Q&A: Belief-Based Branding and the Outdoor Industry

In October of 2015 in Seattle, Mike Stefaniak, VP of Brand Engagement and Partner at Hanson Dodge Creative, was a featured speaker at Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) Rendezvous 2015. His session, “Belief-Based Branding: Inspiring Consumers with Authentic Storytelling,” made the business case for belief-based branding, revealed the steps that outdoor brands are taking to win over consumers as the marketplace rapidly evolves and outlined the importance of authentic storytelling in building brand loyalty.

Below, Mike answers a series of follow-up questions about belief-based branding and the outdoor industry. Click here to watch the video of Mike’s presentation from OIA Rendezvous 2015. View Mike's recent article, "Better Believe It: Three Keys to Belief-Based Branding," here.

What is belief-based branding?

Belief-based branding is an approach that elevates a brand's beliefs and values at every consumer touch point. It’s about recognizing that any time your brand is in front of a consumer, it's imperative that consumers experience who you are and how you see the world. The key is being willing to lead with what the brand stands for, rather than just talking about product features and benefits.

How is belief-based branding different than simply donating to a cause or supporting a nonprofit?

Philanthropy is a great way for brands to put their beliefs in action. But it’s only one part of the picture.

How have you seen the outdoor industry evolve in terms of belief-based branding?

Look at the biggest names in the outdoor industry: brands like Patagonia, The North Face, REI. They all started from a pretty humble place and a deeply held set of beliefs about what it means to live a good life. About what we as humans can do to leave the world better than we found it. That's in the DNA of many outdoor brands, so it's natural for those brands to do good in the world. And in that respect, the outdoor industry is worlds ahead of their counterparts in the rest of the marketplace. Other industries are finally catching up to principles that have been core to the outdoor industry for decades.

From a consumer engagement standpoint, the next evolution for outdoor brands is to shift from product-centric to belief-centric narratives. Many brands have made their names by making technically superior products for the very elite performers in their respective segments (climbing, hiking, skiing, etc.). Today, though, making technically sound products is table stakes for playing in the outdoor industry.

Plus, for many brands, the most significant growth opportunity isn’t with elite performers at all. It’s with novice and intermediate consumers. The latter may be passionate about a sport or activity, but they’ll glaze over if you bombard them with the technical specs that the elites care about.

To get traction with non-elites, brands need an emotional element. Something that leads the non-elite consumer to say, "Yes, you guys make a good jacket. But what I really love is the way you see the world. You care about the same things I do. You make me laugh. You inspire me to be a better person or get outside or get involved or be healthy or raise my kids in a different way."

The smarter brands have recognized this. They’re making their core beliefs a much bigger part of everything they do: from their advertising, to their content, to how they present themselves at events. And they’re investing in consumer touches that teach, inspire and stir people’s emotions—versus just pushing product.

Of course they're still making technically great products. They still need make it easy for consumers who care about technical specs to see those specs. But leading with that in 2015 isn't going to drive revenue the way it did 10 years ago.

Is differentiation a problem? Are there a limited number of beliefs to which brands can stake their claim?

Yes, there are many companies in the active/outdoor space that believe in the same things. At that point, the key is to find that opening to tell a story that's fresh and engaging, and do it in a way that others haven't. If you couple that with a willingness to make sacrifices—to say "we're not for everyone" and then focus on those consumers who truly are a great fit for the brand—then that journey becomes easier.

What are some outdoor brands that are effectively using belief-based branding?

Among the bigger players, Patagonia has long been the trailblazer. You have to admire the fearlessness with which Patagonia leads with its beliefs. They do these beautiful print catalogs that come out once a month or so. The first two or three spreads are typically devoted to storytelling: long-form copy about an environmental calamity the world should know about. Or maybe a photo essay about some distant place that’s near and dear to Patagonia’s heart. And then they get to the products that you can buy. But they're willing to devote the first six to eight pages of those mailers to telling stories that educate and inspire people—and do so in a way that connects people to what Patagonia believes. Along the way, of course, they’ve built a thriving enterprise.

REI did a remarkable thing by announcing they were closing their stores for Black Friday. It’s a compelling example of belief-based branding in action. Super smart. And authentic, too. That move positions them as forward thinking and ethically sound. The kicker is imploring people to "get outdoors,” which reflects their beliefs and (of course) helps their business in the end.

Brooks has done some great stuff with their Run Happy campaign. It starts with the imagery on their shoe boxes. Brooks does a masterful job of producing a different mood for consumers at retail. The specialty store process typically includes a point where the clerk emerges from the back of the store with boxes from three different brands. You see the Brooks box and right away think, "Okay, there's something different happening here. I like how they see the world."

Farm to Feet is a small brand based in North Carolina that makes wool socks. They invested in a pretty deluxe hang tag to make sure that they tell a compelling, evocative brand story at retail. They recognize that while consumers do extensive research on many purchases before they get anywhere near a retailer, consumers also make impulse decisions at the display rack. A hang tag that connects the brand with a consumer’s personal beliefs can make the consumer’s decision a no-brainer. That’s what Farm To Feet does with their hang tag story about being “100% American."

What’s the business case for belief-based branding?

First, it’s about product parity.

It’s less and less likely that you’ll win by out-product-featuring your competitors. You need new arrows in your quiver.

Second, the next generations of consumers—Millennials and Gen-Z—care much more than preceding generations more about what brands stand for. There’s ample data confirming that. And we’ve also seen data that says 60% of Millennials have no issues with consuming branded content.

There's also the fact that consumers on the whole are more empowered than ever before. We live on our smartphones. In seconds, we can access price comparisons, product reviews and news about brand behavior. For brands, that means a) you better have your house in order and be a good citizen of the world; and b) you’d better be sharing stories about how you’re making the world a better place. Because younger generations care about who you are as much as what products you make.

What’s the biggest mistake an outdoor company can make when it comes to belief-based branding?

Beyond compromising your authenticity or acting in a way that doesn’t align with your beliefs, it’s thinking that in 2016 or 2017, you're going to win the battle based on product specs and features.

Everything we know about the next two generations of consumers tells us that the brands that promote and lead with product features and specs are going to have trouble winning over new consumers. More importantly, these brands will struggle to build the kind of deep, lasting bonds with consumers that are essential to sustained brand growth.

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