There are plenty of blogs out there applauding the clothing brand Patagonia for their quality products. And plenty give them a showcase as an ethical company worth purchasing from. Some of the better digital marketing case studies do a great job of itemizing the brand’s goals and triumphs. But how does Patagonia communicate these ethics via their marketing? How well do these values translate? Let’s take a look at some of their major campaigns for insights.
Snow-capped mountains and million-dollar sunrises galore. The visuals associated with Patagonia campaigns inspire travel, exploration, and an appreciation for nature. They highlight how grand this planet of ours can be. It’s maybe the least you would expect from a company named for one of the most gorgeous places on Earth, but they do it so well.
Even more wonderful is how smoothly this imagery fits with the core cause of the brand: environmental crisis. By showcasing an exuberant love for the oceans, the mountains, and the skies, the folks at Patagonia cement the connection between them and nature. Of course, they make this activism known in more overt ways as well, but there’s something special about how these visuals work on the subconscious level.
For Patagonia's marketing, it’s not enough to create camping and outdoorsy imagery. They show folks biking on cliff-sides, and repelling off cliff-sides, and okay there are a lot of cliff-sides, but the point is they’re stressing the joy of doing hard things.
One campaign in particular was an invitation to mentally and physically struggle. It started with coordinates, printed large, without any context. Challenge 1 was to be curious, to figure out why you were seeing coordinates, and more importantly, what the location was. It turns out, the coordinates Patagonia put on billboards and magazines were of locations they deemed the "7 unknown wonders of the world.” These locations were amazing but rarely visited because of their remote or difficult nature. So of course, challenge 2 was to go to the places that others say is too far or too taxing. Challenge 3 was finding a geocache that the Patagonia folks hid at those exact coordinates. Wow, right?
This kind of marketing captures people who enjoy the accomplishment of deeply hard work. Strategically, making use of this association not only suggests that Patagonia products can do that hard work too, it also allows viewers to connect that spirit-in-challenge mentality to Patagonia as a brand and the work they do. This type of reputation, one that says, “we do hard work, not fair-weather activism,” is likely a huge component to their success, especially when it's been shown in the consistency of their decades-long history.
This one is simple, but no less powerful. When your mission statement is so inspirational, and your dedication to it so strong that you can turn it into murals, you’re doing something right. Patagonia famously painted multiple buildings, some with scenes, some without, but all with the simple message of their long-standing mission statement:
"Build the best product.
Cause no unnecessary harm.
Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
The folks at Patagonia take their own path, to be sure. Famous examples of their marketing include stunts like the giant New York Times Black Friday ad that read “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” (No, it wasn’t an attempt at reverse psychology, the breakdown underneath that header outlined how negatively even an environmentally conscious brand like theirs impacts the planet. The underlying point was genuinely “don’t buy this unless you really need it.”) Another campaign saw a blown-up image of one of their flannels that had been well-worn and torn in places, with a second image of that same flannel with repaired sleeves and a leather patch affixed. The point was to encourage more purposeful purchasing of things that could be repaired--and that Patagonia will make repairs--rather than acceptance of quick-purchase items that won’t even last a season before they’re retired to a landfill.
In both of these cases, they rebel against not only the traditional models for marketing and product sales, but also against the fashion industries they are reluctantly part of. This approach, again, reinforces their environmental messaging while also complementing the brand identity of rugged adventurers.
And as if the point isn’t made clearly enough in the paragraphs above, here’s a 2-minute video that encapsulates all four strategies.
So what do we take from all of this?
It’s possible to be both ethical and profitable.
Do things your way.