Forbes + CommerceNext: Patagonia Demonstrates How Brand Purpose Results In Good Business

Dec 19, 2019 Marketing Tips

by Elisabeth Anne Boniface

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Brand purpose and storytelling play an increasingly important role in retail, with swells of younger consumers looking to shop sustainably and responsibly. Patagonia puts their mission first and is a leading example of a purpose-driven company. Their dedication to environmental preservation is reflected in every facet of the company, from the causes they support to the products they sell.

Corley Kenna, Director of Global Communications and Public Relations, and Lisa Pike Sheehy, Vice President of Environmental Activism at Patagonia sat down with CommerceNext Co-Founder Veronika Sonsev to talk about how they found their north star, the company’s dedication to its mission and their strategy in keeping these values present through every facet of the company.

The spirit of exploration has fueled Patagonia’s goal to protect “wild places” from the start and as the company continues to lean into their brand purpose, their business has been flourishing. Patagonia’s success has stemmed from their authenticity about their brand purpose. They put their brand purpose from and center, as opposed to making it an add-on to their business. Kenna believes traditional brands can transform and evolve their missions, but they have to be transparent and take their community on the transformation journey.

Because of their focus on brand purpose, Patagonia doesn’t do a lot of traditional advertising. They do some product marketing, but often ties it to an environmental (supply chain) story.

This article was originally published in Forbes: Patagonia’s Focus On Its Brand Purpose Is Great For Business. You can also dig in deeper by reading the full article below.

Patagonia’s Focus On Its Brand Purpose Is Great For Business

According to Accenture, 62% of consumers want companies to stand up for the issues they are passionate about and 66% of consumers think transparency is one of a brand’s most attractive qualities. As social consciousness has elevated, consumers started caring just as much about the impact of brands, as they do about their actual product. More and more brands tout benefits like sustainability, transparency and fair wages. New brands lead with their brand story versus their product benefits. Seemingly, Purpose has become the 5th “P” of Marketing (with Product, Price, Place and Promotion).

Patagonia epitomizes what it means to be purpose-driven. Having always been environmentally conscious, the company keeps leaning further into environmental activism. Less than a year ago, they changed their mission from a product/purpose hybrid of “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” to the clear purpose-driven mission “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”

Given its success as a purpose-driven company, I was excited to speak with Patagonia’s Corley Kenna, Director of Global Communications and Public Relations, and Lisa Pike Sheehy, Vice President of Environmental Activism, to learn how their brand purpose evolved and how they balance that with business goals.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Veronika Sonsev: How did you find your brand purpose and how has it evolved over time?

Corley Kenna: Yvon Chouinard [Patagonia’s founder] didn’t set out to be a business person, so he was always going to do business differently.

He founded the company so that people could explore wild places, which led him to the conclusion that the company should also be in the business of protecting wild places. As the company grew, so did its commitment to protecting wild places, and now everyone is hired because of their commitment to the mission statement.

The mission is now more direct than ever before. It’s important to evolve with current times, and these times call for bluntness and urgency. We all feel equally a part of the mission, regardless of one’s level or role, and it’s always our north star for business strategy.

Lisa Pike Sheehy: Our mission evolved out of direct experience. We’re all outside loving wild places and that directly translates into protecting them.

Before Patagonia came into existence, Yvon was an avid climber. He started out making pitons for rock climbing, but when he saw the damage pitons were having on the rock, Yvon was committed to finding an alternative. This led Chouinard Equipment [the predecessor of Patagonia] to create aluminum chocks and other forms of protection that were more sustainable and inspired our first environmental essay in the catalog, which was on clean climbing.

Later, Yvon saw an opportunity for activism in the company’s backyard, an event that inspired the 1% giving program and the grassroots environmental activism core to Patagonia. The Ventura River, which was near Patagonia’s headquarters, was threatened to be diverted. Yvon went to the town hall to take action. The government officials said the river was dead and there was nothing to save. Then, a biology student named Mark Capelli presented a slideshow showing photos of life in the Ventura River and explaining how it could be restored. His presentation saved the river and demonstrated the impact of grassroots activism.

We now regularly leverage our employees to advise on where to invest resources since they are active in their local communities.

Sonsev: How has your brand purpose impacted your marketing efforts?

Kenna: For us, it’s more important to get the environmental story out than Patagonia the brand. Before all, we emphasize storytelling and spotlight the environmental causes we care about.

We don’t do a lot of traditional advertising. The only television commercial we ever ran featured our founder and it was designed to generate more comments on the Trump administration’s decision to reduce national monuments during the public comment period.

We also do some product marketing and when we do, we often tie it to an environmental (supply chain) story.

Sonsev: You’re a profitable private company. How do you balance your brand purpose and business goals?

Kenna: We always take the long view. We don’t look at things on a quarterly basis. Long-term thinking allows us to make smarter and more responsible decisions. We’ve found that when we put the planet first and do the right things for the planet, it winds up being good for business. It has proven itself over and over again.

For example, when we decided to only use organic cotton, we didn’t have or know how to build an organic cotton supply chain. We had to really create a whole new one, but it was the right thing to do given the environmental harm caused by chemical conventional cotton.

Another example is our decision to sue the president over the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. Despite rampant fear from companies about speaking out against the administration, our decision to sue was rooted in our long-run advocacy in that area—and because it was the right thing to do. We didn’t do it with the purpose of gaining new customers; however, a lot of people learned about Patagonia when they saw our bold activism on this issue.

Pike Sheehy: In 2012, we also became a benefit corporation [benefit corporations commit to creating public benefit and sustainable value in addition to generating profit]. We were the first company in California to do so. With this business charter, we can take the long view and hold people, product and profits in balance.

Sonsev: For new brands looking for their brand purpose, how do you recommend they find their north star and ensure it stays relevant?

Pike Sheehy: Many new brands come to us saying they’re so inspired by Patagonia, and when they get to a certain size, they’re going to do what we do.

I always suggest new brands start with brand purpose immediately and reference Yvon saying, “you have to start right from the beginning.” Having a brand purpose or a north star will have a significant effect on your employees, as well, but it can’t be top-down. It has to come from all over the company and be in everything you do.

Since the beginning, we’ve been giving away 1% of sales each year to environmental organizations. In 2002, we started a nonprofit, 1% for the Planet, to show other companies our business model and how to bake it into their bottom line from the beginning.

Sonsev: Can brands evolve? For brands that weren’t sustainable or socially conscious previously, is it too late to evolve?

Kenna: It’s really important that you not surprise your community. It can backfire when a company does something too unexpected and they don’t have the credibility. To evolve a brand, you have to take your community on the journey with you.

Before tackling brand transformation, you start by looking internally. How are your employees treated? What are your company values? Do you have full visibility into the issues at hand?

Then the brand should be transparent with their community about the problem and story tell around that. Once that foundation is laid, you can present the coming changes in a much more authentic way.

Patagonia donates 1% of their sales to grassroots environmental organizations (approximately $20MM annually) and spends more time advocating for environmental causes than they do marketing their own products. And, their business continues to thrive as a result. That’s pretty clear proof of the impact of an authentic brand purpose and why it is so critical for companies today to find theirs.

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