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What is it about Patagonia?

amy lipner
Sep 26, 2017 · 6 min read

** Note: This article does not contain one single mention of the word authenticity. Thank me later.

It seems as if Patagonia is always on the top of “favorite socially-conscious brands lists” and featured in countless examinations of how to run a successful values-forward business (see here, here, here, here).

And to out my own biases, Patagonia is at the top of my own meaningless list. And hell, living in the Bay Area, my purple Patagonia puff vest is a staple in my wardrobe. See?

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But however you slice it, Patagonia is always part of the conversation of impact-driven companies. So it got me thinking….what IS IT about Patagonia that makes it such an influential mission-driven brand? Sure it was one of the first companies to tie their values so markedly to their products, but we all know that first to market doesn’t necessarily mean longevity (I see you Friendster).

There’s plenty to examine about the brand and its success, but given my focus is on the messaging side of things, I zeroed in on how Patagonia uses positioning and language to build a consistent brand, create genuine customer loyalty, and be tied so closely to its values. In other words, I’m not here to evaluate the technicals of Patagonia’s gear, I’m just here for the words.

I think the hunch here is to point to Patagonia’s transparency as a critical marketing tool. And to a certain extent this is correct. But it runs deeper than simply appearing to be open and accountable. If executed incorrectly, company values like transparency run the risk of becoming meaningless or worse — are perceived as greenwashing.

Transparency is one thing, but how a brand communicates that transparent information is something else entirely. And it is here, in the how, that makes Patagonia’s transparent and mission-oriented communication so effective.

  1. Be Transparent, Thoughtfully

Patagonia makes a big deal about transparency. From supply chain to cash register, Patagonia presents as upfront, honest, and accountable. Just take a look at their Inside Patagonia tab to get a peek “under the wind + water resistant hood.” Here you can easily dig in and examine Patagonia’s impact on the environment and understand their supply chain — that is if that’s what you want to know. But this level of detail and granularity isn’t what most consumers want. They want to feel good about their purchase, but aren’t interested in knowing the nitty-gritty.

In contrast, the Patagonia shop page highlights each item, provides the specs, and has an overview of the garment’s history. The shop page is closely tied to Inside Patagonia — but if you are just on the page to grab a fleece a run, you aren’t scrolling through endless facts to type in your credit card.

From a communication angle, the key here is to understand when and how to deploy your mission-driven information. The biggest mistake I see with companies is hitting their customers over the head with their do-gooder stuff. And Patagonia definitely is not shying away from their earth-friendly mission. It’s all over. But they create spaces for customers at every level of engagement, without letting people off the hook.

Takeaway: Transparent communication doesn’t mean every interaction requires a soapbox. But that doesn’t mean they need to exist in two separate spheres.

2. Create Consistency in All of Your Channels

Brand voice. It’s all about how companies “speak” in their communications. Patagonia has cultivated a brand voice that is direct, educational, and trustworthy. Take this email I got from them the other day introducing a new line of work apparel:

“We set out to build a Workwear line — jackets, pants, sweaters, shirts and hats — that is more durable and uses less harmful materials. Our design process begins with the basic elements — innovative hemp blends or warm, superdurable synthetics — and from there we add exactly what is necessary for the specific end use”

The language and content is unfussy. There aren’t many adjectives or descriptors. It is a matter-of-fact introduction to new products, but with the natural tie into “less harmful materials” AND some insight into the Patagonia design process. This simple email does a lot of work; it draws back the curtain just enough to invite folks in and see if they are interested in more.

Voice, tone, and content. They need to match and build off of one another. Patagonia continually reinforces itself as a brand rooted in transparency in each of its communication channels. And by creating a brand voice that is trustworthy and educational, the customer is led on a consistent brand journey.

Contrast this with a bus ad I just saw for National and Alamo car rental that said that they were sharing buses because it is better for the environment. My mom, who I was traveling with, remarked “yeah, they share buses because they are owned by the same company and they can save money.” The irony is that Enterprise (who owns both brands) has been expanding their fleet of clean-fuel buses, but since this eco-conscious tone isn’t a fixture of their marketing, it rang hollow to my mom.

Message consistency in all marketing channels creates the environment for clients to trust an impact-driven company. Brand voice is one of the most important tools to create a rapport and engagement. Patagonia’s distilled brand voice supports its mission-driven approach and offers latitude for the company and its promotional efforts.

Takeaway: Build trust with your customers with a well-executed and consistent brand voice.

3. Write your own story. And keep it interesting.

Narrative is one of Patagonia’s superpowers. You can see the value they place on story throughout their webpage. From their field reports which show “glimpses of nature’s front line through the eyes of athletes, travelers and adventurers” to the fact-filled videos about their products, all the way to their Footprint Chronicles which take you inside their textile mills, factories, and farms.

Patagonia has moved beyond selling to engaging customers with an entire brand perspective and lifestyle. It is can be a fully consuming digital experience that is all tied together in a cohesive narrative — “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This is their mission statement and it underlies the story of the brand.

So many impact-driven companies are missing a powerful opportunity to connect, establish themselves as trust-worthy partners, and build loyal relationships.

By creating interactive, story-driven messages about their values, Patagonia is getting out in front and creating the story they want to tell. And in doing so, is able to set the customer expectations throughout the buying journey. By adding journalistic flair it is even more engaging for the reader, so their message actually gets across.

Often I will be working with companies who haven’t taken the time to build out the connection between their product and their mission. Or even spent any time deeply thinking through their about page. These may feel like afterthoughts when you are working on perfecting your product, but this is exactly what conscious customers want from a brand aligned with their values. Story.

Takeaway: Be smart. Leverage narrative.

Let’s wrap this up in our fleeces. So what does this mean? If you are a sustainable or impact-driven organization your marketing strategy goes to the heart of building a brand customers trust and “feel good” about spending their dollars on. From brand voice to narrative to consistent communication, it’s how these pieces are deployed that makes the difference.

If you are interested in a 1-hour copy intensive to see where you can bulk up your brand strategy, send me a note here.

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