How Patagonia’s anti-marketing stance remains a trail blazer in the ethical apparel sector

How Patagonia’s anti-marketing stance remains a trail blazer in the ethical apparel sector

Guaranteed not to ruffle any feathers, ethical apparel brand Patagonia has been voted into The Innovation 50 for its marketing. And so it should be. Or should it?

In a world dominated by consumerism, Patagonia has trodden an occasionally anti-marketing path with sincerity and still grown profits. In 2011, for example, it ran an ad reading ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’, outlining the environmental cost of one of its best-selling fleeces. The reason? It wanted you to buy one of its used products.

In response, revenues grew by about 30% to around US$543 million the following year and a further 5% a year later.

By 2017, it broke the US$1 billion level. That same year, the brand started accepting certain Patagonia merchandise in good condition in exchange for credits. It was then cleaned, repaired and sold on its ‘Worn Wear’ website.

Knowing its audience, trailblazing with them

So how has its counter-intuitive anti-marketing stance carried off such a marketing triumph?

Its environmentally-conscious upmarket approach had tapped into the mindset of its target audience and has done so ever since. This approach has trail blazed a path for brands that fear purpose and profit are mutually exclusive.

Pamela Brown, CMO, Vodafone Internet of Things, is a fan of Patagonia and its approach.

She says, “Ever since this clothing brand took over Black Friday with its ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ message in 2011, discouraging mass consumerism, its rebellious approach to marketing has paid off. It has grown a fiercely loyal and eco-conscious customer base. Patagonia commits to practising what it preaches, notably donating US$10 million of Trump’s corporate tax savings [in 2018] to help combat climate change.”

Credibility all the way

Will Holloway, Creative Director at Fever PR, also admires Patagonia for its credibility as an ethical business and marketer.

“Patagonia don’t just talk like a sustainable brand, they make everything they do about sustainability and acting responsibly,” he says.

On the brand’s decision to donate the Trump tax cut to environmental charities “rather than acting ‘irresponsibly’ and taking the money from a government with a less than stellar record on climate change policy”.

Will continues, “When you’ve made it clear time and time again what it is you stand for then it makes gestures like this seem heartfelt and believable. It also means that you can get away with printing ‘Get the assholes out’ on your clothing labels and have it come across as a statement of the brand’s values rather than a cheap PR stunt.”

It also meant that in 2016, when its high-profile rejection of Black Friday was communicated, this too was received in the spirit in which it was intended.

A political activist

The brand is also politically active. In the US, it organised a boycott of the 2017 Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City after Utah passed a bill to transfer federal lands to the state.

It even sued the US Government and President Donald Trump over plans to reduce the scale of two national monuments in Utah by two million acres and take them under federal ownership. As an outdoor brand founded by accomplished rock climber Yvon Chouinard, both actions were exactly on-brand.

Will says, “Consistency in terms of messaging and tone has helped Patagonia separate themselves from the herd in the very cluttered fashion sector especially when rival clothing brands only tend to focus on sustainability when it suits them.”

An unconventional fashion brand, it has donated 1% of sales to environmental causes since 1985. Founder Chouinard then formed an alliance of organisations prepared to do the same in 2002.

In advertising terms, unless you are a climber, skier or surfer you won’t usually be in its target audience. But its marketing campaigns are about building a community that feels part of a movement. And that is why Patagonia is a unique marketing innovator.