The North Face thinks outside the box

While the 40-year-old company's message is still the same, its target is much broader than ever

While the 40-year-old company's message is still the same, its target is much broader than ever

The North Face and its iconic logo, stitched into a broad range of sports gear and sportswear, still carries a certain status of authentic ruggedness despite the company's commercial success. In celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the company says it has no plans to waver in its focus on the outdoor adventurer. But defining that adventurer is a different matter.

In addition to reaching out to more diverse communities, Letitia Webster, director of corporate sustainability and communications at The North Face, says the company plans to make the brand more approachable to those who do not consider themselves to be hard-core, seasoned outdoors people.

"One of the key things around our 40th [anniversary] is opening doors and exposing more people to what the outdoors has to offer," she adds.

The communications strategy will continue to emphasize the core tenets of The North Face brand, like innovation and authenticity. It will also, however, include a stronger push toward inspiring people to take a break from computer- and TV-centric activities and go outside. It plans to do this by connecting consumers with the professional athletes who are paid by The North Face to test products and often inspire new product breakthroughs, Webster explains.

Diane Van Deren, an endurance runner, trekked 260 miles with 40 pounds of gear in below-freezing temperatures. Because Van Deren is also a mother who suffers from epilepsy, the story often inspires others to take their first steps toward being active. When telling the tale of her trek, Van Deren gives kudos to The North Face's gear for helping her make it.

"People were dropping out because their hands and feet were getting frostbitten and they were getting hypothermia," Webster notes. "[And Van Deren] really feels that without The North Face gear she would have to pull out. These athletes push themselves day in and day out in some pretty tenuous circumstances, so it's very inspirational. It encourages people to try and push themselves a little bit more, too."

The athletes are profiled through stories and videos on the company's Web sites. Additionally, they share their experiences at North Face events and through press outlets key to the brand, such as Outside, Backpacker, and Powder.

The outdoors sector has traditionally not had a strong multicultural appeal. One reason for this, cites Webster, is that the industry has not engaged in a concerted effort to draw a more diverse following. However, she adds, The North Face hopes to engage in more multicultural outreach in the future.

"It's really important that we bring a lot more diverse cultures into the outdoors," Webster notes. "We're seeing [that] it's not a really big part of the population that is participating in outdoor [activities], like hiking and climbing. And so, if the population of America is changing, we need to ensure that we are including that diversity within our customer base."

But the company is more cautious when approaching consumer publications and business media. "[We want to] preserve an authentic quality to the stories," Webster explains, and avoid alienating the outdoors community by appearing to be more interested in marketing its products as opposed to honoring athletic achievements.

Alicia Young, EVP at Ruder Finn, says that in the five years the agency has worked with The North Face, protecting the company's genuine spirit has been a challenge and an opportunity.

"We are reaching out to an audience with a little bit more broad appeal for the brand, including those that have an affinity for the athletes or for the product innovation," she explains. "The charge now is really to weave in more about the athletes and their phenomenal personal stories."

"We don't really want to change what our brand is, our voice, or our message," Webster adds. "We are looking at how we can broaden our message and touch more people with that message so more [of them] can be inspired."

At a glance

Company: The North Face

Headquarters: San Leandro, CA

President: Steve Rendle

2007 sales: The company does not disclose sales figures, but calls itself a "key brand" within VF Corp.'s portfolio, which had total revenues of over $7.2 billion in 2007

Comms budget: Undisclosed

Key trade titles: Outside, Trail Runner, Climber, Backpacker, Runner's World

Communications teams: Letitia Webster, director of corporate sustainability and comms; Pamela Bennett, comms manager; Amy Goldhammer, PR coordinator

PR firm: Ruder Finn

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