One of the longest running brands in the whole Outdoors game is The North Face . Before Action Sports were even considered sports, The North Face has been outfitting professional and amateur athletes and enthusiasts in high-quality, technical outerwear.
We started part 1 of the interview here and talked about what it means to be an action sport, how The North Face factors into things and how Freeskiing is part of the equation. Let’s continue where we left off with what snowboarders and skiers want.
So The North Face is all about freeriding, huh? A lot of companies have tried to make a run with it without much luck. I mean I was a huge backer of Snowboard Journal before they shuttered their doors. How is The North Face succeeding where others have failed?
Drawing a correlation between “freeriding” and the demise of The Snowboard Journal is apples and oranges. Most people who have been snowboarding for a few years eventually get the urge to explore different parts of the mountains other than groomed trails and man-made features. We’re calling that person the Park/Pipe Graduate, a person who wants more out of the mountain. Going out on a limb, it’s a natural evolution for most riders. Take myself as an example: As we get older, longevity is something that we all must face. Personally, I prefer to shred the entire mountain rather than just hang out in the park. That’s not to say we don’t enjoy sunny, slushy spring days in the park; all of our athletes enjoy the park/pipe but it’s not their main focus.
“Freestyle” elements are still a large part of freeriding, we’re not trying to come off as a brand who is anti-park/pipe riding. From a heritage standpoint, it’s a more natural fit for our brand to embrace the all parts of what make snowsports so amazing. Our brand is rooted in the outdoors so we’re taking that direction into the action sports world with our snowboard and ski programs.
You’re starting to see the shift with a lot of pro’s who are embracing the “earn your turns” mantra. We’ve been gearing out lots of people for these types of backcountry trips for years, enabling them whether or not our logo is on their boards. Anyone who fits and pioneers the Never Stop Exploring ethos is somebody we will do our best to support.
You’re seeing a lot of the Park/Pipe kids signing up for avy training, etc. It’s a natural evolution and we want the average consumer to know that there is more to snowboarding than what you see on TV.
So I gotta ask. With your background, what about the snowboard-specific brands?
When it comes to outerwear I don’t feel like your hardgoods preference matters in the development of softgoods. We (TNF) have built our brand experience and the reputation based on our tradition of outfitting those that are “out there”, including our athletes, mountain guides, patrol, cat operations, Everest summiteers, etc. It’s not this new thing we just discovered. We have a HUGE industry program with separate, pro-specific gear, only accessible by those guys. Basically some of the gnarliest of the gnarly wear our stuff, which is a great breeding ground for our consumer pieces and in most cases the technology trickles down based on our learning and their feedback.
Ok. What about the pro riders? How do they fit into this equation?
DCP, Johan, Carter, Megan O’Brien, Rob Kingwill, Eric Themel, Dave Short, Ross Baker, Ralph Backstrom; they all have the same common things we look for in our riders. A passion for sustainability and the outdoors, to evolve their riding and all are driven to explore the entire mountain. Their feedback is also critical as we develop and design our product.
We launched the Masters event series. It’s one of the only freeride events (and Natural Selection). It’s an open event. Anyone can enter. This sort of thing brings more people into the fold. We’re actually having conversations with Travis Rice and the Natural Selection about how to connect the two events in a similar vein that TTR has brought together all of the park/pipe events.
So what about core? We’ve danced around it, but what are your thoughts on being, acting hardcore?
Core is an arbitrary term that has been abused within our industry a bit. It’s an audience that you gotta speak to. So what is core? I’ve got a buddy in Jackson with duct-tape pants from 1993 who rides 100+ days a year without ever getting on a chairlift. On the east coast, there’s a kid hiking the rails who has never thrown down a powder turn in his life. They are both “core” in their own right. For obvious reasons, our brand is closer to the core outdoorsman that wants to get out there and explore. But I truly believe that we’re making product that any consumer can get behind. We’re positioned in a great place. We’ve got the lifetime warranty. We get product coming back from 1988, and we’re redeeming it. Additionally, our path to sustainability is not just a marketing ploy for us; we are truly making a concerted effort to change our process.
The North Face gets a lot of press for being the “official” apparel of college campuses anywhere. How do you reconcile that with all those backcountry outdoorsmen?
We’re not afraid of our own shadow. When we talk to the people who keep the lights on, our goal is to inspire them to push their own personal limits. Nobody wants to be pandered to. Our gear is designed to perform in an “optimal environment”; and we believe that is why consumers choose us. You may not climb a 14’ner, but you could with that coat. We’re known for our quality and I think our broad reach is a testament to that.
For the marketing geeks, what is that “sweet spot”? How do you judge every ad, contest, sponsorship, website, etc.?
We hold ourselves to higher standards. Consumers want to aspire to be in that special place. In an ad, you don’t want to show someone walking to class in a fleece, they want to be inspired. The mountains and the outdoors in general are an inspiring place. The goal is to show people the ultimate thing that you could or would do in that specific gear. Show people the brand and product in its purest form; in the environment it was designed to thrive in. That inspiration to “never stop exploring” is what The North Face was founded on and we will continue to enable people to do just that.
Give us some details on how you got to this awesome job at TNF. The people want to know!
I wouldn’t change my experiences for anything. I’ve had to access to so many different things and meet so many amazing people. I grew up in the Midwest and started snowboarding in the 6th grade at Mt. La Crosse in Wisconsin (PROPS). Basically I would get dropped off after school and on the weekends at that local mole hill. I spent my whole adolescent life there. When I started looking at colleges, I wanted to go to the best school, closest to snowboarding (probably familiar with a lot of our readers). I ended up going to UVM as it had the right mix of academics and leisure, even though the mountains nearby aren’t that big.
From my first week in VT, it was my dream to work at Burton. That was my goal so I worked backwards from that goal to figure out how to achieve it. I always did internships. That was the key. I never bummed around (though I wish I had). I started off at the local NPR affiliate, Vermont Public Radio. That passion for music eventually led me to WRUV, where I had a radio show for many years. Outside of my main hobbies I collect a lot of vinyl which was influenced from my radio days. Ask anybody who knows me and they will say I nerd out super hard on old records that most people don’t care about; jazz, funk, soul, psych, Latin, reggae, disco, dub, folk, experimental, etc. In tandem with my radio stint I was an intern at JDK (famed design firm), doing grunt work. My first job out of college was with JDK as a content coordinator, this was before everybody was on board with digital photography. In those days, JDK did everything for Burton creatively. This was pre-Syndicate (Burton’s internal marketing group). It was the heyday of the snowboard industry on the east coast from an industry growth standpoint. I worked along side some of the most talented artists like Jared Eberhardt, Malcolm Buick, Cody Hudson, Leo Listi (board graphic god), Lance Violette, and of course the guru himself Michael Jager . I was the scan monkey on the Blower book. That was a very cool experience being able to work with Jeff Curtes and Jared. I viewed those days as my equivalent of “action sports” graduate school.
Around 2002, an opportunity with Burton came up as an Brand Assistant in their marketing department. I made the jump and never looked back, working my way up to Brand Manager. While at Burton, I had my hands in everything from photo shoots, to time with pro riders, to helping create next year’s catalog, ad campaigns, and website. I loosely compare that time to the book Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell, fame author of the Tipping Point). If you read the book the final conclusion that he comes to is it’s all about being in the “right place at the right time”. Burlington around 2000 was the place to be with the exception of SoCal, it was a very fortunate time in my life.
In 2008, TNF reached out with an amazing offer. It was a good opportunity to try something new as I’d been in Burlington for about 10 years at that point. And besides, the Bay Area is not a hard sell. The North Face was always a brand I deeply respected so it was an honor.
So tell me about your goals and interests. You’ve seen so much. What gets you stoked in the AM and pumped to go to work?
The content that our athletes are generating is very inspiring. We try to avoid photo shoots and get our best assets the most natural way possible; through our Expedition program. We support the content and want to get it out there. Check out our most recent Borneo expedition or the Meru dispatches; you will be blown away whether you’re into climbing or not. From a marketing standpoint my personal goal for The North Face is to be a major player in our field within the new media landscape. We want to create free digital tools that enable consumers to get out there and activate.
On that front, The North Face Snow Report iPhone app got a lot of press. It’s a pretty rad little thing that you gave away for free.
It was a vague thought in my head that our agency really brought to life. When we launched, it was about 85% there. We’re going launch 2.0 of the Snow Report in the fall and it’s going to have a lot of additional features and better snow reporting. We’re also creating a completely new/different application that will speak to our broader consumer base with the goal to launch it in late July.
We want to be a dominant player in the (web 2.0) sports world; creating tools that get our customers to get out there… not games, but a tool that can add a real benefit to their activities that is free. We want to create valuable brand experience for consumers outside of the product. The new app is going to be sick…(fingers crossed).
And the obligatory question. What’s your current setup?
I rock TNF Cryptic Outerwear and Summit Series; the gear is looking and performing really nice. I am a Burton hardgoods loyalist. I love the Malolo 158, the new Ozone boots and standard baseplate Triad bindings. The new Custom V-rocker is INSANE so that might be the board for next season (you heard it here first kids). Big ups to my man, Brendan on that one.
Can you give us a sneak peak of what’s next for TNF?
The stuff dropping this fall is looking really good, and 2011 is coming along nicely. For S10 we’re going to start looking at some different activities and create products accordingly for those activities. Our athletes have been asking us to create this product for quite some time so we’re developing a strategy around that as we speak. We’re looking forward to engaging more specialty retailers and are confident they will be equally stoked on the product we’re creating. There is lots of cool stuff on the horizon and it’s an honor to be a part of The North Face team as we break trail.
Thanks Nate. Remember to check out The North Face.
Tags: The North Face
Posted by Hoon on Sunday, June 7th, 2009 in Brands.