Yvonne Chouinard is a genius.
When, many years from now, the annals of 20th and 21st century marketing are written, I truly believe that his name will be most referenced in the index. The founder and chairman of Patagonia, Chouinard took a love for the outdoors and an impish counterculture intuition of do-it-yourselfedness and parlayed into one of the world’s most iconic brands. Patagonia doesn’t have customers, it has kindred spirits; it doesn’t sell fleece sweaters and organic cotton jeans, it sells badges worn by true believers as declarations of priority. From the tiny, rustic two-story shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – where, it’s worth noting, I once purchased a water bottle and a small laptop bag and smiled forking over almost $150 for the privilege of doing so – to the trendy vintage shops in Tokyo’s Harijuku district- where vintage Patagonia sells for multiples of the original asking price- Patagonia’s billion-dollar global empire is a shot across the bow in an industry that prides itself on credibility.
Take a hike on Appalachian Trail or go for a walk down a tony suburban street and you’re bound to see that rectangular logo, the person wearing it more than likely harboring thoughts of craftsmanship and lasting value over material currency. Of course there are always pretenders. The sorority girl in a $300 wind-breaker that she purchased on her parent-issued credit card because she liked the color; the money manager in a fleece vest who wanted to buy what other people might consider the best. But Chouinard has never fallen prey to scale, never seemed to take shortcuts for the sake of winning space in big box retailers the way The North Face – founded by his friend Doug Hopkins – did in the 1990s, when that company began selling logos instead of ideals. Or the way Eddie Bauer sold its soul and ended up bankrupt, only to be forced to try and earn back its credibility.
A good friend of mine who works for L.L. Bean once told me that Bauer in particular is held up a cautionary tale around his company’s halls.
“That’s what happens,” he told me over some BBQ, “you go after scale and become a khaki company that sells outdoor-themed apparel instead of the real deal.”
And while it can be debated about whether or not L.L. Bean has lots a bit of its dirt bag credibility over the years, the same cannot be said of Chouinard and Patagonia. His is a brand of doers – of surfers, climbers, adventurers big and small. His company was a lone voice in the Wall Street maelstrom when he declared his intent to devote 1% of revenue to environmental causes. He beat Walmart and others to the punch by allowing web users to trace the supply chain of his products and even rated each one for its sustainability – a not-so-implicit apology for some of his products burning too much carbon and an implicit promise to do better.
In 2015, the New Yorker ran an op-ed piece about Patagonia thumbing its nose at traditional approaches and asking, no begging, no daring its customers to not buy unless they have to. Patagonia makes things that last, goes the logic, so wear them out before you go buy something new. It’s a message that couples nicely with the company’s policy of recycling used garments and its content projects like “Worn Wear,” a video series telling the stories of almost unbelievably used and cherished Patagonia products that have stood the test of time. I particularly like the profile of the surf bum and his wife, living on the Baja peninsula and the board shorts he’s been wearing for 20 years. Tattered, repairs, mismatched like a patchwork battle flag, the shorts are more than shorts. They are memento of a life well spent, of priorities fulfilled and experiences had.
Making things that last is certainly not something unique to Chouinard or Patagonia, not even in the rugged and tumble world of outdoor apparel. Seattle-based Filson has been making tough, long-lasting outwear since the Gold Rush. Orvis. L.L. Bean – all great American brands. But none have so successful tied ideal to opportunity, put their money where their hearts are and built a movement quite like Patagonia.
And that spirit, that mission is not a dirty word, nor is business, has become a battle cry over the last couple of decades. Tom’s shoes turned a business into a way of improving the lives of third world people for whom a pair of shoes is a luxury, not an accessory. For every pair purchased, they give one away. Warby Parker does the same thing with eyeglasses. A whole host of mission-oriented business and brands have risen from the wake of Patagonia’s priority on ideals. And that’s why I believe Chouinard will get his face on a Mount Rushmore of Marketing in due time.
So why is this important? Why, apart from a clear and abiding admiration for Chouinard, do I write about him here? Because Yvonne Chouinard has mastered the art of answering the second question in marketing strategy: What?
We live in an age of attention-hogging onslaught, a time when thousands of advertising messages bombard us from every angle every day. And, any more, it’s no longer good enough to make good things or trendy things. Longevity is based as much on brand perception as on product viability. Chouinard understands that, in order for Patagonia to stand out, it has to stand up. To create a beacon that searchers can find.
“These days if you’re brand doesn’t have a clearly defined mission, people will assume the only mission is to make money,” says my friend Caleb Gardner. We’re giving a presentation in the Foster City, California, headquarters of VISA. Caleb is challenging the company to make a difference and thus create differentiation.
“There’s nothing wrong with making money,” he says later over drinks in San Fransisco. “Making money is good, it’s important. But I think people want more, they expect more. And if they expect more and your competition is willing to give it, it creates problems for you.”
Mission, he argues, is about more than just having an opinion. It’s about the brand deciding to see the world in a certain way, to have vision for what an experience could be and then working to make that experience real. Patagonia wants to see a world without river-diverting, fish-killing, ecologically damaging hydro-electric dams. To that end, the company funds groups working against the dams and has invested in developing content around the issue (a documentary, a book, even devoting the first few pages of it’s legendary catalog to the topic). Why? Because Chouinard and his employees believe in the cause, yes, but also because the brand understands that taking a stance on the issue and asking people to imagine a world without dams helps business; it creates a signal to likeminded individuals and thereby increases demand.
It’s not diabolical so much as it is assisted customer Darwinism. Chouinard knows he’s more likely to attract a loyal customer base by having clear corporate mission than if he were to try to compete with bigger brands based purely on product. That this mission matches his personal ideals – which he has been vocal about over the years – is not a simple coincidence, but the confluence of business and good, of humanity and commerce and worthy of recognition.
Yvonne Chouinard is Patagonia. Patagonia is Yvonne Chouinard and millions of people around the world that share his convictions (or at very least want to).
Tom Bihn has been making bags since he was a teenager. Backpacks, travel bags, work bags. Over several decades, he’s been behind thousands of designs and has grown a cult-like following in the digital age, taking his Seattle operation from a simple storefront to a cultural shorthand for the wander-minded. I once carried my Tom Bihn bag – the Aeronaut – with me when taking my son to a Cub Scout overnight camp. I was stopped by no fewer than three other dads, all of them pointing to my bag and nodding in a sort of acknowledgement and recognition.
What is it about Tom Bihn’s bags? Well, they are tough, well designed and practical. There’s no excess at all. I’ve carried two of them to more than a dozen countries and they still look brand new. Last year, I traveled more than 125,000 miles and spent nearly 70 nights on the road and the Aeronaut still feels new.
But, beyond the quality of the bags, there is Tom himself. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he speaks with the steady reserve peculiar to the Pacific Northwest. Visit his website (www.tombihn.com) and you can get a sense of it. From the vintage airplane logo to the simple design and navigation, there’s something workmanlike about it, as if it were built for purpose instead of techno-headed flash. Click on a product page, like the one for the aforementioned Aeronaut and you see a beautiful, but simple, product shot followed by more than 1,000 words describing the features of the bag with phrases like this:
“The downside to most duffel bags is their lack of compartmentalization: we think we’ve answered that quite successfully with the Aeronaut.”
“The grab handles at either end of the Aeronaut were designed to be in the right place at the right time. Specifically, they provide an inviting and obvious place to grab the Aeronaut and give it a yank to extract it from an overhead compartment of a plane or other tight spot. They’re reinforced, so if you need to pull hard, go ahead, and because they’re padded, the whole process will be as comfortable for your hands as possible.”
Anyone who has studied proper writing for the web will tell you, this breaks all the rules. Short. Sweet. Heavy on the headline, light on the supposition. These are the cornerstones of content for commerce. Compare Tom Bihn’s soliloquy with the description on Amazon of the Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack, here in its entirety:
“Want it Wednesday, Oct. 7? Order within 19 hrs 46 mins and choose One-Day Shipping at checkout. Details
Dual front mesh pockets
Large front zip pocket with padded laptop and tablet sleeve
Large panel access to main compartment with internal compression straps for keeping gear secure
Small front zip pocket with key fob keeps small items handy
Dimensions: 21″ x 13″ x 9″
Made in China”
Why do that? Why spend so much time telling the story of your product when all most people expect is the bullets and a zoomable image? And why, after delivering a three-minute read, follow that with a gallery of user-generated photos of the product the way Tom Bihn does?
“I have always like to write letters,” says Tom Bihn. I had sent him an e-mail, asking for an interview and, when we finally manage a phone call, I’m sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot in the midst of a downpour. Tom tells me he has never really given much thought to his ‘content.’ He doesn’t have a master calendar or huge marketing plan. Instead he’s always focused on products and design. When a story comes up, he likes to tell it. He wants to explain how the product was designed – why certain zippers are the way they are, why a handle is placed just so. When, after months of design and testing, he has a story to tell, he calls some friends with a camera and they make a little video. When the product is ready onto the site for sale, he sits down and writes a letter to his customers about it.
“It’s just the way I prefer to do things,” he says. “My name is on every bag. My name. I don’t want to put anything out there that isn’t me. There’s no big plan.”
That was a the problem with J. Peterman’s famous catalog. The products told great stories. It wasn’t a shirt, it was a Gatsby shirt. It wasn’t a hat, it was a Hemingway hat. But if the story worked and you bought the safari jacket because you liked the story about the chance encounter with the man in a bar in Mozambique, you went to the mailbox to find a plain jacket in a plastic wrapper. The story only existed on the pages of the catalog.
With Tom Bihn, you get a piece of the man as much as his product. Go to YouTube and check out the dozens of unboxing videos of Tom Bihn bags. People are genuinely excited. They can’t wait to see what he thought of this time.
Both Tom Bihn and Yvonne Chouinard understand the second cardinal question of content marketing – it’s not just about the story, its about the brand. In both cases, the men are so inextricably linked to the brands as to be almost indistinguishable. You can’t fake that kind of sincerity. It has to be genuine.
A friend of mine once told me that he had given up on creating work/life balance and was going to begin to prioritize finding his life’s work instead. What he was talking about was branding, but not the fake kind of branding that comes big agencies on Madison Avenue. It’s the branding of purpose, of mission. Clarity of vision manifested as story and imbued in product offering and corporate behavior.
The first chapter was about asking WHO? Who are you trying to reach. Who are your people. This chapter is about digging deep and answering WHAT? What are you? What is your brand? What is your mission? What value(s) do you bring to the world?
This can be tricky, especially if you work for a big, established brand – the kind I work with every day. In big corporate environments it can be difficult to talk about ‘mission’ without being looked at funny. So let me frame it a differently. Rather than ‘mission’ or ‘purpose’ ask yourself what your brand’s enduring point of differentiation (E.P.O.D.) is; what is it that separates your brand from competitors beyond individual products? What’s that thing your brand can own over the next decade, that creates a competitive moat around you?
Here’s a few examples and, bear in mind I do not work with these companies, so these are my suppositions, but I’m probably pretty close:
E.P.O.D.: Design-forward offerings for value-minded shoppers
E.P.O.D.: Individual achievement through athletics
E.P.O.D.: Safety, Reliability and Scandinavian Design
E.P.O.D.: Everything you could possibly want, when you want it.
E.P.O.D.: Integrated, user-centric products of both hard and software
I could go on and on, but I encourage you to give it a try. Take a stroll through the mall, a spin around the web or a glance around the airport. Pick a brand and see if you can quickly sum up what that brand is ‘all about.’ If it comes quickly, it’s an E.P.O.D. If not, the brand has some work to do. Understanding your brand’s E.P.O.D. requires some work, some real thinking and digging, but if you do it successfully, it becomes an competitive advantage and the basis of the stories you tell with content.
And if you get stuck, spend some time on the sites and with the marketing materials for brands like Patagonia and Tom Bihn. If everything feels natural and connected, it’s because they are. But it’s not a matter of a genius tagline or a perfectly shot Vine. It’s because these are brands that understand who they are, what they stand for and how they want to be seen. If you can get to this place, content becomes easy – it’s just a matter of giving voice to the stories that already exist.
Understanding your E.P.O.D. can be hard, but if you are an entrepreneur, you already know the answer. It’s the reason you got into business, the answer to the question “wouldn’t it be great if I could start a business that …” Your E.P.O.D. is the essence of your brand, not just the function of your products. Before you get going in content, its essential that you figure it out.
Your E.P.O.D. becomes your perspective, the place from which all stories are told. Chouinard and Patagonia tell stories from the perspective of a brand that cares deeply about the future of the environment. It’s not a tag line, it’s the way they operate as a company. More and more having this perspective is critical in cutting through the noise, in standing out among all the messages and millions of pieces of content published every day across the web. Your E.P.O.D. is your beacon and the stories you tell are signals designed to reach a ready and eager audience.