Patagonia is different. If you’re looking for proof, look no further than their mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This philosophy is present in every content endeavor from the anything-but-ordinary athletic apparel store. We went behind the scenes with Strick Walker, Patagonia’s Director of Global Marketing, to talk about what it takes to build a brand identity of this scale.
Fill in the blank: the best content marketing _______.
inspires people to take some kind of action.
What stands out immediately is that Patagonia uses content to drive home an identity, instead of a specific product, and connects to fans in a relatable way. Can you talk about your content strategy and what you consider a successful piece of content?
We don’t really have hard rules about developing brand versus product-oriented content. We do a bit of both. Our goal is to activate people around the environmental issues we care about. Sometimes product-related content is actually the most important, disruptive content we can produce. Our recent 100% Traceable Down campaign is a good example of that. It’s about the gnarly realities of down-sourcing and our work to redesign our supply chain. It’s a product message to be sure–but it’s also an important company initiative.
In addition to The Cleanest Line, you have tumblr pages for a variety of topics, from fly fishing to skiing. What was the motivation behind creating such a variety of content hubs? What fueled your decision to have a community of athletes contribute content to these pages?
There’s a unique visual and written language in each of these areas. They aren’t just sport or product categories, they’re passions and ways of living. Some of us grew up on snow. Some of us grew up climbing or surfing. I guess not everyone wants to sit down and watch a fly-fishing film and hear about hatches or casting techniques. Regardless, great content reminds people to protect and share their passions. So we want to keep those streams of content on-point, while making sure they feel like they’re coming from the same brand. Some of the content comes from our ambassadors, but most of it comes from inside the company.
In a world of short attention spans, your print catalog is largely driven by editorial content and last year, the 30-minute Worn Wear documentary received a lot of attention. What would you say is the recipe for getting people to pay attention, no matter the length of your content?
It’s getting tougher to keep people engaged in long-format content. But I think the simple answer is: tell a compelling story that you actually believe in. Respect the craft of storytelling and the complexity of the subject matter. We’ve found that people will stick around if you do that. Our film DamNation is a good example - I wouldn’t have believed that you can sit for over an hour, watching a film about dam removal and be entertained and inspired. Turns out you can.
Patagonia is clearly a risk-taker. Would you say there’s a correlation between taking risks and shaping brand identity?
I think so. Patagonia allows itself to behave like a human being and that includes taking risks. It’s refreshing to be a part of. As our founder Yvon says, the human voice will both inspire and offend. I’m sure we do both, and I realize that not everyone will appreciate that. But that’s OK.
What’s your favorite campaign or content project to date? What made it stand out from all the others?
We recently developed a collection of products made from cotton scraps, recycled Italian military uniforms, undyed cashmere, recycled down jackets and wool that restores the grasslands of South America because of how it’s sourced. We created a book we called “Truth to Materials” to accompany the collection in store. We simply told the stories of the materials, and the designers who work with them to make beautiful garments. I liked working on that project because it really represents the soul of this place. Human beings, respecting the materials they use, causing no unnecessary harm to the environment, while making durable, functional pieces.
What metrics matter most to Patagonia?
This varies according to the campaign, and that’s what’s fun about working at Patagonia. It’s not just about sales and revenue. With DamNation, the metric is petition signatures related to removal of deadbeat dams on the Snake River. For Traceable Down, it’s issue awareness and how many other businesses we can get to join us in the effort. We want to inspire the industry to hold itself to a higher standard. By doing so, we can also increase demand for traceable down and reduce supply-side material costs. So it goes beyond typical consumer-marketing metrics.
How does social media play into your overall content strategy?
We depend on it to get the word out and activate people around issues. But truthfully, we’re just beginning to fully embrace it. We don’t have big budgets, so we need to get more savvy there.
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you first got into content marketing?
I suppose we’re engaged in content marketing, but I don’t really feel like that’s what we’re doing. I feel like we’re taking advantage of the ability to reach people beyond the old, traditional paid channels. We’ve got the soul of an activist plus the resources of a successful business. So we’re telling stories–the good, the bad, and what we think. I look back at my agency days and realize that we used to just go for laughs and “shareability,” but being passionate about the subject matter needs to come first. In fact, without that, you’ve got nothing to say and people will move on.
What’s next for Patagonia’s content?
We’ll continue to tackle big issues and tell our stories with whatever tools we can get our hands on. We believe that you have to be a bit disruptive to create positive change.
Where do you see the content marketing industry going in the future?
I’m not sure, but hopefully it will continue to move in a meaningful direction. Not boring, but meaningful. Those are different things. Rather than try to wrap sales in entertainment, I hope communications pros will move toward wrapping business in meaningful actions. There are all kinds of positive impacts that companies can have on the world and content/creative storytelling is a powerful tool. It’s necessary, actually.