Are major outdoor apparel brands in peril?

Aron Shand, Creative

Once an industry that made products for risk-takers and adventurers on mountainsides and roads less travelled, outdoor apparel brands seem to have reached the dreaded parody point. Other than logo placement, it seems harder to separate what makes one brand stand apart from the next.

Look at the 3 jackets in the slideshow below. With the logos removed, can you actually tell which jacket belongs to which brand?

Harold Hotelling was a Stanford University economist who defined an economic theory involving a principle of minimum differentiation, or law of averageness, which says that “rival sellers tend to gravitate toward each other — in location, price, and product offerings — because otherwise they risk losing some of the broad mainstream of customers.”

In this case, the top outdoor apparel brands have become parodies of each other. Many produced gear for niche markets (alpine skiers, climbers, hikers) fairly exclusively. Around the ‘80s-‘90s, consumers became more familiar with outdoor brand products, and marketers figured out how to sell the idea of “outdoor lifestyle” to people willing to spend sums of money on products that were “tested-in-the-field tough.”

Now, all the top brands have branched into other areas, making everything from running apparel to swimsuits to button-down shirts you could wear to work on Tuesday.  Instead of buying a $500 jacket to climb the edge of a cliff in the Andes Mountains, most people are sporting these coats waiting in line for coffee at Starbucks.

Sure, you could justify such a purchase because “if it works in the mountains, it’ll work in the suburbs.” But most of the new technology and premium features (like thumb holes, wicking materials and waterproof pockets for mobile devices) can be found in jackets for much lower prices and fairly similar quality. For example, Target’s C9 brand sells seasonal, functional activewear clothing at one-fourth the cost. And these less-expensive products will most likely continue to piggy-back the newly developed tech features from the established brands, all the way up the mountain.

Another example. Look at these catalogue images from different outdoor brands. Can you tell them apart? To me, it looks like it could have been the same photoshoot!

Consumers can buy most anything without leaving their home. And even with comparing price and certain qualities with a product, as well as fellow-consumer reviews for quality verification, what really sets your brand apart? What gives you an emotional edge? What should your brand do?

How about make a bold move and give your brand a relevant voice with purpose.

One example of a brand making a move: Patagonia. Recently, the brand has become very vocal about preservation of land and fair trade practices—although they point out they’ve been politically active since the 1970’s—by responding to President Trump’s decision to decrease the protected land of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments and suing the President of the United States of America. How many other brands have ever done that?

Of course, your brand may experience backlash for planting a flag. For instance, the recent small frenzy of consumers destroying their YETI coolers on social media, after the NRA complained that the YETI Corporation had ended special discount programs for their members. So, yes, there’s a risk that consumers may turn on your brand, but as famed advertising creative Bill Bernbach, founder of DDB, once said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

And you have to believe that for every potential brand loyalist lost, one or more will be gained.

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