The retail giants are not only competing to sell outdoor gear – they are rivals in the contest to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the urban masses
…This canny marketing of adventure has made The North Face the dominant player in a booming outdoor-wear market – a $4bn industry in the US alone. And its closest rival in the contest to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the masses may be a company whose origins and history are tightly intertwined with its own: Patagonia.
If The North Face aims to appeal to the overachieving weekend warrior, Patagonia is for the slightly more mellow soul who wants to soak up the fresh air and enjoy the view as he ascends a craggy mountain. The company’s ethos is encapsulated in Let My People Go Surfing, the memoir-cum-management classic about Patagonia, by the company’s founder Yvon Chouinard – reissued last year in a 10th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Naomi Klein. The book contains lavish colour pictures of people in genial communion with nature. To browse the book is to dive into a world of life-affirming outdoor feats followed by nights around the fire, swapping heroic tales.
Unlike other billion-dollar sports brands, neither company sells balls or bats. They do not cater to team sports. They are, above all, selling the allure of the great outdoors, offering their customers technically advanced gear for going off into the wilds with a friend or two. (Or, if you prefer, alone: the cover of the winter 2016 Patagonia catalogue features a man on a motorbike – carrying a pair of skis under one arm – smiling at a squirrel as it crosses the road.)
Both companies understand that the appeal of endurance sports has something to do with acquiring kit that boasts the most advanced technology. For genuine adventure, their marketing implies, you need top-quality gear. And top-quality gear designed to withstand the harshest conditions and last a lifetime does not come cheap. You can buy an Inferno sleeping bag from The North Face that will, for $729 (£593), keep you warm in temperatures as cold as -40C. For $529 (£430), you can get a neoprene-free, natural rubber, hooded wetsuit from Patagonia for use in water temperatures down to 0C.
Both companies also understand that the largest market for their products is not explorers stocking up for Arctic expeditions. The real money comes from selling products designed for hardcore outdoor adventure to urban customers who lead relatively unadventurous lives. For the most part, people wear North Face and Patagonia gear while doing everyday things: cycling, shopping, walking the dog. “You can take a backpack to school but you feel like you’re in Yosemite just because it says North Face,” Dean Karnazes told me one afternoon in San Francisco. “I think that aspirational element is really big.”
It’s a sales pitch that has yielded big profits. The North Face reported annual revenue of $2.3bn last year, with 200 stores around the world. Patagonia is smaller, but growing more rapidly. The company had sales of $800m in 2016, twice as much as in 2010, and has 29 standalone stores in the US, 23 in Japan, and others in locations such as Chamonix, the French ski resort.
While The North Face sells $5,500 (£4,480) two-metre tents and Patagonia sells $629 waders for fly fishing, many of the most popular products for both companies are everyday wear: waterproof anoraks, leggings, fleeces, and, most important of all, puffer jackets. “Everyone is trying to reinvent and reinterpret the black puffy jacket,” said Jeff Crook, the chief product officer at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, an outdoor department store that has 20 stores across Canada, “whether it spends most of its time on the mountain peak or at the bus stop.”…