Great Patagonia Publicity By Creating Customer Intimacy

Originally Posted: 02/05/2014 9:55 am EST Updated: 02/05/2014 9:59 am EST


Ronn Torossian 5wpr Media Pr Public Relations Business News

The iconic outdoor gear and clothing company Patagonia’s strategy to create intimacy with customers through numerous public relations efforts offers a useful lesson in trust and authenticity. Patagonia’s mission and core value is: “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” A tall order – which is close to impossible to achieve.

For Patagonia, the mission isn’t just window dressing. While the company admits it hasn’t perfected the art of harmless manufacturing, it does address the challenges publicly, most prominently with its “The Footprint Chronicles,” an examination of Patagonia’s manufacturing, production, and ecological habits. The PR idea behind the strategy is to engage customers by publicly and openly talking and thinking about its corporate practices. Patagonia also commits 1 percent of its total sales or 10 percent of its profits, whichever is more, to environmental groups.

Since 1985, when the program first started, Patagonia has donated $46 million to more than a thousand organizations. Customers and others can track the environmental impact of several Patagonia projects through the company website and a downloadable Footprint program. Online catalog pages offer “Product Footprint” tabs next to at least 150 Patagonia products so consumers can check the impact on the environment of a pair of boots or a thermal sweatshirt before they buy. Some people see this as a pure marketing ploy, but it is so pervasive throughout the site, and Patagonia puts so much time and effort into this aspect of its business, that it ultimately engenders trust and confidence with its constituents who are, after all, outdoor enthusiasts concerned about the environment.

The company’s first foray into environmentalism occurred in the 1970s, when founder Yvon Chouinard noted that original climbing equipment was harmful to rocks. By 1970, Chouinard equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States but was also known as an environmental villain because its pitons (metal spikes with a hole for a rope that mountaineers hammer into mountain rock to use as a hold) were doing damage to popular climbing routes. Chouinard made a tough decision and phased out of the piton line, then the mainstay of his business. The company invested in aluminum chocks, which could be wedged into existing cracks by hand. The company introduced the new tool in 1972 with a message from Chouinard and his partner about the damage the old pitons caused. A member of the Sierra Club, a leading environmental nonprofit organization, extolled the virtues of “clean climbing” with aluminum chocks. Chocks soon caught on and sales quickly exceeded what the piton line had been selling.

Since then, the company has made a conscious effort to stand behind its mission of “do no harm” and has personalized it for customers by talking about its efforts openly. It uses PR to forward this mission. It has a vibrant and robust Facebook page where it connects with fans–and where fans return the love. Blogs, essays, and other content make its community Web page a go-to community for environmental, sports, adventure, and outdoor information. Aside from the Footprint project, Patagonia has at least 14 environmental initiatives, including grant programs, conservation alliances, and recycling programs.

Aside from all these feel-good programs, Patagonia produces a first-class product–many adventure and sports enthusiasts consider the company the Rolls-Royce of outdoor clothing and equipment. The puffy jackets and sturdy pants don’t try to set fashion trends; they instead are manufactured to last a long time and function at a high and consistently dependable level. The result of all this goes right to the bottom line.

Patagonia used PR to “make it personal” with the “do no harm” mission. Everything it sells and does can be linked directly to its core value. It focuses on its core audience–outdoorsmen and women– placing the most attention on people with whom they already have an established connection. As the company connects with its core constituents, the customers would help spread the word that the company is living up to its hype. From the brick-and-mortar retailer that sells Patagonia products, to the company’s website, Facebook page, and sponsored events, Patagonia speaks to its fans in a consistent voice that reinforces its mission and core values.

For manufacturers, the product is the message–everything else is frosting. Manufacturing within environmental constraints (even self-imposed ones) can mean quality shortfalls. Patagonia has continued to make functional, long-lasting products that come with an ironclad guarantee. Patagonia is forthright about the effort it takes to “do no harm” by ranking its own products’ environmental impact, continually seeking improvements and talking about them, and soliciting ideas and advice from its audience. In both new product development and environmental solutions to its production and fulfillment strategies, Patagonia stays relevant and continues to innovate while staying true to its core – and sales now exceed $600 Million annually.

Ronn Torossian is author of “For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations”, and CEO of 5WPR.

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