar said. 

As the brand started to broaden its definition of exploration, it realised it also needed to update its tools for exploration. After all, if exploration is no longer purely about climbing peaks, do technical backpacks still make sense?

Understanding the audience

A major learning in this space came from the brand’s partnership with streetwear label Supreme. In creating a new kind of product, one that isn’t likely to be seen on a mountaintop, The North Face saw that customers want different things.

“[T]hese communities are different – they respond to different behaviours,” Dewar said. “We started to say that we need to treat our customers different. We need to talk to our customers different[ly].”

The brand conducted a deep-dive into understanding the way its customers shop. Most customers only shop with the brand once a year, it found. And most are repeat buyers.

To Dewar, this signalled a huge opportunity. 

“Traditionally, we would promote backpacks because about 50 per cent of our customers buy backpacks – essentially this means that we’re wrong half the time,” he said.

To try to understand what other products customers were interested in, The North Face turned to data analytics.

“[We] looked at past customer behaviour, and built models to predict future interest. We separated our customers into ‘interest in backpacks’, or ‘interested in apparel’. We separated them into urban experience, or lifestyle experience,” Dewar said.

“We looked at when school started. When people shopped in the past. Whether they had children, and how old those children are.”

This was all in an effort to create a more personalised, customised experience for customers – regardless of whether they are looking to climb a mountain, or get to their next lecture.

“This is all about us…coming back to our brand purpose: We really care about what our customers are doing, and how we continue to drive this movement for global exploration.

“We want to get people about what’s happening in our community and engage with like-minded people. We’ve shifted a lot of our social and outbound messaging away from just expeditions, to relevant and social issues – toward things that our customers interact with,” he said.

For example, when the Trump administration said it would reduce the size of National Parks in the US, The North Face launched a campaign to educate people around why National Parks matter.

“We really do believe that wild places are important to us. We believe that if you don’t educate people in that space we will lose them. 

“People ask us ‘why are you getting so political in a situation like this?’, it’s not political at all. Our brand is based around the outdoors – access to that outdoors is incredibly important.

“As we start to understand what our customers respond to, we can tell more of these stories.”

Expanding share of closet, not just wallet

Was all the effort worth it? “You bet. Of course it is,” Dewar said.

The North Face found that customers that engaged with the brand on a more relevant basis were far more likely to shop with them again. Customers in its VIP program now return almost twice per year – up from a little over once per year prior.

“We’re actively educating people about what we make, we’re expanding our share of their closet, and not just the share of their wallet,” Dewar said. 

“It’s really important to lead with your brand values. We have spent a lot of time understanding who our customers are – the evolution of our customers has led to an evolution of our brand values.

“It’s not just climbing to the summit of a peak anymore. It’s really about learning about your world.”

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