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Outdoor brands lead the way — James Cornford

The 3 Pillars to Modern Brand Perception

The days of cold product focused marketing are dead, this (I hope) should not be a new insight. A lot of markets have reached a level of maturity where unless there is true innovation at work, it is no longer the product that acts as the point of differentiation. In today’s society the ethos and ethics of a company can mean as much as the products and services they provide, making brand perception vital in reaching and engaging the modern discerning consumer.

In an era where consumers are more informed and connected than ever before, they are buying into a brands image and philosophy, as much as they are the product itself. In order to meet the needs of the socially aware Gen Z and Millennial’s, there are three key areas that forward thinking brands need to focus on.


Brands, even those with a customer centric outlook still act like that friend that only really reaches out when they need something. For real relationship growth and enhanced consumer perception, engagement needs to be extended outside of the purchase cycle. Brands need to support, nurture and entertain their consumers in and around the landscape that interests them, not just focus how to use their products and why they are the best.

The internet of things has had a dramatic impact on consumer facing content, it led to a decrease in print publications and through ease of creation, a saturation within the digital landscape. This saturation has resulted in a lot of noise and believe it or not has actually created a vacuum, a credibility vacuum! With every man and his dog having a blog, website and content presence, it can be hard for the consumer to know who to trust, this is where brands need to step in. Brands need to be publishers as much, if not more than they are product and service providers, as long as they adopt the right approach.

The product must not be the star, it can play a role, but it can’t be the lead, brands need to find a way to increase the potential for their product to be used, not push the use of their products. To put that in context I’ll use my most familiar past time, cycling, “sell the ride, not the bike”.

If from the outset vested interests are clear, then brands can display a level of authenticity and clarity that is not always available elsewhere. This content approach encourages more use of the product category, by existing consumers, those of competitors and if done well enough, even aids in category growth.


Spending power now arguably lives with the most socially aware generations we have ever had, this is not to say that they have stronger ethics than previous generations, but it is harder for the ever connected to turn a blind eye.

Social activism, digital word of mouth and ease of message dissemination, have made the way a brand treats the environment readily available to a growing consumer base and can easily make or break a brand.

With a greater freedom of choice and easier access to convenient and fast delivery from all over the world, the environmental impact becomes an ever growing and influential point of differentiation for a growing number of consumers.

Put simply, consumers can afford to be picky, it’s no longer good enough just to be a brand that causes no damage, brands need to be seen to be active, giving back and helping, like those really putting their money where their mouths are, as part of the growing 1% For The Planet movement.


Sitting side by side with how a brand treats the environment, is the way in which a brand looks after its staff. From the most extreme stand point, it used to be possible for some people to turn a blind eye to the use of sweat shops. If they didn’t know how an item was produced, then maybe it was just a bargain!

With the increase in content marketing and with social media giving previously faceless brands and their staff a public face, consumers are seeking brands that they can associate with, buying products from people just like them.

With that in mind it’s important for consumers to know that “their kind of people” are treated well, and they are willing to spend accordingly. That doesn’t just mean not mistreating their staff, but going above and beyond, turning the brand not just into an aspirational one to own, but also to work for.

No Exceptions

These three pillars create a strong image, but paying lip service to them and purely painting an image of meeting all three will lead to the brands being caught out. There are also brands that are so big that they consider themselves beyond ethics, but their place atop of their mantle will only last so long. When they are toppled, it will be by a more rounded brand, one that seeks to be the best they can be for their customers, their staff and the environment.

Leading The Way

In my opinion it is the outdoors industry that is really leading the way with enhanced ethical marketing and improved brand perception. They have the ability to act with more fluidity and freedom than their behemoth cousins in the larger lifestyle sector, whom can be deemed as one of the slowest adopters.

The niche outdoors industry has always been a little more in touch with their clientele, often being being lead by the individuals the wish to sell to. There are numerous shining stars, but among them there are four standouts that you should take note of; Back Country, REI, Patagonia and Burton Snowboards are truly doing it right.

Examples of how they are leading the way have been used throughout this piece, but are just scratching the surface of what these brands have to offer.


You may think it’s easy for agile “sexy” companies, but there is no reason why this approach can’t be adopted by any industry and any size retailer.

Your ethics need to be brought into consideration when making business decisions, next time you are moving forward with a major decision ask yourself these simple questions, are you proud of your decision, will your customers and staff be happy and will your legacy be a positive one? If you can answer yes to all three, then you are well on your way to fulfilling what I consider to be the three pillars to modern brand perception.

Images: Header image -James Cornford. All other images and videos are courtesy of embeds and shares from the respective brands.

Written by

Cyclist, Strategist, Marketer & Journalist, fueled by tea! Writes about bikes, exploring & life’s adventures! Englishman living in USA.

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