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Patagonia: The Original Content Marketers

There is so much buzz these days about content marketing for very good reason. When we create content that our customers need (even crave?), we can connect to them in an extremely meaningful way that allows us to build a stronger relationship with them. We create brand ambassadors, we create customer loyalty and we create the holy grail of word of mouth recommendations. Content marketing isn’t new – great brands have been doing it for a very long time now – but in the past few years it has become a much bigger sword to wield in digital marketing as spending has moved away from ads and into a world where we map out every stage of the customer lifecycle to meet them exactly where they are with the exact content they need to move them through each stage of the funnel until we get a conversion. I’ve not been to a single networking event, marketing conference or joined a digital Facebook group in the last year in which content marketing isn’t one of the main topics of discussion.

I have been reading Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing recently and while I’m struck by many things – the passion for getting everything right, the ethical obligation to make products that last, the serious commitment to activism, his deep love of the outdoors – what really stands out for me is how early on Patagonia realized what many marketers have only begun to realize in the past few years: if we want to sell our customers something we believe they need, we have to create content to educate them on why they need it and how it fits into their lives.

The Patagonia catalog, even in its very early days, devoted a ton of space to that very education. Essays on why you should layer clothing and how to do it and think-pieces on environmental issues took up valuable space that could have been devoted to featuring more products. But Yvon and his team understood early on that these essays would do more to sell their products than featuring a few more photos and prices and SKUs on those pages ever would. They were providing their customers with useful knowledge while also establishing the company ethos and reminding every customer why they so identified with Patagonia. Brilliant.

All those years ago, they were storytelling – a buzzword that seems to be everywhere these days but is a concept any season marketer has employed for years. At every opportunity, remind your customers why they are choosing you and why choosing you is the right choice.

“My first principle of mail order argues that “selling” ourselves and our philosophy is equallyimportant to selling product. Telling the Patagonia story and educating the Patagonia customer on layering systems, on environmental issues, and on the business itself are as much the catalog’s mission as is selling the products. This has several practical implications, including how we measure the success of a catalog, how we format the information, and how we allocate space. Above its value as a sales tool, the catalog is first of all an image piece, presenting the company’s values and obligations.”

What’s more, they tracked the results as any good marketers should and played with different ratios of content to product/product to content. And they found that good storytelling that directly reinforces the values of the brand wins out:

“Over the years we have come upon a balance between product content and message — essays, stories, and image photos. Whenever we have edged that content towards increased product presentation, we have actually experienced a decrease in sales.”

It’s fair to say that my already-intense devotion to Patagonia as a brand has only increased after reading Yvon’s book and seeing just how truly ahead of the curve he was in every aspect of his business. And how absolutely incredible that it all stemmed from a lifelong passion – something he would have happily pursued outside of “work.” A lesson for us all.

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