Don’t Buy This Jacket

How Patagonia Provides a Map to Brand Authenticity

For those who’ve never stepped foot in an REI store or aspire to climb a rock face, Patagonia is a brand of outdoor gear that traces its roots back to the 1970s, when it started making mountain climbing gear.

The company has long supported environmental activism, and created waves with a strikingly honest 2011 Black Friday ad campaign suggesting that purchasing less stuff — including Patagonia products — could benefit the environment. The ad copy goes on to spell out what resources go into making one of its bestselling jackets, including 135 liters of water and 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. Patagonia asks customers to join its Common Threads Initiative – asking them to buy less, while committing to make long-lasting gear, offering a way to repair broken garments and assist customers wanting to sell or recycle unwanted items.

A closer look at Patagonia and other brands provides some guidance for brands looking to build a more values-driven culture and reputation in the marketplace.

Authentic from the start

Reading about Patagonia’s history on their website shows the company was founded by climber Yvon Chouinard on the ideal of enjoying nature while being responsible. The company’s 1972 catalog espoused the virtues of “clean climbing” – climbing a mountain face without hammering potentially damaging metal spikes into the rock.

Having this history made Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This” campaign decades later authentic –its goals can be traced back to the company’s roots and clearly wasn’t a quick publicity stunt.

Contrast Patagonia with whisky brand Johnnie Walker’s recent rollout of “Jane Walker” – a special edition of the spirit for International Women’s Day, complete with a female version of the iconic “striding man” image on the bottle. The brand claimed to be celebrating progress along with the role women played in the company’s history, but some on social media saw it as pandering to female stereotypes. The company’s VP didn’t do it any favors by saying, “Scotch as a category is seen as particularly intimidating by women.” I’d argue that, without an obvious and well-known history advocating for women, any attempt to try to latch on to Women’s Day looks more like a way to sell more cases and becomes an easy mark for social media mockery.

A virtuous circle: Brand purpose and brand influence

Having a true sense of purpose (beyond selling more product) is crucial to finding authentic ways to demonstrate that purpose through hiring practices, culture and corporate social responsibility activities. Your brand purpose lives in the intersection of your brand philosophy, equity, capabilities and goals and the consumer’s needs, wants and macro trends. Increasingly consumers are aware of a brand’s purpose, and it can be a very powerful force. As pointed out in Chapter 1 of Our View, when consumers feel a brand is working in their best interest, they have a greater connection — and more loyalty — toward that brand. In short, brand purpose, when done correctly, can create brand influence.

For example, Dove’s brand purpose is helping women reconsider and redefine what beauty is. So when the brand launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty,” it didn’t come off as clunky or pandering. That led to significant positive media coverage, and a true cause and catalyst for a movement that helped define the brand for years to come, reaching 7 million women and girls with a message focused on self esteem and a developing a realistic self image.

Being a force for good

In the Dove example noted earlier, the brand’s authenticity led to a cause, which has a much greater impact (and, yes, more opportunities for positive press). The consistency of the brand’s messages and activities gives it staying power.

Companies that truly operationalize their brand image will see greater, more sustained success across many areas compared to brands that make one-off efforts to grab a piece of a trending topic or hot cause de jour. An authentic brand backing a cause not only can lead to public relations and marketing success, it can enhance corporate culture, clarify a brand’s purpose in the eyes of its employees and aid in recruiting. I saw this while working for Luxottica – employees across the organization were excited to participate in OneSight, the company charity that provides eyecare and glasses for those in need around the world. OneSight started as “Give the Gift of Sight,” a program that allowed customers to recycle used eyewear. Interestingly, the charity is now a stand-alone non-profit entity, with strong participation from Luxottica employees.

So, many might read all this and wonder if their organization can follow Patagonia’s path without the resources of a passionate billionaire founder who isn’t beholden to shareholders. I’d say you can, but it starts with a deep introspective dive to find your true purpose, and then finding ways to activate that purpose.

Want to get started? We’d love to chat!

Discover More:

Patagonia’s Authentic Self

Patagonia’s Business Manafesto