Patagonia has been unafraid to set the agenda when it comes to brand purpose. Alex Weller, Marketing Director – Europe, speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill for WARC Marketer's Toolkit 2021 about Patagonia’s approach to brand purpose, long and short-term objectives, and evolving media investment following its boycott of Facebook.

2020 has been a fairly crazy year. How has the last six to eight months been for you at Patagonia?

It's certainly been a journey, since mid-March. We’re no different to any company who has had to navigate through the global health crisis and how we, as a business, adapt to that. Then subsequently, a lot of the social and political factors, certainly with regards to social justice in the wake of Black Lives Matter, our position on #StopHateForProfit, and boycotting Facebook. Those three dimensions have completely overhauled both what we are able to do, and how we think about engaging our customers in our mission and to continue to show up in the world as a force for good.

Patagonia has always been a purpose-driven company, much longer than it's been in fashion in the marketing industry. How is the political climate at the moment, with the concurrent health crisis and climate emergency, shaping how you market your brand? Is it resonating more right now?

Key insights

  • The political dimension of how Patagonia leverages its platform has become increasingly prescient and important in 2020, given the tense political environment.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for a re-examining of long term and short term objectives, especially with regards to e-commerce and digital transformation.
  • Stepping away from Facebook forced Patagonia to look at a much broader, more complex suite of tools within social media but also beyond.

The first point I would make is that marketing, certainly at Patagonia, is an outcome of business decisions. Some of those business decisions are based on the health of the company, and how we continue to run a healthy company that can uphold its responsibilities to its employees, and to its stakeholders and to wider society…  The second dimension is how do we use this platform to affect change on the issues that matter to us, as a company? The issues that matter to us, fundamentally, are how do we create a healthy planet and how do we do that in a just and fair way for global citizens.

There is certainly no doubt that the political dimension of how we leverage this platform has become increasingly prescient and increasingly important… That’s not to say that we don’t already have a track record of engaging directly in political debate, and using our platform to inform outcomes and have a voice within that political process. ‘The President Stole Your Land’ is a moment in time that people are familiar with, likewise the $10 billion Trump tax-break giveaway, as is our current position on getting out the vote.

It's important to note that these are not partisan marketing ideas designed to excite our customers or make them like us more. Our customers believe many of the things that we believe. This is about trying to affect change, and trying to mobilise people to create clear pathways to action and hopefully important outcomes.

Alex Weller, Marketing Director – Europe, Patagonia

Patagonia recently released shorts with the hidden voting message that went viral. There’s a couple of other famous North America campaigns, but how do you translate that mission statement into a European context?

In Europe, we're working across more than one geography, and that makes the political question much more nuanced. In relation to direct political engagement in election processes, we're not engaged here in Europe, and that has been a conscious decision. But using our platform to inform issues in Europe that are important to the company is something that we feel we built a really great track record on, such as using film to draw attention to the hydro-power dam construction issue in the Balkan Peninsula… It proved to be super successful.

We are fortunate enough to have a pretty sophisticated campaigning team embedded in our company here in Europe. We have a team of environmental campaigners that we as marketers work closely with, and really our job in all of that as marketers is to understand how we can, through powerful storytelling and community engagement, amplify these important moments in time and connect as many people as we can to them, with the goal of winning the outcomes that we and our environmental NGO partners want.

Brands are now much more aware of social good and activism, especially with regards to Black Lives Matter. What advice can you give other marketers on how to do this type of work in an effective and authentic way?

We’re continuing to learn a lot about how we live up to our mission. We have an intentionally challenging and aspirational mission, which is that we're in business to save our home planet. That mission is intentionally about the planet, and specifically about the environmental and ecological crisis. But what it does not explicitly reference is people, society, and citizens within it.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, we had to really inspect ourselves and think about how we genuinely invite broader communities into our work and into our mission. The greatest learning I’ve had during the process is that a lot of brands raced to say something and, I think, missed the opportunity to really understand what was going on… We're working incredibly hard to really, truly understand what this business and platform can do to bring broader communities into the outdoors – which is the space that we serve – and also into our company itself.

That dimension of social justice is something that we're incredibly focused on at the moment. You can't talk about what you don't understand… We discussed this and worked out as a company, how do we chart a path forward that is truly equitable for all people. Whose voices are missing in this conversation? That for our company has been an incredibly important lesson. Our employees and our customer community are incredibly restless for us to take meaningful, visible and tangible action on these topics. All of us are…. As a company that has such a strong and confident position with regards to the environment and the work we do in that space, having to re-learn when it comes to issues of social justice has been humbling but also, I think, very energising for our people.

Patagonia's new CEO mentioned that the company sees itself as a 100-year brand and thinks over very long-term horizons. How do you balance that ultra long-term vision with pressing needs in the short term, especially in such a volatile situation right now?

We have been in a position – like all businesses – where we have had to react and continue to react to a very dynamic world, certainly in the last six months. I'm quite sure that some of those uncertainties will resettle, and there will be some level of normality in terms of supply chain that we can depend on as a business. But what is clear to me and to Patagonia is that this opportunity has represented a moment in time that we are committed to using to change our business. Reimagining our company and reimagining the way that we work is a process that we're deep within right now.

(Part of that) is dealing with, right now, what's right in front of your face. It’s knowing what your customers want and need, doing your best to show up for them, ensuring that you know where they are and that you're able and ready to connect with them where they are. It’s just doing our very best to show up and be the best Patagonia we can be right now.

It’s also about planning for the future. When I say the future, I mean the next phase of our company's existence within that 100-year plan. That means that we're really closely inspecting all dimensions of our business. Of course, marketing is part of that. We are rapidly accelerating into digitalisation, something that was already happening, but I think it's happening much quicker.

We are living in this duality of immediate work and real long-term thinking. In both of those, the catalyst has been the COVID-19 pandemic.

You mentioned some acceleration, but what are those new or accelerated consumer trends that you think will be permanent?

Our customers’ engagement in environmental issues – whether that be buying a product, or environmental activism – has only gone up during this period of time. Our ability to engage with customers on these topics just continues to accelerate.

E-commerce continues to scale and grow. For us, that means that new markets have started to expand digitally. With regards to physical retail, our stores that are in major city centres have, of course, been impacted by a long-term drop in footfall…  We have always believed that our stores should be a gift to local communities, and be of service to communities. As people start to work online, (they are) changing the way that they engage with city centres. Of course, I think we are going to have to rethink the role of those stores (in city centres). But we also have stores that are based in outdoor locations and those stores in most parts of Europe have gone from strength to strength as people have also re-engaged with nature though this period of time.

It seems that people are going through this process of saying ‘what really matters to me’? What do I really care about, and how does that relate to the brands that I choose to participate with and engage with?

With the e-commerce opportunity and the changing nature of your retail stores, what does that look like in terms of your media investment strategy?  Are you investing more in e-commerce now and rethinking what type of channels you're connecting with?

Yes, we're spending more money online. And yes, we're thinking about different channels. There's a couple of reasons for that which are very simple.

One is, we no longer spend money with Facebook and Instagram. We were like many (brands who had) to some extent sleep-walked into an over-dependence on Facebook as a channel for connecting with our customers. By making that decision ourselves to stop doing that, it absolutely forced us to look at a much broader, more complex suite of tools within social media but also beyond.

We've already started on that journey, which has been really fun. It’s exciting to really understand how to think beyond Facebook and Instagram for us. The other reality is that, of course, all brands have moved more of their marketing investment in the digital space. For things like SEO, it just becomes a more expensive game to play, so that is a fixed reality for everyone.

Something WARC has heard from other retailers is that their brand is becoming too reliant on Facebook, and performance marketing in general. Patagonia has been leading the charge in terms of pulling money off Facebook for moral reasons, but was there (issues with Facebook) in terms of marketing effectiveness?

Not with regard to driving sales. We were in a fortunate position here in Europe that we hadn’t really done any bottom-of-the funnel sales conversion tactics on social media. We were still really focused on social media as an awareness and engagement platform. We were using it to engage people in long form content, and that still had a lot of conversion benefit. Most of our referrals through social media to our e-commerce platform were coming from more top-of-the-funnel tactics, more long-form film content and articles and so forth.

The primary use for us in Facebook investment was engagement in physical events, actually….  we weren't hyper-dependent on Facebook for revenue, but we were very dependent on Facebook for community engagement efforts. But we're currently not able to do events. So, we’re in the process of transitioning our community engagement experiences into the digital world. That afforded us a little bit of space. We worked with some external partners to do a complete review of all of our online efforts, and now we're well into executing on the ‘post-Facebook’ plan.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned this year about managing a brand and a marketing team through a time of crisis?

The human dimension of this experience is, at times, just super overwhelming. I think we all feel that. But it has also been this incredible equaliser.

I think a lot of the challenges that Patagonia was facing pre-COVID – that a lot of organisations and marketing teams face – were like ‘how do we create a genuine stakeholder experience within the work that we do, so everyone is equally motivated, and everyone feels equally aligned, and everybody's working towards the same goals?’.

We have a fantastic mission and a common goal as a company, but of course, we still have the same kind of realities as any organisation in terms of managing people… We've all been in the same boat (during COVID-19), we all live in this same little square. Recognising that and leveraging that to really get the very best out of individuals has been amazing. When I say that, it’s not just within marketing, but company-wide. I have seen us at our absolute best through this period, and we have done some of our absolute best work as a company, as decision makers, and as marketers.

Rather than retreating and waiting, it’s almost like the opposite happened. People have gone ‘this is incredible moment for change’. Everyone's casting their mind forward and thinking about how to change the things that they've wanted to change for some time. That doesn't mean changing our brand, it means just reaffirming why we're doing this, and challenging ourselves to think about how we can engage our customers even more effectively and get people motivated and rallying around our common goals of saving our home planet even more effectively.