Last Monday, when President Trump announced substantial reductions to the area of two national monuments in Utah, outdoor retailer Patagonia lost no time in responding. Within hours, the patagonia.com homepage featured a stark pop-up reading “The President Stole Your Land,” linking to a simple but powerful landing page urging visitors to take action. By Wednesday, the company had joined preservation and advocacy groups and Native American tribes in suing the administration.
Patagonia has been winning praise for its brand values for years—dedicating portions of their profits to environmental causes, advocating against excessive consumerism, taking measures to limit their environmental footprint—but taking legal action in the name of those values is their boldest move by far. That these brand values have pushed them to take such a controversial step is evidence of just how deeply those values run and provides an excellent illustration of what brand values really are.
Patagonia’s move doesn’t stand alone: Fellow outdoor retailers REI, North Face, Arc’teryx, and Adidas Outdoor have all publicly opposed the Trump administration’s actions, though none have yet been moved to take as drastic a step as joining a lawsuit. But even outside of this particular incident, Patagonia has been part of a larger trend toward brand activism in recent years.
Consumer brands in particular have been pushing their brand values to the forefront of their messaging in the last decade, spurred in part by socially active consumers who are eager to vote with their wallets. Their logic goes that it’s not only good ethics, but good business—according to a 2015 Nielsen study, 66% of consumers are willing to pay more in order to do business with a socially responsible brand.
Cynics can decry this trend as a marketing play, and they have several high-profile flops to point to in illustration (#RaceTogether, anyone?). Yet it’s hard to deny that brands have considerable influence both amongst their consumer base and in terms of their economic pull, and their public stances on important issues carry real weight.
In Patagonia’s case, all signs point to the sincerity of their response. Paradoxically, a move that was likely not financially motivated will probably reinvigorate their current consumer base and introduce their brand to a broader audience. It reveals how deeply intertwined brand values are with brand storytelling: On a certain level, everything is marketing.
It’s unlikely that any publicity coming out of the lawsuit will tarnish Patagonia’s image—in fact, their carefully constructed image is what leads consumers to believe their sincerity. A look at Patagonia’s digital marketing reveals their longstanding commitment to environmental issues as they pertain to outdoor enthusiasts, including their advocacy for having Bears Ears designated as a national monument in 2015.
Like any strong statement in this politically polarized time, Patagonia’s impassioned opposition has its detractors, who insist that brands have no place in the political arena. Patagonia is making a strategic bet that these detractors lack the ability to hurt their brand, presumably because they trust that their core customers are already aligned with the brand values they so prominently display through the company’s actions and brand storytelling.
Image attribution: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management
What makes skeptical consumers eager to side with Patagonia on such a hot-button issue? Primarily, it’s because their actions are an entirely logical extension of the brand’s longstanding character. In fact, as Joe Pinsker writes for the Atlantic, staying silent on an issue so closely aligned with the brand’s values would be a statement in itself—and one that consumers could well judge them harshly for.
For brands whose values impel them to potentially controversial stands, Patagonia offers an excellent example of how to wade into contentious waters while mitigating brand damage.
Patagonia took a stand on a topic that is intimately tied to their mission and their values. Their leadership could feel equally passionate about immigration reform or universal healthcare—but their platform as an outdoor-oriented brand gives them a strong reason to take action on conservation that they may lack on issues that are only tangential to their brand.
A sudden turn towards political activism would likely strike Patagonia’s customer base as opportunistic and false. In contrast, Patagonia has spent its entire history championing love for the outdoors and environmental stewardship. They are registered as a benefit corporation and have chronicled their quest to reduce the environmental cost of their supply chain—including their failures. Patagonia has not only lived their values, they have made those values synonymous with their brand, which is why their recent actions have come off as true convictions rather than a marketing stunt.
For all but Patagonia’s core constituents, Monday’s homepage takeover looked like a sudden move. In fact, Patagonia had been following this issue as it developed, even lobbying Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in May to preserve national monuments. It is only now that the issue has received widespread news coverage that Patagonia’s efforts are reaching a wider audience. Patagonia created a well-researched argument, even going so far as to footnote their landing page with the specific studies they cited, and prepared to act decisively as soon as the administration crossed the line. By doing their due diligence and ensuring that their arguments are factually accurate, they mitigate the potential criticism that their actions are mere political dilettantism.
With a mere week since Trump’s announcement and a total of six lawsuits, including Patagonia’s, filed against the administration, the eventual fate of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is still in question. But in the court of public opinion, Patagonia looks destined to come out on top.
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Featured image attribution: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management