Why The North Face Keeps Climbing

Nicholas Allen Jones
April 9, 2015
From the cars people drive to the water they drink, the thousands of brands they interact with on a daily basis represent unique opportunities to express their allegiance to specific ideologies. These choices, sometimes even unconscious to the consumer, present companies with an opportunity to resonate with its customers on an intangible, social level instead of a strictly functional one. The North Face is an example of a brand that has been able to evolve over drastically different decades while still creating a strong, cohesive image in the minds of consumers.

A Humble, Revolutionary Beginning

The North Face is named after the coldest, most unforgiving side of a mountain. However, The North Face ironically started out by facing the sunny beaches of the San Francisco Bay. Originally just a retail store selling other brands’ gear, The North Face eventually began designing and selling its own high-performance apparel and equipment. The ‘60s social culture was at the heart of the founders’ vision for the brand and The North Face was conceptualized as an iconoclastic approach to business. The original ideology of The North Face was strongly tied to the hippie ethos of anti-conformism and harmony with nature, which resonated with avid outdoor athletes of the time. The North Face cultivated the authenticity these particular fans brought to their brand by sponsoring expeditions in the far corners of the world. Since then, it has proudly continued this sponsorship approach to constantly reinforce their “Never Stop Exploring” mantra. This conscious focus on the outdoorsmen versus the mass-marketed “hippie” of the time also allowed The North Face to differentiate itself from the homogenous market, further establishing its credibility.  

Expansion of the ‘80s and the ‘90s

In the ‘80s, the company expanded from their utilitarian, dedicated enthusiast image to embrace a wider range of interests and needs. In 1983, as the groundwork was being laid for the free-spirited snow athlete, The North Face became the first company to sponsor an extreme skier. This endorsement and the following campaigns exposed traditional ski vacationers to an intense level of fearlessness and performance. The conditions that these extreme outdoorsmen put themselves through would never be experienced by many in the marketplace, but it became the key authenticity that “North Face-ness” would become: “If The North Face was able to protect and serve these athletes, it should more than be able to accomplish what I need it to provide in my daily life.” The ‘90s further transformed The North Face culture, exploring more outdoor opportunities for the brand as Americans moved into a fascination with “wilderness chic.” Coupled with the fitness craze of the previous decade, The North Face no longer wished to define itself in main sector activities. It expanded to embody all outdoor worlds athletes enter. Much like the Nike motto of, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete,” The North Face promoted outdoorsmen at the height of their field, while aiming to also serve those who may only brave the cold to walk their dog. It was during this time that the modern culture of the brand we see today began to emerge.  

The North Face of Today

Now far from their humble start of catering to locals, The North Face has boomed over the last decade as its popularity expanded beyond the original target market of high-performance activities. We now see the brand infiltrating high-end retail stores and college campuses. The highly educated and highly paid are now also brand ambassadors. However, even during this massive change in visibility and customer base, The North Face has been able to maintain the authenticity of their brand by still building products for the original niche. By hosting branded events and expeditions that show the company’s commitment to performance, the integrity of the product is still at the forefront of the brand message. As more and more consumers are drawn to the high-performance mountain, hiking and outdoor sports apparel, very few of these consumers are actually heading to the mountains for weekend micro-vacations. Nevertheless, The North Face continues to respect its customer by educating them on the vast technologies used to produce its apparel. Thus, consumers at premium department stores and college campuses continue to react just as well to the brand as those shopping at outdoor “gear only” retail stores. Reviewing this insight leads to a greater understanding of The North Face’s majority customer base: they want to wear sport-inspired gear, but they do not necessarily lead environmentalist lifestyles. The interesting point is that instead of acknowledging these “wannabes,” The North Face seems to disregard this demographic completely when launching new gear. By refusing to acknowledge the fact that a significant portion of its profits come from those individuals who are not explorers, it seeks to solidify its brand back to its roots of a company made for outdoor enthusiasts. By continuing to exhibit a pure image that is focused on the peak of performance in the harshest of conditions, The North Face has been able to preserve its reputation among genuine explorers but still appeal to the daydreamer.

What to Take to Your Basecamp

Preserving a brand in a continually evolving culture takes considerable skill, but it also involves a significant amount of risk. Rapid growth and expanding into new markets introduces the possibility of diluting a superior brand and diminishing existing connections with customers. Consumers enjoy the exclusivity of a brand. They want to feel special and that they are a company’s “one and only.” While the quality of a product plays a significant role in establishing a solid customer base, maintaining a brand is more about establishing an emotional connection. It’s about making sure the customer feels the company hasn’t sold its soul for the almighty dollar. The North Face, for example, has not abandoned its ideal of the ultimate explorer but merely has complimented the brand to support a universal approach to challenging the outdoors. Its ability to morph and define the explorer for both those hiking the mountain and those forging forward in college has contributed to its survival and significance for multiple generations. How have you seen a company’s brand developed over the years? Please reach out and let me know!

About the Author

Nicholas Allen Jones

Nicholas has created and built three companies over his entrepreneurial career. Currently, he is the President and Founder of Swift Impressions, a SaaS platform that allows for companies to tap into greater transparency, control and delivery of display ads and sponsored content.

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