A few years back, I attended a conscious capitalism brainstorm at the Ventura, California, headquarters of Patagonia.
Patagonia is an incredible company. Founded by Yvon Chouinard as a means to supply himself and his “dirtbag climber” friends with quality equipment, it has grown into a global brand without sacrificing its environmental, design, quality or ethical business ideals.
As part of my visit, I did a tour and met some of the employees. I have never come across a more enthusiastic, intelligent, genuine, committed bunch. These guys were off the proverbial charts. I was awed. I felt envious. I began to suspect some kind of smart and happy juice in the water supply.
Even in that group of cheerful overachievers, one person stood out. Chipper Bell, our guide for the company tour.
Chipper bore more than a passing resemblance to the dude in “The Big Lebowski,” from his insanely laid-back demeanor and Jeff Bridges looks to his cartoon California accent.
As he toured us through the company, however, it became apparent there was more to Chipper than met the eye.
Passing through the materials research department, we ducked as someone flipped a Frisbee to Chipper, calling out that his design had finally arrived.
Chipper was ecstatic, explaining to us that this disk was created using recycled materials and sustainable processes. After a bit of back patting, one of us asked why creating a sustainable Frisbee was such a big deal for him. Chipper replied with dude nonchalance that he was a Frisbee freestyle world champion, shrugged his shoulders, and ushered us on.
We were still digesting this nugget when Chipper opened the door to the stairwell where employees stashed their surfboards. He pointed out his board and explained that anyone at Patagonia could skip out to surf when nearby breaks were pumping, as long as they got their work done later. Again, one of us piped up and asked what Chipper loved most about surfing. He replied that he ran a surf school when he wasn’t at Patagonia, and he was most inspired by his special-needs and disabled students.
Again, we were stunned into silence. Who was this dude?
The tour ended as Chip took us to his desk and told us what he did at Patagonia. Turns out he wasn’t in community relations, product research or sustainability, as I had imagined.
He was Patagonia’s receptionist.
As he put on his headset and cheerfully waved goodbye, I discreetly asked one of our Patagonia hosts to give me the full Chipper story.
“Did he tell you he almost got to run the company?” My host smiled.
“No, he left that one out,” I said, picking my jaw up off the ground.
Turns out there was a companywide vote a few years back to elect a new president. Chipper came in a close second. Our Frisbee champion, surf school owner, dude receptionist had come a hairbreadth from running Patagonia.
Know what? He probably would’ve been a great president. Perhaps a bit shy on management theory, but no more so than half the presidents out there.
I’d argue, however, that Chip would’ve been wasted as president. The role he has now was of far greater importance. More than any brand, any communications campaign, any iconic image, he represented Patagonia.
When I think of Chip, and the other people I’ve met at Patagonia these past years, I get a crystal clear picture of what the company represents: its values and motives; what it will always make and never make; how it will behave in good times and bad. I feel aligned with Patagonia, much like I’d feel aligned with a trusted friend. We get each other.
Interestingly, Patagonia rarely advertises. Yet it attracts a legion of loyal followers who support it in good times and bad. Its sales actually went up in the last recession, without price cuts.
I’m sure every marketer would like to know how to pull that rabbit out of the Gore-Tex hat.
Brands don’t have beliefs — people do
I think the secret to authentic brands is standing in front of us. It’s people.
If I was to use Chip as a model, I’d say the secret is people who are remarkable, attract other people and cheerfully express their honest beliefs in the products they make. Their “advertising” is the stories they share when customers come shopping.
You find these people everywhere, working for great companies: Nordstrom, Lululemon, Interface carpet.
The trick is: These people and their very genuine stories can’t be invented. Marketers can’t fabricate beliefs or values.
Ad campaigns can’t create the deep, trusting relationships that humans can. They don’t have human belief systems and values. Instead, they serve up a concoction of emotional hooks and superficial promises, hoping to leave us with a positive feeling when we hear the brand mentioned or see it on the shelf.
This worked like a charm in simpler, pre-war days. But the world has evolved and become more hostile to ad campaigns. We’re oversaturated with media. People simply don’t have the bandwidth to absorb any more vapid brand hooks. And today’s consumer has the ability to look behind the curtain and see how the brand behaves when it isn’t trying to ingratiate itself. Stories of sweatshop labor, disregard for the environment, and sociopathic pursuit of profit don’t jibe terribly well with a warm and cuddly image.
Not surprisingly, trust in brands has gone down the toilet. As Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands study points out, most people worldwide wouldn’t care if 73 percent of brands disappeared tomorrow. In North America, that number is closer to 92 percent. As Umair Haque, the study’s author, writes:
“The long-standing relationship between people and brands is broken. Much of the trust, respect and loyalty people had for many brands has disintegrated.
“You see it every day in the level of cynicism, skepticism and indifference that people have toward many brands, in many interactions. The reality is, trust in brands worldwide has been falling for the last three decades. It is not hard to see why. We have faced the greatest financial recession since the great depression. It is a recession that hangs on stubbornly in much of the world, with a sluggish rebound at best.
Then there is the fact that brands are not delivering what people want. Instead, they’re trying to deliver what they always have: the same old combination of faster/cheaper/newer, while the world yearns for brands that are meaningful. Brands that improve people’s well-being in a tangible, significant, fulfilling way.”
So, why doesn’t Patagonia feel the need to advertise?
Haque has the answer: Successful brands provide meaning, not superficial promises. They “advertise” by building human bonds, providing reliability and utility, behaving like trustworthy people would — people we like, admire and want to emulate.
This isn’t done with 30-second spots or billboards. It’s done when people like me tell people like you about people like Chipper Bell, Patagonia’s receptionist.
I believe the best brands are people. They just happen to be associated with products or services.
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Image credit: Flickr/faircompanies
Marc Stoiber is a brand consultant, entrepreneur, and writer. He knows how to connect dots, simplify, and add a creative twist to the most mundane things in life. Even insurance and diet bars. He has worked in the corner office, the basement, and at coffee shops around the world. His work – even the legitimate stuff clients paid for – has been recognized by virtually every international industry award for advertising and design. Marc writes on brand innovation for Huffington Post, Fast Company, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media. He also speaks on the subject from coast to coast, and has been featured at TEDx.