Thursday, April 28, 2011

The North Face

Day 2 of 7

The North Face, what have you started! Okay maybe it wasn’t TNF but certainly they are guilty of the same crime as most high profile sports companies. Whether it is TNF, Lululemon Athletica, and of course, Nike these brands were once singularily identified with their sports origins. Lululemon for its yoga, The North Face for its extreme alpine climbing and Nike for its running. Since its humble beginnings they have all branched out to the mainstream. Capitalizing on their popularity and taking their brand to the average Joe.

I remember in my early running days, I’m thinking 25 years ago. I worked at an outdoors store that manufactured its own line of Gore Tex outdoor gear. The designer shamelessly copied the designs of TNF and produced it as his own ‘sans logo’ at a far more reasonable price. The concept was a hit, only because Gore Tex was a great product. Waterproof and breathable the perfect combination for outdoor enthusiasts and as the fledging salespeople, we were intent on selling it on its benefits and defending it against its shortcomings. I say the concept was a hit because only outdoor enthusiasts flocked to the store. The designs were good, the colors were eye catching yet it lacked that certain identifiable savoir faire that TNF had and my former employer did not. Can you guess? Yup that ‘big ass’ embroidered symbol of Yosemite’s Half Dome on the shoulder. What you didn’t know it was Half Dome? Wise up, Ansel Adams is rolling over in his grave as you read this.

Still talking about the early days, I had a friend who was going to fashion design school. Who knew higher academia had such an institution fervent on teaching others about something so trivial as clothes. To me clothes had always been something to cover the body and not much else. Much to my wife’s chagrin my shirt often don’t match my pants and I constantly go out on our date night with some worn out Asics 2130’s. So the story goes, I remember vividly having a philosophical discussion about logo’s and branding. “Make it big, make it simple and people will buy it!” (In the background I’m hearing W.P Kinsella “If you build it, they will come!”) She listened to my soapbox rant with slight distain. All the while I was thinking she doesn’t give a F what I think. She went on to having a career with a local very popular clothing company that got swallowed by the leading names in that particular industry, namely: Quicksilver, Dakine, and Roxy just to name a few. Do you see where I’m going with this? Close your eyes for a second and picture the logo of each of the last three names I just mentioned. Simple, big and memorable.

I weep for my lack of creative entrepreneurial moxie all those years ago. Clearly I had the foresight but not the creative gift nor the intestinal fortitude to carry off such a venture. Since my early days I have watched as many a fledgling clothing company falls by the wayside not for lack of quality goods but yet for the marketable eye catching logo or memorable slogan to go with it “Just Do It” (Nike) or “It’s in You” (Gatorade).

And for a time I mocked the successes as they sold their birthright to grab a piece of the pie. I chuckled when I saw a less than an athletic looking man sporting The North Face apparel. I thought to myself, this guy doesn’t look like he could climb a flight of stairs let alone scale a mountain. What does he need the hardcore gear for? As I matured and thought more about it, my thinking changed. Maybe these people will never scale the north face of the Eiger but only dream of it. Or maybe they bought the outdoor gear with the intent of wearing it for its designed features or maybe they bought because they just looked ‘hot’ in it. They wanted to be identified as athletic or outdoorsy. If The North Face could design a garment that appeals to the mainstream, that appeals to those who think ultra runners are nuts but yet gets them out the door and on to the trail. Then we all win!  Today from its humble beginnings The North Face manufactures all sorts of clothing, shoes and sponsors a number of cool ultrarunning events as well as a bunch of high profile athletes.

America is getting fatter by the minute. If branding can be identified with athleticism or athletic pursuits and dreams. If it gets people off the couch and around the block if even to show off their new Vibram Five Fingers or Lululemon yoga pants then who am I to scoff at these corporate giants intent on fueling their motivation. Branding becomes the kindling to our spark. If newbie runner feels more like a runner sporting the ‘big ass’ logo on his gear then and it keeps him running then I’m all for ‘big ass’ logos.


  1. Obviously you saw me at the Mission arena a couple weeks ago for our Maple Ridge LAX game, rocking my North Face jacket and strutting my fat ass around in my flashy yoga pants!
    2 down Rob!

  2. Good points, Rob. Business that sell fast food, junk food, and products that promote INactivity sure use their identities to their advantage. If more sports/outdoor brands become appealing to, as you say, the average Joe, maybe the scales will start to balance eventually. I'm one of those people who quietly celebrates when I see an obese person out walking or slowly jogging, hoping they're in the process of making a major change in their lives. If wearing cool gear helps them along in that process, more power to them.

  3. Interesting post! Thanks for sharing.