Lapped: Why some sports and outdoor brands are killing it with customers — and others aren’t.

If you think selling gear is hard, try buying it.

Outdoor gear and sports brands are leaving a lot of money on the table. We know this because we’ve done the work to find out. In 2016, Almighty audited the gear buying experience for more than 600 brands across 1000 product lines. We interviewed dozens of customers about their buying habits. Our team spoke with telemark skiers, fly fishermen, and mothers of budding hockey stars. We found processes, systems, and experiences that are inconsistent, and often at odds with the needs of customers.

Making it easier for people to buy fuels growth.

We’re relying on the strength of the brands we’re building to pull customers through a fragmented, complex buying process. An essential question:

With data and customer archetypes, we can optimize the gear buying experience.

Reconciling customer needs and building experiences that meet them should be a straightforward process. Looking at ourselves, and our competitors, in analytical ways gives us a path forward.

Organizing around segmentation is a recipe for inefficiency.

Customer segments can be an incredibly useful tool when you’re in the business of selling. They tend to distort our vision when we’re trying to make it easier to buy.

It’s time to see customers in the ways in which customers see themselves.

When we focus our efforts on adopting a customer’s view of the marketplace, we can be significantly more efficient. We can draw direct connections between a user’s needs and functionality or experiences that we can deliver. We can prioritize one set of customers over another, in ways that connect directly to business objectives. We can build on-ramps to our brands for specific customer types. We can stop applying our scarce resources to people who aren’t real. As Dr. Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow, is fond of reminding readers:

‘Simply naming a segment does not make it exist.’

When we acknowledge a journey, we invest in our customers for the long haul. In the interviews we’ve conducted with gear buyers, almost no one referred to themselves in demographic terms.

Detail from buying journey/experience for two of the ten archetypes our team identified

When customer experience is an abstract idea, so is the path toward improving it.

Rather than being emboldened by the idea of delivering better experiences, we see organizations unnecessarily paralyzed by it. The soft science of design thinking seems to be getting in the way of designing and building better experiences.

When we make customer needs tangible, we can meet them.

Archetypes help us identify needs. Data helps us measure how well we meet them. Our audit uncovered a collection of 30 interactions and experiences that shape a customer’s experience. By weighting each of these for each archetype, we can generate a measure of how well the experience of buying a Black Diamond tent matches the needs of the Seasoned Parent, for example.

Screenshots from the tool we built to parse retail experience data at
  1. Touch and Try: How easy is it for a customer to see, touch, and feel the product — and to imagine themselves in or using it?
    a. Availability of product specifications and fit information
    b. Ways in which products are visually merchandised
    c. Ability, where applicable, to customize products
    d. Retail penetration in key US markets for the sport or activity
  2. Network Influence: How much do popular opinion and personal networks drive people toward the brand’s products?
    a. Existence and quality of customer reviews of the products
    b. Search engine performance of the brand’s websites
    c. Brand references and inbound links from other websites
    d. Inclusion on ‘best of’ lists and buyer’s guides
  3. The Power of the Brand: How much does the strength of the brand drive people toward the brand’s products?
    a. Size of the brand’s owned retail footprint
    b. The brand’s roster of professional endorsers
    c. The flow of brand content through social networks
    d. Awareness of, and discussion around, the brand in the marketplace
  4. Ease of purchase: How easy is it to find the product at the most common retailers?
    a. The brand’s direct e-commerce experience
    b. Availability through big-box, mass retail, sports speciality, and e-tail channels

“Campaign culture” makes it difficult to address customer needs.

Product launches and marketing campaigns align well with the rewards systems built into organizations. They allow us to celebrate months of effort and collaboration. They announce a new unified vision. They come with fanfare for a job well done. They’re moments built for marketing — for selling. Unfortunately, they tend to get in the way of making it easier to buy.

Work toward a culture of perpetual, surgical enhancements.

Many of the best-performing brands, both in our study and across industries, instead embrace an ongoing stream of customer-focused improvements. Brands like Patagonia and L.L.Bean (disclosure: an Almighty client) generally opt to introduce new website functionality and retail installations on a rolling basis rather than in campaign form. These rollouts are diligently A/B tested with subsets of their users and customers before they’re introduced to the world en masse.

Start here: embrace the value of customer experience optimization.

Constant incremental improvements to customer experiences begin with continuous incremental improvements to the ways in which we work.

We’re going to make buying easier, together.

Outdoor gear and sports brands are leaving a lot of money on the table. But that can change.

  • Ian Fitzpatrick
  • Mimi Weber

co-founder of Almighty. Strategy + code + imported vinyl. Ambient information fetish.

co-founder of Almighty. Strategy + code + imported vinyl. Ambient information fetish.