Walk around any major city and, providing the weather suits, it ain't gonna take too long to spot a big, puffy, pocket-clad coat from The North Face. They serve as a form of understanding between businessy office goers and streetwear hypebeasts.
But, to quote The North Face global VP of marketing, Mike Ferris: "The North Face was born on the mountain." And despite outdoor gear filtering into mainstream fashion culture, The North Face still very much spends a lot of time 'on the mountain', a side of the business that lives under the 'trail' umbrella and sells things like hiking gear, walking shoes, etc.
A new campaign from Two Things is transforming this side of The North Face's business. In the past - and much like any outdoor brand - The North Face has focused its marketing activities for its trail business on elite hikers and athletes. With the launch of 'Find Your Trail', that is shifting to speaking to everyday people of all walks of life and body types, encouraging them to get outside and 'find their trail', and catering to people like me, who aren't elite athletes but do enjoy a good, long dog walk at the weekend.
To add to the inclusive nature of the campaign, Two Things and The North Face have focused efforts on outdoor destinations just outside of major cities, places that are far more accessible than death-defying glaciers in faraway, hard-to-reach lands. 'Discover Your Trail' uses real people telling real stories, and instead of the extreme sports and outdoor photographers they’re historically known for, they used more diverse talent to shoot and capture the work.
To find out more, LBB's Addison Capper spoke with Mike Ferris, global VP of marketing at The North Face, and Scott Cromer, creative director at Two Things.
LBB> To get started, tell me about the trail business as part of the wider The North Face brand. What does it entail and why is now the time for transformation? Strategically, why does it make sense for the brand?
Mike> The North Face was born on the mountain – we started as a small mountaineering shop in San Francisco founded by Doug and Susie Tompkins, who wanted to share their love and passion for the outdoors with more people. As we have grown into the world’s leading premium outdoor brand, we remain anchored in pinnacle performance and authenticity, with our iconic trail styles – including VECTIV and ThermoBall – adopted by explorers everywhere.
The hiking and running categories have seen significant growth over the past couple of years, and consumers are heading outside now more than ever. While The North Face continues to be the go-to brand for many hikers, we are aiming to broaden the outdoor conversation and tap into the next generation of explorers. We want to create a more inclusive outdoors and highlight fresh perspectives and voices – whether that be our Athlete Development Program aimed at fostering emerging talent in outdoor sports, or most recently, our Summer of Pride event series designed to bring people together, celebrate local LGBTQ+ communities, and connect to the outdoors.
LBB> What kind of research is driving this change?
Scott> The outdoor space has become a sea of sameness. In general, most brands tend to feature pro athletes who are all about testing limits and going further. Thus, we tend to see or hear from the lone wolf who’s out there dominating nature. These themes, we learned in research, were not particularly inspiring or relevant to the masses.
LBB> A big part of the shift is appealing to more "normal" outsiders, not just elite athletes and uber passionate hikers. Why have you made this decision? And where does it leave those more professional outdoorsy people as part of The North Face?
Scott> Sponsoring the exploits of extreme outdoor athletes will always be a part of TNF brand story. With trail, however, we saw an opportunity to connect with a broader, more diverse audience. To do this authentically, we knew we needed to hear from real people; people who were more like them. Their stories, we learned, were far more likely to inspire people to get on the trail than, say, the story of an elite athlete who likes to hike.
LBB> The North Face and other outdoors apparel brands are very much part of cultural fashion in 2022 - walk around any major city and you are not hard-pressed to find folk from business people to young streetwear enthusiasts rocking a big, multi-pocketed coat from The North Face. Has this shift in popularity played a role in the transformation of the ‘trails’ part of the business? How?
Mike> The North Face products have enabled people to push the limits of their own potential and to rewrite the possibilities of exploration, all while leaving their mark on city culture along the way thanks to our iconic styles, such as the 1996 Retro Nuptse Jacket or Himalayan Parka worn in major cities around the globe. Recently, we’ve also looked to iconic partners to collaborate with, such as KAWS and Gucci, which has allowed us to explore a different perspective on our brand. We are able to re-imagine some of our most iconic pieces, while also having a new platform to be future and forward-thinking with progressive styles and innovations. We measure success as bringing in and introducing new people to our brand – whether in the city or on the trail, all while showcasing our deep heritage in design, innovation, and performance.
LBB> How has the pandemic also driven the shift? Are people more casually outdoorsy than before?
Scott> We learned in research that what people wear on the trail is not entirely different from what they wear at home and/or working out. The pandemic has certainly contributed to this shift. But it’s also being driven by people wanting to get more value from their outdoor gear. And avoid, for example, buying a pair of hiking boots they only wear once or twice a year.
LBB> A driving factor that I take from all of this is inclusion, in both the people you're trying to speak to but also the production process. Please tell me more about that!
Scott> The next generation of trail that we’re trying to connect with is, in many ways, the complete opposite of who you’d expect to see on trail. There are moms, octogenarians, beauticians, blue-collar workers, city dwellers, suburbanites. Of all different ages, races and fitness levels. We made a concerted effort to give voice to these people. And to capture their stories in the most authentic ways possible.
LBB> How did you bring the films to life?
Scott> We wanted viewers to feel as though they were out there in it, hiking alongside our subjects. We avoided anything that felt overly staged or artificial. And worked extra hard to capture the sounds and colours and textures of the trail.
LBB> You are using real people and real stories in the campaign. How did you find the people and stories?
Scott> For the next gen, we learned in research that their favourite thing about hiking is being able to reconnect with friends and family. With this in mind, we screened for groups of hikers rather than, say, individuals who enjoy hiking. And we landed on groups whose love for the outdoors felt most authentic and unique.
LBB> What kind of reaction have you seen so far?
Scott> The reaction to the campaign has been really strong, both at TNF and with consumers. The most common response we hear from people is that it inspires them to get out more, in nature. Even if it involves walking a mile or two around their local park. This has been the case for both avid hikers and folks who are new to trail.
LBB> It's all about 'discovering your trail'. How would you define your own 'trail'?
Scott> My trail is insanely beautiful, unpopulated (except for a few friends), full of laughter, silence and stories, a challenging climb or two, some bear sightings (from a distance) and a glorious can of beer at the campsite.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Scott> To date, the campaign has focused exclusively on the many benefits we get from being on trail. What it hasn’t done (yet) is tackle some of the barriers to trail that people feel, i.e., many folks don’t have the means to get to a trail, some don’t feel very uncomfortable in nature and so on.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Scott> One thing that we are particularly proud of is that this campaign is a continuation of the message and format that has always been the brand (to encourage people to ‘never stop exploring’) while also being something new and fresh for today.
As we like to say, there’s a trail for everybody.