Outdoor Brands Need to Move Past Promises of Performance

As more people discover the serenity and beauty of the outdoors, the audience for outdoor products has shifted beyond the extreme outdoor athlete and rightfully started expanding to include more women, more urban dwellers, and more diverse people looking for some good times rather than a fierce 20-mile backpacking expedition through rugged terrain. With this new audience momentum, there is a real hunger in the marketplace for brands to use imagery and language that feels approachable and authentic. Momentum is shifting beyond performance promises and niche-sponsored specialists.

Brand identity is more than a logo or wordmark. A well-executed identity needs to be supported by brand values, brand mission, and the brand’s “onlyness.” The identity is the tip of the spear in winning the tribal audience all brands crave, but if the spearhead isn’t attached to anything it’s pretty useless. Identity can be a key differentiator in the clamor for consumers’ attention.

Outdoor Brands’ Top Performers: Identity & Messaging Analysis

Patagonia and The North Face have been clawing at the top of the mountain together for years. Both brands have enormous recognition, innovative high-performing gear, tremendous quality, and loyal followers. As a Design Director evaluating the two brand identities side-by-side, I would argue from a pure design perspective, The North Face is the winner. The simple Helvetica typography coupled with the abstracted representation of half dome from Yosemite is classic design. I love it!

However, Patagonia has done a much better job amplifying their mission with clarity to consumers and therefore their logo means so much more than a quirky slab serif typeface with a silhouette of a mountain range. Seeing the Patagonia wordmark on a hat or shirt immediately makes me think of “Cause No Unnecessary Harm” or reminds me of their commitment to being an environmental company first that happens to make outdoor gear.

The North Face tagline, “Never Stop Exploring,” may be exciting but just doesn’t elicit the same emotions. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a super fan of both brands, but Patagonia stirs me and inspires me.

A quick visit to the home pages of both companies illustrates another powerful brand moment and how messaging and language can further build meaning into brand identity. The North Face features a fairly expected picture of an outdoor athlete clinging to a steep wall with the headline, “Athlete Tested, Expedition Proven.” Clearly a strong argument for quality and performance, but with so many brands meeting increasingly stringent metrics of performance I’m left asking, “So what?”

Take a quick trip to the Patagonia website and the home page has a stunning image of a dam with an equally sparse yet powerful headline, “The Dam Truth.” Clearly standing behind their mission you are left with no questions as to where the brand is going. It’s provocative and satisfies many consumers’ yearnings for more than just a coat that can measure up to being walloped by a snow storm. I’m hooked.

Outdoor Disruptors to Keep an Eye On

Beyond the titans of the outdoor industry, marketing disruptors are proving the new outdoor audience cares about having a good time and wants to look good doing it. The North Face’s expedition-tested jacket isn’t that important to this crew. Enter Poler. I ran across this band of camp vibe disruptors a few years ago. Their visual identity is fun, hand-drawn, and not entirely fixed. All their visual expressions amplify their mission — enjoying good camp vibes with your friends. They are essentially pushing lifestyle over performance and don’t take themselves too seriously when they claim, “The world’s highest standard of stuff.”

The Poler website is filled with lush photo essays of friends adventuring in the outdoors, on road trips, sitting around the campfire, or cooking bacon over the camp stove. There are no features with intrepid mountain climbers or surfers on colossal waves — the elite athlete doesn’t play in their brand visuals or their brand narrative.

As mission and meaning become ever more critical in the race toward differentiation and attention, new brands are beginning to enter the marketplace in less traditional ways. A few years ago a company in Utah held an event they dubbed a Questival. The event is a 24-hour adventure race with tasks like “watch a sunrise,” “catch a fish outdoors,” or “donate blood while wearing dracula teeth.” Cotopaxi, the company behind the endeavor, is something of a hybrid event company, gear company, non-profit partner, etc. They tout the tagline “gear for good” and 10% of all profits on the outdoor, adventure gear supports various causes around the globe.

The simple silhouette of a llama head serves as a great symbol for their Questival event as well as the company identity. The llama — a hardy pack animal from the mountainous regions of South America — helps communicate their commitment to global adventure and is imbued with so much more as the company moves forward with its mission of bringing people together for Questival events and doing good. A brightly colored backpack from Cotopaxi is much more than another highly performing piece of gear — it signals a lifestyle.

Ultimately, brand leaders and brand disruptors are showing us that marketing outdoor gear never goes out of style! The demand is high and consumers are hungry. Highly technical gear and quality continue to be valuable, but consumers are looking for more. A unique, differentiated identity is imperative — one that’s shaped around mission and brand pillars that carve out a unique space for the brand to own and amplify.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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