In a North Face Jacket, a Reversible Appeal
By ALINA TUGEND
It started when I bought a North Face jacket.
Of course, I was aware of the brand’s popularity. But it wasn’t until I got my own that I realized how omnipresent it was. That particularly struck home one day when I, a middle-aged woman, was getting out of my car. I glanced up at the young man walking nearby. He was wearing the same jacket.
Usually when a brand moves from urban chic to suburban moms, or from elite athletes to everyday wear, it loses some luster. But the North Face seems to have escaped that fate, and is embraced by the city student, the rural rancher and just about everyone in between.
Further searching backed up my anecdotal evidence. There’s a picture of President Obama in a North Face jacket, dropping off his daughters at school. In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, campaigned in North Face jackets, one black, one red. The rapper Drake wears a leopard-patterned one. Students in South Korea have called it “the uniform worn over the uniform” and rank classmates according to what type they own, according to a CNN article last year.
As one blogger said this year, these jackets seem to be “taking over the world.”
“Think I’m lying?” the blogger posted on greensboring.com. “Try this: the next time you’re in a restaurant or a public place start looking around and count the North Face apparel.”
Given all that, I figured that this would be an interesting topic: How did North Face manage to pull off that marketing miracle? Surely its top executives would be eager to discuss it.
When asked about the secret behind its unusually widespread appeal, the people at North Face and its holding company, the VF Corporation, weren’t so eager to talk. Or rather, they were happy to speak endlessly about the North Face-wearing marathoner, snowboarder and mountain climber — the sort of athlete featured in the company’s newest national television commercial, which began appearing last week.
The commercial shows several athletes skiing perilous slopes, running near a waterfall or staring soulfully from a sailboat, all with a backdrop of spectacular scenery and a voice-over reciting the words of John Muir and ending with his famous line, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
North Face ads don’t really focus on the rest of us, who wear the jackets as we commute to work or take a stroll in a city park.
And there are a lot of us. In 2012, North Face accounted for 33.5 percent of the outdoor apparel market in the United States, according to SportsOneSource, a market research firm. That number refers only to apparel like fleeces, jackets, vests, pants and hats, not to backpacks and other gear — and only to products sold by sporting goods retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI, not North Face’s own outlets. But those big retailers represent the largest share of outdoor apparel sales, said Matt Powell, a SportsOneSource analyst.
Rather than tooting its own horn, North Face, based in San Leandro, Calif., denies that it dominates the United States market that much. It said in an email that “once you include sportswear, footwear, equipment and the other categories the share is not that high.” But the company didn’t want to provide its own number.
Todd Spaletto, president of North Face, says he doesn’t even know who the company’s typical consumer is. “We don’t measure. We don’t look at average age or where they live,” he said. “We know where our products are being purchased, but we don’t track or market around specific household levels.”
Instead, he said, North Face decided four years ago to divide its products and marketing into four “activity based” models: hiking, trekking and mountaineering; running and training; snow sports; and youth (aimed at those 12 and under). “We do consider our core customer to be someone who is centered in one of those activities,” he said.
Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, was a little skeptical that the company didn’t track its demographics. She has no specific knowledge of North Face, she said, but “for such a big successful company, it’s hard to believe.”
Companies need demographic data for all sorts of reasons, including targeted advertising, she said. “Maybe they don’t want it to be in The New York Times that their average customer is, say, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mom,” she said.
North Face’s nearest competitor, Columbia Sportswear, with 12.5 percent of the nation’s outdoor apparel market in 2012, according to SportsOneSource, aggressively takes the opposite stance. Columbia, based in Portland, Ore., subscribes to the belief that “ordinary people don’t identify with elite athletes taking extreme risks; they find them terrifying,” said Tim Boyle, the company’s president and C.E.O.
Mr. Boyle is happy to say his company’s average customer is “a 35-year-old family person — a mom or dad who likes taking the kids outside for hiking and camping.”
Columbia sells clothing and gear for the serious athlete through its Mountain Hardwear brand and footwear through its Sorel brand. And it is quite willing to sell Columbia clothing at discount stores like T.J. Maxx, an approach North Face shuns.
“I think they’ve got their position in the marketplace and they would probably never admit there was a college girl buying their product,” Mr. Boyle said. “But they’d be a much smaller business if college girls weren’t buying.”
Mr. Spaletto’s response? “We like that there’s greater adoption of our brand, but that’s not our focus.”
It’s not surprising that North Face is cautious about how it presents itself. It’s hard to convince customers of exclusivity once a brand is everywhere. The company clearly sees the danger, and it walks that tightrope very, very carefully.
The company knows well that “catering to the masses is where most of the money is,” Professor Goldsmith said. “Catering to the niche market is where you build your brand equity.”
As Mr. Spaletto said, “I think a big mistake other brands make when they find a wide variety of different consumers like their product is that they try to change the way they position their brand. We have never done that.”
And the strategy apparently works. North Face reported global revenue of $1.9 billion in 2012, up from $242 million in 2001, right after it was bought by VF. Its steadily rising revenue appears to indicate that it has found a way to draw in average consumers without undercutting its aspirational message.
One way it does so is by sponsoring athletes around the world. They are showcased in its advertising and videos looking impossibly fit and daring, and ready to try anything — even survive an avalanche — when equipped with their North Face gear.
“They are really authenticated by their relationship with climbers and people who camp in frigid weather,” said Marie Driscoll, an apparel industry analyst. “So in New York City, people think, if such-and-such athlete is willing to trust this on the hills of Latin America, I’m willing to pay a little more for the brand.” She added: “With sports apparel, unlike fashion apparel, there’s not the same negativity that big is the enemy of cool. It means we’re part of the same clique or team.”
Committed athletes, meanwhile, say North Face has managed to maintain, and even improve, its quality control and innovation.
“There’s some derision among hard-core athletes that you see North Face appearing everywhere, but there’s been no decline in their quality,” said Marc Guido, an alpine and backcountry skier who is the editor of First Tracks, an online ski magazine. North Face doesn’t sponsor or advertise in Mr. Guido’s magazine.
The company was started in the 1960s by two climbers who wanted to help other climbers find quality backpacks and equipment. The logo — three curved lines next to the name — represents the Half Dome of Yosemite National Park.
In 2000, VF, a public company, bought North Face, whose popularity was soaring with the “wilderness chic” fashion of the time. It is now VF’s largest division, accounting for 20 percent of its revenue, up from 16.6 percent in 2009. North Face has 50 store locations and 16 outlets across the United States; one-third of its business is international. Online sales are growing and accounted for about 5 percent of North Face’s revenue last year, the company said.
Though wilderness fashion may have faded, North Face has “managed to update their look a little, without going too far,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. “So many brands will dilute the power of the product to make it more accessible.”
So can the company continue to balance between the hard core and the softer core? “That’s the secret sauce,” said Mr. Powell, the SportsOneSource analyst. “I think they have really smart people who have a good handle on what to do. But a brand can lose its cool very easily.”