The Common Threads Initiative

The outdoor retail space is competitive. Separating yourself from other outdoor brands and differentiating your products or service is not an easy task. For the past decade, marketers have turned to green initiatives to stamp their brands with the Healthy Planet seal of approval.

Patagonia has started a new kind of green initiative—Buy Less. In the past, telling your customers to buy less has traditionally been a bad business model. Key words: in the past. Al Ries titled a recent Ad Age article, “It’s not marketing we do today, it’s branding.” The branding aspect of this new initiative is what hits deep. They’re not talking about 25% off their winter line; they’re branding their product with a bold association to environmental preservation. Perhaps this is why so many people have strong feelings, both positive and negative, about this campaign.

Some might say Patagonia is doing this to increase sales by initiating a cute marketing ploy around a fancy green initiative. Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s environment VP, stated, “Anyone who says this is a clever marketing ploy, we say that higher sales will allow us to carry out our mission statement. We take one percent of sales off the top, and give it to environmental groups. The better we do, the more we give back.”

Fast Company recently highlighted the positive feelings towards the brand and its new initiative and wrote, “After it was launched at New York fashion week last month, some commentators described the initiative as an inspired piece of marketing that would cement customer loyalty and reinforce the message that Patagonia apparel is long-lasting and worth holding on to.” On the other side of the table comes a recent post by Gawker, which took the conversation the other way and told Patagonia to “just give us a break with this sanctimonious crap.”

Love it or hate it, people are listening. I’m not here to pick sides because I think it is still early on in the campaign to choose sides. If Patagonia is really sincere about this promise, their commitment to this initiative over time will tell the story.

This idea of going beyond the bottom line to brand your products is not a fad—it’s a trend. The branding aspect of Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative is encouraging (assuming this isn’t a cute marketing ploy). They’re willing to set profits aside and stand for something greater than a number on their income statement. By standing up for the cause and associating their brand with an initiative that seeks to reduce waste, they establish themselves as the dominant player in going green.

We sometimes talk about brands as “badges.” Every brand that is well executed is a badge for a specific immaterial symbol. A badge is defined as “a special or distinctive mark, token, or device worn as a sign of allegiance, membership, authority, achievement, etc.” Most of the time, badges are thought of as physical objects. When used in the context of branding, they represent something more than a physical object. They represent the metaphysical thoughts and emotions towards a particular category. Patagonia is one of the most powerful brands in this category. Their brand has always represented quality with an association to being Earth-conscious and this new initiative could potentially bring them to the next level.

Green Marketing is becoming a major part for some brands. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe the 40 million search results on Google. There are many brands out there trying to stand for a healthier planet but Patagonia is making some bold statements and making a case to be the one who owns the badge of environmentally conscious.

Written by Brad Weigle, Drake Cooper Project Manager.

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