What Marketers Can Learn from Patagonia’s Riskiest Ad Campaign Ever


When you think of Patagonia, you think of high-quality, expensive outdoor clothing (either that, or you think of the region of South America known for its stunning landscapes — but we’re talking about the clothing retailer here). What you expect from a company like Patagonia is advertising that harps on the value and quality of their product. What you don’t expect is advertising that discourages you from buying their clothes altogether.

And yet, this is exactly what Patagonia has done with their holiday advertising campaigns for the past two years. In an article this past week on Fast Company, we learned that Patagonia ran ads in the New York Times that simply stated “Don’t Buy This Jacket” — on Black Friday, no less! The company even went to the trouble to explain why consumers shouldn’t buy it (which, in case you’re curious, is because each jacket they produce leaves behind two-thirds its weight in waste).

This seems like quite a risky move for any company that’s trying to remain profitable, and yet the company is having the best years in its history. How come?

The answer is tied to their brand. Patagonia has found a way to balance their business and their brand promise by investing in the environment, and by creating features like The Footprint Chronicles, which allows consumers to track the environmental impact of Patagonia’s clothing items. Let’s take a look at a few ways that Patagonia is using this strategy to promote their brand, and what lessons we can take away for our own businesses:

Build Trust

What Patagonia’s strategy boils down to is trust. By discouraging sales and being honest about the waste created by their clothing, they gain the trust of consumers who no longer view them as a profit machine. This is a great lesson for SMB marketers who are trying to gain a loyal fanbase. When it comes to your customers, honesty is always the best policy, even if it means being honest about something that you’re not exactly proud of. Your customers want to know that they can trust you, so try to provide a transparent look at your product roadmap, be realistic about your timelines, and be open to their comments and feedback.

Establish a Connection

Patagonia is devoted to making clothing for outdoor aficionados, which means their customer-base is probably pretty invested in the environment. By aligning their brand with their customers’ interests, they create another way to connect with consumers. This is a smart move that marketers should try to emulate. Do your customers have any interests in common? They may not all be into hiking, but perhaps they all have an interest in the marketing or startup industries. See how your company can get involved, even if it’s just by attending industry or community events, or sponsoring workshops for aspiring startups.

Discover Your Brand Evangelists

Through a combination of honesty and involvement in consumers’ interests, Patagonia has established a firm foundation of brand evangelists who will still buy their products even though they know what it takes to make them. And when you look at it that way (honesty + involvement = brand evangelists), it really doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? This is a formula that you can try out at your own business. Converting consumers into brand evangelists is an important part of building your brand. You want people who will stand by your brand over your competitors, and who will speak positively of your company to other people (like potential customers!).

While we can’t all expect to be able to discourage consumers from buying our products and still see the same stellar sales, Patagonia’s bold marketing strategy can teach marketers a lot about building a brand. Do you have any thoughts on their risky move? Let us know in the comments!

Image source can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “What Marketers Can Learn from Patagonia’s Riskiest Ad Campaign Ever

  • -= Confession of a shameless tech/cloud fanboy (read – “Brand Evangelist”) =-

    This article really points to the business value of what used to be jokingly called a “fanboy” and I must agree with the basis. As a rampant “Brand Evangelist” for companies and products I believe in I must say that the power of a happy, informed and savvy customer is HUGE.

    If you can find a small infiltration team of fanatical customers that really understand your company and love you for what you represent/make/sell they can translate into a magnitude of greater returns than a simple army of “recommendations” or “Likes”. People want to harness the success of others and avoid at all costs the leap of faith that most new ideas or products represent. The “Brand Evangelist” can quickly become the “Trusted advisor” that your customers seek out to help them make the right decision the first time.

    An informed and expert “Brand Evangelist” is the equivalent of your company offering free consultants to potential customers but where neither you or your customer must pay for their service. Also, your company has ZERO liability for what the say or do!

    Lets sum it up:

    1. Free consultants to both you and your prospective customers!
    2. Quick results and high returns (Free! Just for your company/product being awesome!)
    3. you get better customers because fanboy-ism now called “Brand evangelism” breeds new followers. a customer that is brought into the fold through evangelism are likely to join the converted and become evangelists themselves. (Read – customers brought to you by evangelists are higher value customers!)
    4. Evangelists are “tier 0” tech support. As a person that has brought many of my friends and colleagues to services and products i believe in i can tell you through experience that i get a call way before you get the first call… (Read – customers brought to you by evangelists cost you less to support!)

    I could make lists all day but i gotta go talk someones ear off about a certain CRM I like (sugarCRM) and a certain sales automation company that could revolutionize their business (Pardot of course!)…


    – Joe Harper

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe! I LOVE the comparison of brand evangelists being like a “trusted advisor” or a “free consultant” for your company — really shows the value of having those happy, fanatical customers. We may just have to turn your list of benefits into another blog post! 🙂

    • Cheers! I hope it helps.

      When a company has a product, that by it’s very nature, creates a fanatical following due to the success it fosters for the user, it is hard to NOT become an evangelist.

  • Patagonia certainly is killing it with creativity…But is that the source of their business growth?
    I’m not sure.
    Patagonia seems to be riding a culture wave, and they caught it at just the right time….And to back that up, they have great products and a fully developed brand that speaks to the values of that same culture.
    But have they forgotten their direct marketing roots? I wrote about a recent experience I had with Patagonia and it looks like they could use your software.

  • We have been living beyond our means that are not sustainable. Our brand buying is rarely utilitarian but mostly conspicuous. Patagonia realizes this inherently wasteful activity pursued by the most human beings but their customers are though less in numbers are highly dedicated evangelists inherently believers of austerity can only save our planet. This is well directed communication for their target consumers with shock value for probable consumers to get attention.
    Please accept my congratulations for writing so beautifully.

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