Outdoor retailer Patagonia has became synonymous with sustainability — and it’s using that power to influence elections.
If you were on social media at any point before the holidays, you probably heard about outdoor retailer Patagonia and its efforts to save a national monument in Utah. Though the initial wave of media traffic has died down, this story contains some critically important lessons about the power of building brand equity through social movements.
We’ve written before about how and when brands should employ cause marketing (carefully, and only when they can put their money where their mouths are). In 2017, Patagonia did just that, using its synonymous association with environmental activism and sustainability to generate more than $200 million in revenue, all while threatening to sue the President of the United States. Here’s how they did it.
A Monumental Challenge
In late November, President Trump’s administration announced plans to shrink two Utah monuments, Bear’s Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to a fraction of their original sizes. If the order is codified, the federal government would still manage these lands, but it would open them to commercial activities like mining, logging, and drilling for oil and gas.
This plan received a new level of media attention when Patagonia announced its intent to sue the Trump administration over the redesignation of Bear’s Ears. It argued that shrinking the monument — which many of its customers visit and where the company tests some of its gear — would directly damage its business. A stark landing page and social campaign soon followed, bearing an arresting headline: “The President Stole Your Land.” The campaign immediately went viral, appearing in the “Trending” sections on Facebook and Twitter.
In a twist that only our current political climate could bring, Patagonia’s activism surrounding the monument has led to a full-on Twitter fight between members of the Trump administration and Obama-era staff.
— Natural Resources (@NatResources) December 8, 2017
It’s clear that Patagonia’s lawsuit has touched a nerve. But why exactly is the Trump administration so concerned with discrediting the company’s activism?
Putting Money (and Time and Activism) Where Your Mouth Is
The House Committee is right about one thing: Patagonia’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts definitely sell more parkas and boots. In 2011, the company’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, meant to raise awareness about consumerism, led to a 30% increase in sales. In 2016, a pledge to donate all Black Friday proceeds to environmental charities garnered a record-breaking $10 million in sales, five times the anticipated amount. Consumers are clearly drinking Patagonia’s Kool-Aid when it comes to sustainability — the question is, why?
In a nutshell, Patagonia customers already know that the company wants their money — and they’ll happily hand it over when Patagonia launches an initiative like this. Brazen actions like suing the federal government neatly align with Patagonia’s brand values and their robust, unchallengeable track record of environmental activism. Since 1996, Patagonia has donated over $60 million to more than 1,500 environmental organizations around the world. As a result, the company’s CSR marketing campaigns don’t seem ingenuine. In fact, consumers know they can trust Patagonia to back up its words with actions.
In fact, Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability goes much deeper than donations. This is a company that has bent over backwards to create eco-friendly supply chains for recyclable polyester, nylon, and organic cotton. It’s consulted with giants like Walmart on reducing packaging and water use. And importantly, it’s done all of this while maintaining a healthy bottom line. As a result, Patagonia’s practices have become the gold standard for sustainable business across every industry.
Turning Brand Equity into Political Capital
Maybe the House’s reaction to Patagonia’s campaign stems from the same hallmark strain of reactionary defensiveness that has come to define this administration. But it’s also possible that their response is rooted in fear — the fear that Patagonia is harnessing its brand equity and leadership status into a powerful political tool.
The case of Bear’s Ears would seem to support this conclusion: Patagonia has built an interactive, multimedia landing page specifically dedicated to the issue that urges users to take action, and it’s organized film screenings across the country to raise awareness about the monument. It’s even run TV ads about public lands protection. But most importantly, the company has financed a coalition of nonprofits to seek an injunction against reducing the size of the Monument. If they’re granted the right to sue, the resulting legal battle could take years.
Patagonia isn’t shy about its ambitions: the company plans to leverage its devoutly loyal customer base and position as a sustainability thought leader to impact the political sphere as much as it can. CEO Rose Marcario has openly stated that the outdoor industry “needs to be as relentless as the NRA” when it comes to defending public lands, and the company’s already well on its way. During the 2018 midterm elections, Patagonia will turn its stores into get-out-the-vote centers. This isn’t just a public service; it’s a clear message to elected officials that Patagonia can — and will — use its clout to influence public opinion.
This is the power of building brand equity through social movements. When you establish your values and consistently act in ways that align with those values, you build something unassailable. Conservative lawmakers’ attacks on Patagonia — that it’s single-minded in its pursuit of environmental protection, and that its sustainability efforts are an avenue to financial gain — fall flat, because the company has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to these values.
Not every company can get away with suing the president, but any company can follow Patagonia’s example. By taking a consistent, authentic stand on an issue and opening a dialogue with the public, businesses can connect with consumers on a deeper level and build brand equity that benefits the world along with their bottom line.