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A Marketing Playbook for Future Patagonias

I know. The words “marketing” and “Patagonia” don’t always play well together. But that’s the point…

I highly recommend the updated edition of Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard. It’s the story of how a unique business succeeded by doing things its own way, sticking to its values, and taking responsibility for its impact on the world – all the way through its supply chain (see its Footprint Chronicles).

The book is an easy, inspiring read – a great story with characters you like, immense love of life and the natural world, and tons of photos. You can read the whole thing in the course of a lazy weekend. And yet, as easy as it is to read the book, you won’t find easy answers here.

When I put the book down, Chouinard wouldn’t go away. He got inside my head and challenged me to justify what I do for a living every single day. I’m a marketer.

He has some things to say about marketing, which I think are summed up well on page 148:

  • “Our charter is to inspire and educate rather than to promote.
  • “We would rather earn credibility than buy it….
  • “We advertise only as a last resort …”

He says that Patagonia devotes less than 1% of sales to advertising, and then only in sport-specialty magazines. Many companies in the sustainable business world allocate similar small amounts. Let’s admit it, marketing is a bad word. Marketers are liars. We invented greenwashing, right? Marketing is all about growth, and as Chouinard reminds us every other page or so, economic activity – today, at least – inherently takes more from the environment than it gives back. (Some amazing people are working to change that, but that’s another topic.) So growth is a bad word, too.

I’ve had an on-going dialogue with the little Yvon Chouinard avatar implanted in my consciousness by that book, and I’ve come down on the other side of the issue … not because it’s what I do for a living, but because I believe intensely that we don’t have time to grow the clean economy at a leisurely pace.

Patagonia’s formula for success is organic growth driven by values, amazing product quality, employees who have fun at work, and loyal customers. Sales growth is a byproduct of doing the right thing. For Steve Jobs fans, a lot of this will sound familiar. It just feels good, doesn’t it? Growth without marketing steroids…

Here’s the problem: Patagonia’s been growing organically for 40 years. (Apple, too.) If today’s sustainable enterprises take 40 years to reach Patagonia’s size, it will be ‘game over’ for Planet Earth. We need to accelerate the switch from irresponsible industrial enterprises to responsible, sustainable businesses. We need to do it quickly, and we need to start now. The faster we can accelerate that change, the better for all 7 billion of us homo sapiens.

Everything we need is in the marketing toolbox. Marketing, done right, just amplifies who you are. If you sell crappy products, if you’re a jerk, your marketing will simply add to the media noise. But if you are true to your values and use the smart marketing tools that are available today, you can respect your audience, engage with them honestly and, at the same time, accelerate the most important economic change of all time!

Marketing just amplifies who you are. If you are true to your values, you can respect your audience, engage with them honestly and, at the same time, accelerate the most important economic change of all time! Click To Tweet

Here’s what I suggest for would-be Patagonias, my five-step boilerplate deal with the marketing Devil:

  1. Set ambitious goals in line with your company’s values.
  2. Find a good marketer who believes what you believe and can give you a detailed plan for getting you there, respecting your company’s mission all the way.
  3. Measure every marketing investment against that plan and your company’s mission. Marketing for a triple bottom line is a new discipline (see Marketing That Matters).
  4. Take business away from irresponsible companies as fast as you possibly can.
  5. Don’t be polite. Don’t wait your turn. Do it now. Start accelerating the most important economic change ever!
Our approach: Take business away from irresponsible companies as fast as you possibly can. Don't be polite. Don’t wait your turn. Do it now. Start accelerating the most important economic change ever! Click To Tweet