Successful business leaders know when to take calculated risks that can lead to profitable rewards. Innovative companies pioneer uncharted territory in terms of products to gain market share. Purposeful trailblazers push the boundaries around impact to foster goodwill. Brands that lead with us and prioritize their values build movements, loyalty and earned media.
North Face is an excellent example of a brand that’s standing behind its core beliefs. By acting on purpose, the outdoor apparel retailer is driving growth through impact.
“Consumers vote for brands that are purpose led,” Arne Arens, North Face’s Global Brand President, tells We First. “Our brand equity with these consumers is better served by thinking long-term than thinking short term.”
Ultimately by cultivating relationships that go beyond financial transactions, North Face earns a place in the hearts, minds and purchases of its target consumers.
How North Face Builds Community Around Nature:
A core aspect of North Face’s long-term mission is to connect consumers with the outdoors. Part of the brand’s messaging focuses on inspirational outdoor explorers to motivate customers.
The mentality of elite athletes, like climbers, comes down to two main elements, Arens says. “First, you need to be on top of your game both physically and mentally. The slightest mistake could cost you your life.”
Second, you have to be “a great team player. This is one of the things that attracted me to North Face,” he says. “It’s what our culture is about.”
That culture expands beyond North Face’s internal walls and into its external stance. “We believe that the world needs community,” Arne shares. “We’ve found that spending time in nature helps people connect with themselves, but also with other people. If you go for a 20-minute walk in the woods, your adrenaline level drops. It has a soothing and calming effect on people.” The Global Brand President also says that when people spend more time in nature, they tend to care more about preserving it.
One way the company facilitates that connection to nature is via the Explore Fund. For over 10 years, North Face has been helping underprivileged youth get outside. That relationship with nature builds self confidence, provides long-term perspective on life and helps people feel a deeper sense of purpose.
Throughout the pandemic, North Face has encouraged both consumers and employees to take refuge in nature. On a personal level, Arne is keeping his family active by walking and running in Denver’s parks. “Sitting inside and being on zoom all day just takes a toll,” he says. The company has been nudging its employees to do the same.
From a consumer-facing perspective, North Face is featuring insights and tips about what athletes are doing while inside. They also share exercise routines and provide suggestions for what to do in nature and how to get there. “Our role as a brand is to inspire and enable people to make the outdoors part of their routine,” Arens says. “It’s just good for you.”
In addition to its supportive messaging, the brand is staying true to its sustainability commitments, despite economic challenges that have impacted all businesses.
“There’s the here and now and there’s the future,” Arens says. “Sustainability does not take a back seat into the day to day craziness of running the business during COVID-19.”
North Face isn’t the only company touting sustainability. Many businesses — some more accountable than others — are highlighting sustainable initiatives. In other words, sustainability is now competitive from a communications perspective. How does North Face distinguish itself from the competition?
Arens says that by 2023, 90 percent of merchandise will be made with recycled material. That will be one hundred percent for polyester products. “Sixty to 70% of our entire footprint comes from product,” he shares. “Addressing that is the biggest impact we can make.”
North Face is already well on its way. For example, the company uses 100 percent certified and responsibly-sourced down. Arens says that in 2017, they increased supply chain transparency, which triggered other brands in the industry to follow suit.
In addition to its responsible sourcing initiatives, North Face is contributing to a circular economy. Its Renewed program resells lightly worn garments to reduce overconsumption and prevent clothing from going to the landfill.
While it might seem like selling used products would reduce the sale of new items, “There are still so many opportunities left,” Arens says and points to North Face’s shoe department as one area the company is expanding. “There are enough consumers that still want to get outside and have a great time. We’re not worried about that.” Arne’s attitude is in line with North Face’s commitment to build products that last beyond the season’s fashion trends.
In fact North Face’s sustainability efforts have had a positive impact on its bottom line. “Consumers are voting with their wallets,” Arens says. “For example, our Thermoball Eco series features recycled plastic bottles for insulation material. Sales on those jackets versus last year — despite the fact that we’re in a very tough situation — are actually increasing.” These consumer trends also help North Face influence supply chain partners to deliver more sustainable goods.
Consumers prefer companies that prioritize their values. That said, North Face is owned by VF Corporation, which is publicly traded. “If the quarter end is coming and we have to make some commercial decisions, we will,” Arens admits. “That said, they are made with a long term, purpose-led lens.”
North Face’s sustainability vision and drive creates ripples in the industry. “We try to use our scale for good,” North Face’s Global Brand President says. He also shines a spotlight on Patagonia’s innovation around sustainability. “We hope that other companies in this space will follow.”
Facebook and leading a brand fueled movement:
An outstanding example of North Face’s movement making mojo is its recent stand against hate speech. The outdoor retailer was the first brand to boycott Facebook after the NAACP, ADL, Color of Change and other non-profits launched the #StopHateForProfit campaign.
A bold and political move, how did North Face come to the decision? “One of our values as a company is building community,” Arens says. “The hate speech coming through Facebook was not in line with our values. It put people against each other instead of creating a connection. It was time to take a stance.”
While Arens says, in the end, the decision was unanimous, North Face had to consider several factors before taking the plunge. “Facebook is a very important advertising platform for us. We didn’t know how they were going to react.”
For the greater part of an hour, the company’s executive team stood at a standstill, unsure of whether their purposeful action would backfire. “After 45 minutes or so, we saw this incredible momentum around the globe. All the news outlets were picking it up,” Arens recalls. “We were pleased because we knew we did something that had impact and made a brand statement in line with our values.”
After North Face’s lead, many other brands in the outdoor apparel sector and beyond joined the boycott. “The main result for us was engaging in a constructive dialog with Facebook about their policies and the way they run the platform. That is still ongoing and they’re improving.”
North Face’s initiative and willingness to partner with like-minded companies around purpose helps the brand scale impact. “There’s quite a few platforms within the industry dedicated to creating equity in the outdoors,” Arens says. “We have groups like the Outdoor Industry Association and The Sustainable Apparel Coalition that bring us together. This facilitates discussion about challenges and the opportunities that we have as an industry.”
Collaboration and pooled resources amplify North Face’s stance around issues like conserving public lands, climate action and sustainability. Ultimately, by standing behind its equitable and environmental values, North Face is able to build its products, brand and community to weather the test of time.