Yvon Chouinard would bristle at the term “content system.” And yet, this mountaineer-turned-sportswear-and-gear purveyor who founded Patagonia in 1973, has clearly always understood that it’s easy to create good content — or tell great stories — if you have a strong point of view. Every story Patagonia tells somehow links back to the environment. “There is a crisis going on with the health of our planet, and there won’t be a world to sell product in if we don’t use every tool at our disposal to do something about it,” explains Adam Fetcher, the company’s director of Global PR and Communications. “For us, that meant documentary films as well as our catalogs, which include great writing.” It also means books, videos, photographs, websites, bumper stickers, and advocacy campaigns — each a rich channel for the company; each carrying the same “earth first” point of view established in the very first story the company told.
Chouinard Equipment, born in 1957, became the largest supplier of hiking equipment in the United States, largely based on the success of selling reusable steel stakes, which eliminated the use of the small metal spikes that were damaging otherwise pristine natural surfaces. But these new reusable pitons still created cracks, defacing and weakening the rock.
Business was booming when Chouinard discontinued the steel piton production in favor of a lighter-weight aluminum “chock” that could be wedged into existing cracks without doing further damage. When The Chouinard Equipment Catalog offered this new tool in 1972, they also published a long-form essay — a radical departure from the mascot-fronted or jingle-driven approach most companies used at the time — that introduced the concept of “clean climbing,” defined as “climbing the rock without changing it.”
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Chouinard Equipment was the precursor to Patagonia, and that founder’s story, told on the company website as well as in books and articles, was not about selling more pitons: it was about sharing an idea in order to influence like-minded people’s perspectives. That “earth-first” story is the narrative thread that has since been sewn or molded into every story Patagonia tells and every product it makes.
Whereas traditional catalogs offer a straightforward “photo plus description plus price,” Patagonia continues to use theirs as an opportunity to tell a bigger environmental awareness story that connects each product to the company’s mission.
Stunning photographs of rugged men summiting high peaks, or fit women surfing monster waves, both wearing the Patagonia products that are for sale, are accompanied by essays about erosion or pipeline problems. “By sharing the work of people involved in the environmental movement, we can bring you into an environmental priority or campaign,” Fetcher explains.
That point of view is paired with the company’s products: the Capilene thermal weight zip turtleneck, for instance, will keep you warm and dry and uses a Patagonia trademarked innovation that converts old soda bottles, unusable manufacturing waste, and worn out garments (including Patagonia’s own) into polyester fibers. The product protects you from the environment in a way that respects
This approach, to constantly marry product to Patagonia’s mission, has helped the company find its ideal customers: “We really try to treat our audience as partners in our mission,” Fetcher explains. “Engaging them in a deeper way is more likely to compel them to act on the values that we think they share with us.”
Since the company’s inception, the catalogs have been a proactive platform for the company to engage it’s customers in issues it cares deeply about. It works so well that those same customers often wind up in the pages. Whereas most catalogs are aspirational — depicting a fantasy world peopled by models — Patagonia’s shares depictions of its customers in real-life scenarios. Those photos, as well as those by professional wilderness photographers and essays by renowned environmentalists, have been so popular that the company published a compilation called Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography.
The commitment to longer stories that engage audiences in deeper, more meaningful ways, has led Patagonia to add movie producer to its list of capabilities.
While a number of companies have embraced high-profile filmmaking as a tool for brand promotion (think BMW’s “The Hire” series), Patagonia pursues film projects that align with its point of view, not necessarily its products. This includes DamNation, an award-winning feature that chronicles the dam removal efforts across the U.S. and the positive impact that process has on the environment; Jumbo Wild, which focuses on the efforts to fight a large-scale ski resort from being built in the otherwise uninhabited Purcell Mountains in British Columbia; and The Fisherman’s Son, a 29-minute short about Ramón Navarro, who shows us how he learned to ride monster waves growing up in Punta de Lobos, a stretch of Chilean coastline that is currently eroding due to development. In total, Patagonia has funded six projects, none of which directly relate to any of the products the company sells. These films are grounded in a kind of sideways storytelling, each using the emotional scale and depth of film to share the bigger message that Patagonia endorses. More importantly, these films are radical in that they relinquish authorial control. They are not branded videos, or corporate films created to sell product. Instead, Patagonia is providing a platform for environmental activists and leaders whose work the company admires.
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One such leader is Caroline Gleich, an activist, athlete, and “Patagonia Ambassador.” The ambassador program invites environmentally active world-class athletes to become company proselytizers, essentially creating another authentic content channel.
Currently, there are approximately 90 athletes, including skiers, surfers, fly fisherman, trail runners, rock climbers, and other men and women who have mastered the sports the company makes products for. Each ambassador is featured on the company website, where he or she can share personal stories, photos, videos, and more on a variety of topics that matter to him or her. It’s a conscious and symbiotic relationship, one that shows how seamlessly Patagonia incorporates and harnesses user-generated stories into its content system.
As an ambassador, Gleich publishes videos and blog posts while testing the company’s gear and clothing. She also works at a variety of local and national environmental nonprofit organizations like Protect Our Winters and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Her athletic prowess and fame are both valuable to Patagonia’s skiing and mountaineering products. And Patagonia’s support gives her a prominent platform as an athlete and activist. But neither Gleich, nor the company, sees this relationship as transactional. Instead, they see it as deeply integrated: “Being able to merge sport and environmental activism is one of the most powerful platforms from which to speak about issues and affect change. Patagonia has always understood this — it’s part of their company ethos.” She also believes that this collaborative relationship will lead to a common goal. “I’ve learned so much about activism from working with Patagonia,” Gleich says. “And I’m confident that our work will leave the world a better place for future generations.”
Ultimately, Patagonia wants its customers to become, like Gleich, environmental activists. And what better way to do that than invite them to tell their own stories.
The Worn Wear campaign is a digital project that shares people’s anecdotes of their favorite Patagonia purchase. It also provides information on how to repair and recycle them. One customer wrote an ode to his sky blue down sweater, which he says he has worn for six years, and included a photograph of him wearing it on his honeymoon hiking in Greenland. The idea here is to celebrate the sweater and the customer, and to capture in a single story the belief Patagonia shares with its customers. This is a content system that doubles as a dialogue. It moves two ways, not one. Ultimately, the company wants its customers to take part in their mission. “We think of quality as an environmental program,” Fetcher explains. “But it only becomes that when we empower our customers to uphold their end of the bargain.”
Through all its “content channels” — from movies to books to collaborative social campaigns — Patagonia connects its customers to the environmental movement, and then reinforces that point of view in its products. In return, people support the company, not just by buying products but by becoming more environmentally conscientious themselves.
This creates an emotional awakening in stakeholders that inverts most retailers’ understanding of how you build a powerful brand. “We try very hard to be transparent and to bring all of our customers and employees along together in the responsibility to fulfill our mission,” Fetcher says. “The more people that we can attract to the company because of its values, the more powerful that mission becomes.”
The outcome, of course, is unprecedented loyalty and devotion to the company and a growing number of advocates for what it believes. This is how a content system can not only tell great stories, but also help a brand become a movement.