Disruption, change, & golden opportunities for the evolving outdoor industry

Latitude Research
Aug 21 · 8 min read

While 2.2 percent of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) might not seem like much, when you consider how that amounts to around $734 billion dollars, the outdoor industry in the US creates a huge economic splash. And, according to a recent report by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the industry’s growth doesn’t show any signs of stopping — even with a potential recession looming in the future.

As the outdoor industry expands, so does the opportunity for brands willing to adapt to the changes and evolve to meet shifting consumer needs. While the opportunity is there, it’s hard to make the most of that it without understanding the shifts and changes taking place within the industry.

And, that’s where we start.

An invitation to evolve

By 2020, the OIA estimates that the outdoor industry will encounter unprecedented disruption. Often times, the word “disruption” carries with it a negative connotation. But, in this case, disruption means more “opportunity” than anything.

So, which factors contribute to the disruption? According to the OIA’s 2020 Forecasting Report, five key factors combine together to cause the “perfect storm” of disruption:

  1. Millennials come of age and Baby Boomers grow older: By 2020, Millennials (which the report defined as individuals born between 1980 and 2000) will account for 28% of the US population and 50% of the workforce. At the same time, 10,000 Boomers will turn 65 on a daily basis.
  2. Urban migration: According to the US Census Bureau, 82.5% of the US’s population will live in urban areas by 2020.
  3. Rising levels of obesity: Given the current rate of increase, the OIA estimates obesity will rise to affect 42% of the US population by 2020.
  4. A heightened emphasis on healthy living: With obesity and the cost of healthcare on the rise, the interest in healthy living has also increased.
  5. An increase in the Latino population within the US: The US Census Bureau estimates that, by 2020, the Latino population living in the US will reach 19.4%.

As the outdoor industry changes due to larger demographic changes in the US, these brands are adapting and, as a result, setting themselves up to win under a new set of circumstances.

Here’s what they’re up to:

Patagonia, the disruptor consumers have been waiting for

With its commitment to using business as a means to address the ecological crisis, Patagonia already distinguished itself as more than just an average outdoor goods retailer.

Known for its sponsorship of environmental activist groups, the distance it takes to reduce its impact and provide transparency in its supply chain, Patagonia leads the way in many areas of corporate, social, and environmental responsibility. And, as a result, it created an amazingly loyal base of customers.

Courtesy of Patagonia

Patagonia tells a story that draws in many customers seeking a company that takes a stand on issues they care about most. Customers gravitate to Patagonia since it provides an alternative to the “business as usual” model. As a customer of Patagonia, you don’t just buy a jacket. You invest in a story and an identity as a member of a community of everyday activists.

According to Fortune, Since 2009, the rate of Patagonia’s ­annual growth increased to 14%. Patagonia also reports that both their profits and revenue quadrupled during the last ­seven years as well. And, during 2016 alone, sales increased by a solid 18%. In an interview with Outside Magazine back in 2017, Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, remarked in regards to the company’s growth, “What we are doing is stealing other companies’ business. The outdoor industry is not in good shape. You do the right thing, it leads to more business. What am I going to do, say no?”

Patagonia’s outspoken founder, Yvon Chouinard. courtesy of Patagonia/Tim Davis

In an age of disruption and resistance, Patagonia is the welcome agent of disruption its customers have been waiting for and are showing they’re willing to support with their business as well.

How The North Face faces disruption and wins

How do you attract the business of Millenials shopping for outdoor goods? Start by understanding their desire for going outdoors in the first place. According to OIA’s report mentioned earlier, many millennials increasingly venture outdoors to engage with others socially. In other words, the outdoors provide the venue for Millennials to connect with community and nurture life-giving relationships through memorable shared experiences.

Understanding this desire, The North Face created several different touchpoints that give their rising customers what they want — a connection to community through a connection to the outdoors.

The North Face’s new Manhattan retail store, for instance, centers around one focal point known as “the campfire.” Like actual campfires lit during time spent outdoors, The North Face’s campfire provides a place for the brand to connect with its customers on a deeper level. There, the company’s employees pour over maps with customers and help them plan their own grand adventures with their friends — adventures intended to bring customers into closer connections with friends.

courtesy of The North Face

And while The North Face uses brick-and-mortar experiences to foster connections, the company also employs other methods to bring customers what they’re looking for in the outdoors.

Following its successful sponsorship of a series of events for Hipcamp called “Under the Stars,” The North Face released a line of goods marketed towards car and van campers. The line features throwback A-frame tents, group cooking shelters, and sleeping bags big enough to fit two. Each product enables customers to, again, connect socially with others through the outdoors. The demand is there — customers want products that enable social connection in the outdoors and The North Face is rising to meet that demand.

As A Symbol of Disruption, DTC joins the action

While Patagonia’s rise demonstrates shifting customer demand towards more sustainable and less-toxic clothing, that same increased demand extends to a less considered aspect of the outdoor industry as well — bug spray.

On the surface, Kinfield differs little from other brands that distinguish themselves by providing natural alternatives to certain outdoor items like sunscreen and bug spray. However, the company diverges from just another socially and environmentally aware brand through its emphasis on experience and through the way it strives to engage with its community of customers.

Courtesy of Kate Rentz/Kinfield

For starters, Kinfield gets to the “why” of it all immediately. Why would customers buy from this brand? According to Kindfield, the mission is to give people greater access to the outdoors by offering a cleaner alternative to normal outdoor products. Paying attention to the feedback of its early supporters who wanted a cleaner way to enjoy the outdoors, Kinfield got its start by offering a bug spray that people could feel good about. Apparently, many of Kinfield’s early supporters felt guilty while using traditional bug sprays filled with harmful chemicals. By providing a DEET-free and vegan alternative, Kinfield enabled their customers to have the experience they desire without the feeling of guilt.

So far, paying attention to the feedback and desires of their customers served Kinfield well and the company plans to continue developing their products in a similar way. Zoe Taubman Coles, who directs the social and community aspects of the brand, commented on Kinfield’s highly engaged strategy by saying, “From the get-go, we plan to harness the power of social [media] to create mini focus groups — engaging our community, listening to their feedback and using their input to create new products.” By paying extra close attention to shifting demand, Kinfield found a way to give consumers what they desire most — not just bug spray, but a clean and guiltless experience of the outdoors. Paying attention to the type of experience a customer wants or how a product enables an experience — that’s something all brands could learn from.

courtesy of Kinfield

Disruption = Opportunity

Without a doubt, it takes courage to face the uncertainty of a world constantly being reshaped by disruption. But, brands who view that disruption as an opportunity usually manage to find success in reaching customers that are themselves driving much of the change.

As Charles Darwin once argued, ‘It’s not necessarily the biggest, strongest, or smartest species that end up surviving. It’s the ones most likely to adapt to change.’ Substitute the word “brands” in for “species” and the same statement holds true for the ever-changing world of retail. For brands in the outdoors industry, now is the time to listen to Darwin and evolve.

Next Steps For Brands Ready to be a Part of the Disruption —

  1. Meet the modern consumer in modern ways: The way consumers connect with each other and with brands is rapidly changing. Winning companies will look to these new mediums to tell their stories and create deeper connections with customers.
  2. Promote the experience: The outdoors is all about the adventure and the experience it embodies. Brands should look to this growing consumer desire and leverage their offerings and communications to match the demand.
  3. Take a stand on something that matters and don’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers: Many companies claim to give back to the environment or other parallel causes, but brands who have the most impact and sway find a way to be an active part of the narrative that goes above and beyond expectations. See Patagonia for example. Consumers of today can smell shallow marketing tactics from a campsite away. Winning brands of today find ways to authentically connect with a larger sense of purpose — ”authentically” being a key word here.

Want to learn more? Feel free to reach out at any time. We would love to chat!

The above piece was written by the Latitude Supercharge Research Team, which includes Connor Beck and Carter Jensen

Resources and original reporting of the above points covered by the following publications —PSFK, Outside Magazine, Fortune Magazine, & the Outdoor Industry Association

At Latitude, we love taking incredible brands of all sizes and elevating them through tech-fueled experiences that add true value. From pop-up retail to permanent build-outs, our team brings brand stories and modern-day commerce together to truly stand out. Want to learn more? See our case studies. Give us a shout.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more? Our 2019 retail report is now available and includes a long list of case studies and insights from Shopify, Dollar Shave Club, and much more.

We would love to share this presentation in person with your team, please let us know if that is something you would like to chat more about.

See the report. / Contact us.


Latitude is a brand and experience design agency thinking bigger to connect deeper with a holistic approach to grow business.

Latitude Research

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Latitude Research is a subgroup of Latitude, an experience design agency specializing in elevating retail experiences for brands across the world. 🌐 www.lat.co



Latitude is a brand and experience design agency thinking bigger to connect deeper with a holistic approach to grow business.

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