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An Interview with Nate Bosshard, Action Sports Brand Manager for The North Face: Part 1

the north faceOne of the longest running brands in the whole Outdoors game is The North Face. Before Action Sports as a concept even existed, The North Face has been outfitting professional and amateur athletes and enthusiasts in high-quality, technical gear. As one of my former colleagues once said, “if you need it to perform and you need it to last, you look to two companies: The North Face and Patagonia.”

I had the pleasure of talking with Nate Bosshard on the phone about his role as Brand Manager for Action Sports and Outdoor for TNF. Nate formerly used to be the Brand Manager at Burton Snowboards so he has a very unique window into the world of skiing and snowboarding. Think of the marketing coming out of Burton between 2002 to 2008, and it has Nate’s DNA in it.

I thought the timing couldn’t be better as I had just finished the Freeskiing: Is it a Action Sport? post. Who better than The North Face, long time extreme ski and snowboard sponsor to weigh in on this debate? Recently TNF has added some serious heavy hitters from the snowboard world to their Freeride team, including Johan Olofsson, DCP and Mark Carter. Their Cryptic line-up targets both skiers and snowboarders with some high-tech outerwear. Recently they also have introduced some of their most popular pieces using Polartec Eco-Engineering. I was curious to ask Nate about how these additions and changes will impact what we see from The North Face.

So Nate, let’s me ask you about term Action Sports, core, freeskiing and of course snowboarding.

Honestly, when I came to The North Face, I was guilty of the stigma of “staying core” (whatever that even means) as much as the next guy. It was probably bred from insecurity around the whole “core vs. mainstream” argument. I was drinking the kool-aid for a long time; but I’ve quickly realized that the more people we welcome to our sport, the better. In this industry we have a tendency to talk to ourselves rather than create an environment that encourages people to participate. We have to be honest to ourselves about who is actually keeping the lights on. At this point in time Snowboarding is a mainstream activity whether we want to admit it our not. Within boardsports specifically, snowboarding is far and away the least accessible from both a geographical and financial standpoint. When you take a step back, you can’t let the question “are we staying core” dictate your entire brand especially with plummeting participation numbers. At the end of the day we want our industry to grow, and it can’t be this niche thing that only a privileged few are lucky enough to experience. You could write a whole other story on the definition of the word “core”. It means different things to different people.

Freeskiing is absolutely 100% actions sports. If you don’t think so, you’re in denial. Watch TGR, check those lines and tricks that guys like Sage, Ian, and Dana are doing… those lines are death lines. There is no doubt that the latest incarnation of Freeskiing is directly influenced by snowboarding but that doesn’t diminish the shit that these guys are laying down.

I’m a snowboarder so don’t get me wrong, but my eyes have been opened about what can be done on both skis and snowboards as we keep pushing the envelope.

It’s a slippery slope. What defines an action sport? Is it that an activity has a freestyle element? What about snowboard racing? Is that an action sport? I think it starts with if something has individual creativity and a culture injected into it

How does The North Face fit into the equation? Most people think of The North Face in terms like Gore-Tex, Mount Everest and REI.

We’re not rooted in a hard good. So from a consumer perception standpoint, TNF has a relatively simple identity: we make technical apparel. We’re accessible to many different people so there are many entry points. When you are aligned to a single activity, people who aren’t familiar with that activity can be intimidated or might be less inclined to engage with that brand because they cannot relate. We have the advantage of heritage, and how long we’ve been in the game (40 plus years). We try to speak to a lot of people in an authentic way.

And how do you align yourself to some of the mass public? I mean not everyone is climbing Denali or straight-lining a chute in the Chugach.

Let’s use an extreme example such as the Average Joe (don’t crucify me here for using this example). For that consumer specifically Action Sports is probably a foreign word to them. The bridge is definitely harder to cross, but it goes back to the fact that we come at it from a quality standpoint, not from a single activity. Our tagline is “Never Stop Exploring”, which can be interpreted in so many ways.

And how does snowboarding fit into that picture? You guys have been in the press a lot with the signing of Johan, DCP, Carter, the Masters freeride event, etc.

TNF was making snowboard apparel way before any of the other big brands, but it was always much more alpine focused. Back in the day, my first snowboard jacket was The North Face. I pretty much wore that thing until I got my first free Burton jacket. I wanted the most technical, high quality thing with the best warranty policy, not necessarily the piece that was most fashionable for the season.

For the last 10 years, we didn’t target snowboarding specifically, but we’ve been sponsoring snowboarders like Jim Zellers (one of the big mountain AK pioneers), Bonnie Zellers, Stephen Koch, Rob Kinwill, Meg Pischke etc. that fit The North Face ethos.

We’re making a more proactive effort to reach out to snowboarders through our grassroots events like The Masters, engaging board specialty shops that embrace freeriding, and creating quality, well-designed product that people can wear past one season before it goes out of style. Don’t get me wrong, the whole fashion component is important. It has its place as the media portrays it front and center. But let’s be honest about that for a minute. What you see on the X-games is visual candy no doubt, but in reality it’s probably the least accessible part of our sport for somebody to wrap their head around who is just getting started or perhaps seeing the sport for the first time. We’re targeting what we call the “park and pipe graduate”. We strongly believe that freeriding is something consumers can relate to much easier than a 1260 in an icy halfpipe. While freeriding may not translate very well to TV, the more we can help build awareness to other elements of the sport, the stronger the industry will be as a whole. The migration of ex-pipe/park dudes into the backcountry is a testament to that.

We got so much stuff with Nate that we have to split this into two interviews. Stay tuned for more. In the mean time, check out The North Face’s ski and snowboard section of their site. l

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Posted by Hoon on Thursday, May 14th, 2009 in Brands.


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2 Responses to “An Interview with Nate Bosshard, Action Sports Brand Manager for The North Face: Part 1”

  • lawless Says:

    Interesting interview. One thing that I question though is this comment:

    “When you take a step back, you can’t let the question “are we staying core” dictate your entire brand especially with plummeting participation numbers. At the end of the day we want our industry to grow, and it can’t be this niche thing that only a privileged few are lucky enough to experience.”

    In the first paragraph, the writer mentions the two companies The North Face and Patagonia as examples of companies with solid, dependable product. The actual business models of these 2 companies could not be further apart though, as the above comment alludes to. As TNF being a public-traded company they have a mandate to their shareholders to continue increasing revenues year-over-year regardless of whether “plummeting participation numbers” affect their base market or not. As you stray from your “core” customer more and more to keep growing your market share you risk watering down your product so it no longer appeals to the loyal base which bought the products on it’s quality and durability.

    The term “action sport” is bullshit. It’s an industry label used for marketing. I don’t know of a single person who considers themselves an “action sport” enthusiast. You ride, you surf, you skate, you climb, whatever. You don’t go action sport.

    Nate is right on in his assessment of current free-skiing. Those guys are pushing and progressing their sport. It’s amazing to see where it’s come in the past few years.

    /rambling comment.

  • Bingo Says:

    Good points. TNF is public but they have not stopped supporting their “core” audience from what I’ve observed. They still have an insane expedition program, support events, and support snow athletes. I do think you can be big and still engage your core audience as long as you still make product that speaks to those people.

    There are no other industries that are scared of growth the way action sports is. It is very interesting.

    /rambling comment #2.

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