An article came out this past weekend from the New York Times titled “In a North Face Jacket, a Reversible Appeal”and it made me laugh. First of all, and kind of irrelevant, is that the article starts off with a photo of Todd Spaletto, the president of The North Face whom I have met and actually have come in contact with pretty often just within my first few weeks of working at The North Face. In such a big company who would even imagine that an intern would’ve met, hugged, and shook the hand of the president of a multi million dollar company.
Anyway, back to the focus of the article, the fact that The North Face (TNF) only focuses on the athletic side of the brand and not the larger lifestyle aspect. So, I actually talk about this all of the time so forgive me if I get excited here but I may have drank too much TNF koolaid or I actually just believe in the technology. While I definitely am that college girl walking around Philly in my fleece North Face jacket I also ski, hike, and run so I guess you could say that I indeed “live the brand”and embrace the technology from the brand. I also feel like I have to defend this because I do it with buyers all of the time. The North Face started as a mountaineering brand making technical and functional tents, packs, and equipment and it has only expanded but kept it’s heritage close to the heart. It was addressed in the article that we don’t sell products at TJ Maxx or Marhshalls and the reason for that is because we will never compromise quality for a lower price. If we feel we are compromising our brand by bringing price down to reach all corners of the market we would rather sacrifice the business because we are known for quality. The products we make all have a lifetime warranty so that means it can never break and it has to be durable. My personal opinion is that no matter what, people will spend the extra money for a North Face coat (and it is proven). The other day I was presenting the line to a buyer that likes to tell people that his store is deep in the hood. Needless to say these aren’t the same customers that are buying our higher end coats at Bloomingdales. When it got to the kid’s presentation, he got upset that we were selling polyfill options as opposed to down coats for kids and how all of his competitors in the neighborhood were selling polyfill at a lower price therefore if he sold down (what he truly believes in) no one would buy it because it is more expensive. Part of the reason is because customers don’t know and can’t feel the difference between polyfill and down which puts him at a disadvantage if he sells down. He claims that people on food stamps that he sells to would rather starve and buy their child a quality down coat than a cheap “made in China” coat to keep them warm. Either way, the customer doesn’t understand the tech of the coats. Fair enough.
I never realized it until I did 3 or more line presentations a day, that there is so much tech even in the simplest of fleeces. The point being is that we are a brand built on technology and that will never change whether the customer realizes it or not. We get calls all of the time to open new accounts and I have to turn people down because ultimately TNF wants to push the outdoor part of our brand (the majority of the products). Many potential accounts are not outdoor so they are looked over but if an outdoor store wants to open an account, more attention is put looking into them. This furthers the point that we focus more on that aspect of the brand. I don’t think as a brand we don’t recognize the lifestyle people wearing our jackets but more that we started as an outdoor brand and that is what we stand by so good for them if they wear it.
It’s funny because the article fails to point out that our most popular jacket, the Denali, was actually one of the very first mountaineering jackets and look how popular it is today. You can’t walk down the street without seeing 5 to 10 people at least, wearing one. But no one really knows that. I definitely see how popular the brand is but we started as an outdoor brand and that’s who we are. Great if other people want to wear the brand, it only helps, but we don’t have to focus business there because those jackets sell themselves to the non-technical part of the market.
We focus on things like furthering our Steep and Summit Series lines, which is our MOST technical pieces. Athlete tested, expedition approved. Only specialty stores can sell these and many times it’s hard to sell if the customer can’t appreciate the features and technology they are getting, they just see the price. While buyers appreciate the exclusivity because all box stores we sell to like Dick’s, REI, Macy’s, and Bloomingdales can’t carry it, they say it’s so technical people don’t understand it. As a brand we struggle with people saying we should change it to be more salable but we pride ourselves in making that apparel to save the lives of our athletes while they climb Mount Everest, so it is frustrating to hear that some buyers don’t appreciate it because they honestly probably don’t understand it. I know plenty of people that buy it because our athletes use it.
I could go on forever about this but to me the brand is the most technical outdoor brand and that’s what we pride ourselves in. Great if urban customers are wearing our mainstream boring fleeces. More credit to them if they actually wear the cooler jackets we make, because to be honest the fleece is such a small part of what we actually make. I’m happy to see someone whose never gone skiing wearing a Heli jacket made for helicopter skiing, but we need to focus on what the brand began as and what we believe in pushing.