Lessons from The North Face

I have been attending a marketing conference in Banff the past couple of years. I know, the hardships I endure in business. Seriously Banff is such a spectacular venue to hold a conference. The marketing conference is dubbed “The Gathering” which honours and features brands that have achieved cult like followers. One of the sessions this year was hosted by Tom Herbst, Head of Global Marketing for The North Face. I was struck today by what he started the session with, a simple black slide which had the following statement written on it.

It is a very dramatic way to start a presentation. He then talked about taking the job at The North Face, looking forward to working on a brand that was about more than getting people simply to buy more stuff. He talked about promoting a brand that he thought could make a difference by how it engaged with the world. He talked about The North Face’s recent “Walls are meant for Climbing” campaign which stands in contrast to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his attempt to build his wall on the border to Mexico. He also recognized that he was moving to a company that was by all accounts, a giant of a company, with ubiquitous products, scattered all around the market place. He posed the question how do you deal with a company this big, how do you differentiate it in the market place, then answering, you “make it a friendly giant”. I must admit, up until that point, I had never really considered The North Face to be about quality. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I had occasionally purchased products in the past, if they had been on sale, but I was definitely not a fan. I had no idea of the companies history, the birth of a clothing company grown from the climbing culture centred around Yosemite National Park. I had no idea that the curves beside the copy were there to represent the mountain Half Dome, on which climbers made the trek up its wall, the north face of Half Dome. It never ceases to fascinate me how much knowing the back story of someone or some company changes one’s perspective. You can think someone is aloof, a jerk, self-centred and then when you get to know them, all of those preconceptions fall away and you are left with something completely different.

I started writing this post back in February, and then let it sit in the draft folder until now. Maybe it was destined to be finished now, in the aftermath of Alberta’s recent election. We have, apparently joined the trend of ultra polarized politics in our neck of the woods, now too. Respectful Human Discourse be Damned! I was astounded this past couple of weeks at the ramped up rhetoric and fear mongering that we devolved into. Regardless of one’s political views, right, left, or centre, we are all fucking humans, and as such, deserve to dole out and receive mutual respect.

The North Face has adopted “never stop exploring” as their tag line. When you visit their homepage you are confronted with the following statement under a blur of slides exploring us to unplug, log off, turn off…

Exploration is a spirit within all of us.It's time to unplug from our always-on lives, turn on Explore Mode and connect in real life to the world, each other and ourselves. Never stop exploring.

I must admit that I have engaged with this brand in a new way. Watching the Oscar wining movie Free Solo didn’t hurt either. However I look at it, I am now a fan of the brand, and what they stand for. Of course they still want to sell me stuff, that much is clear, but they also want me to be a better fucking human, and that in and of itself is a bold corporate stance.

Having turned fifty this week, I think that The North Face has had an influence on me, along with the persistence of my fifteen year old son, who continues to treat me like a much younger version of myself. I have declared this next ten years of my life to be the decade of adventure, and I am going to do things I never thought I would do. Don’t panic, I am not going to be reckless, and start jumping out of airplanes or skiing down shear faces, but I am going to hike, climb, play, engage, unplug, and revel in the beauty all around me. I want to know more people for who they truly are, and see more of this amazing place I call home. Take deep breaths of Alberta, British Colombia, CANADA and find diverse and complex sojourners along the way. I want to be a better Fucking Human.