How The North Face sees the marriage of loyalty and digital
In our last newsletter we talked about the importance of communicating culture. Well, I’m thrilled to tell you that over the next several months we will be learning from communications leaders from a number of wonderful organizations. Up first is an Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship Fellow, Bethany Evans, Director of Digital Marketing & Loyalty at The North Face. I know you will benefit just as much as I did!
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GH: We have read that The North Face is named for the coldest, most unforgiving side of a mountain. The brand is a household name, but a lot of people may not know about how it began. Do you mind giving us a little bit of insight into some of the beginnings and the heart of The North Face?
BE: I learned when I started a year ago that for over 50 years, The North Face has been known for helping people scale high mountains all around the world. But what I didn’t know is, ironically, we started on a beach in 1966 in San Francisco. There were two hikers, Doug Tompkins and his wife Susie, who were so passionate about hiking and the outdoors that they started a small mountaineering retail store. But what I really like about them is from the beginning, they thought it was extremely important that if they were helping people go out and explore all of these wild areas, they needed to help conserve those wild areas as well. To your question, that’s really the heart of the brand; it’s the exploration, but also the conservation. Doug and Susie did end up selling the business and we were by acquired by VF Corporation in 2000, so, it’s gone through a couple pairs of hands. I think everyone’s been smart, however, about not messing with the core of the brand and keeping that consistent.
GH: That’s a legacy in itself to be that consistent! Please talk to us about your role at North Face.
BE: My role is a fun one. I lead digital marketing and loyalty, so, I feel like I get the privilege of helping deepen the emotional connection with our customers and giving them reasons either to try us for the first time or to come back and try us again. It’s always exciting and it’s never boring!
GH: How do you see digital and loyalty mesh? Overall, how is the company looking at how these two work together?
BE: One thing we’ve realized is you never want there to be a disconnect between what you see on social and what you experience when you come to our website, whether you’re a loyal customer/member or not. For example, we’ve been doing a lot of social posts about FUTURELIGHT, which is our new breathable, waterproof fabric that we introduced last fall. A lot of those social posts feature our athlete team, but we knew we needed to extend that storytelling online. We launched the collection first to our members because if you’ve been loyal to us, you should be the first to know and you’re probably going to be the most excited about it anyway. And then we created a landing page, thenorthface.com/futurelight which is a much more immersive experience than we usually do. The page tells all about the technology and the sustainability efforts behind how the product is created but then also goes more into how our athletes have tested it in extreme conditions all around the world. In doing so, and utilizing our athletes that our loyal members feel connected to such as Alex Honnold, we’ve created a more connective tissue. The members get really excited when they get to see more of that behind-the-scenes glimpse.
Another area that displays the marriage of loyalty and digital is diversity and inclusion. One thing I’ve learned more about since joining the company a year ago is that the outdoor community has traditionally not been the most inclusive. There have been both real and perceived barriers to entry based on things like where you live, the activities you did growing up, and what kind of gear or equipment you have access to. An important focus across social, digital, and loyalty is broadening representation across our ecosystem.
One of the cool things we do is actually build installations in urban areas like bouldering so that people can climb even if they can’t get to actual mountains. There’s a ways for us and for the whole industry to go in this area, but we’re taking steps in the right direction.
GH: What are key messages you are always trying to send from the NorthFace brand? Is there anything NorthFace stands for internally and externally and any particular symbols that represent that?
BE: It goes back to what most people know as our longstanding mantra– never stop exploring– which I love. That’s something that’s easy to say, but it’s like we talked about at UCF, you have to walk the talk. The one thing that I didn’t know about before I started is that we have an Explore Fund that was started in 2010 and it gives grants to environmental non-profits that work to protect wild places, which I feel like is so critical right now, especially in light of climate change. That program matches with our brand purpose, which is that we dare to lead the world forward through exploration. That is represented by our logo, the half dome in Yosemite, which is the everyday symbolic reminder of what we exist to do.
I think some of our best storytelling is around that Explore Fund. One thing we realized is we would tell people that we give these grants, but then we weren’t really telling them what happens to that money and how it gets used. We’ve tried to do a much better job lately at actually showing the impact. So, we’ll go follow one of the grantees and do some stories about the difference they’re making in their community. You know, we don’t want it to be about us. We love to highlight the great work that others are doing and show how they’re making a difference. For example, The Trust for Public Land is helping build new climbing boulders in U.S. communities through our Walls are Meant for Climbing initiative.
In terms of symbols in our physical space, we’re currently in a temporary space in Denver, Colorado, but we just got to see renderings of the new headquarters in downtown Denver that opens in June. It has some amazing features that reinforce our brand for employees. For example, and I can’t reveal too much, but they are bringing the outdoors inside both experientially and through visual cues.
GH: I’ve been trying to accumulate things that people are doing to reinforce their brand with employees. For example, from your background at Southwest, you know that Southwest employees have great flight benefits. Hilton is another great example as they’re going all in to encourage their employees to visit their properties. And then the concept we heard from Kelly Ann Doherty about Mr.Cooper helping their employees purchase homes. It’s really about leaning in to what your brand stands for and creating closer connections with employees. Is there anything that The North Face does to encourage employees to represent the brand? And if so, how does that affect the culture?
BE: The North Face is really good about that. They give employees a half off discount which is great and then they usually do sample sales a couple of times a year with excess inventory as well. The last one I went to, I think I got leggings for literally $3!
GH: We’re so jealous!
BE: It’s great; employees really lean into that casual culture. I don’t have any fancy clothes anymore! And our CEO, who offices in our building, is the same way. My very first day I was in a meeting next to him without realizing it and he was just in sneakers and workout gear.
One thing I love is that this past Earth Day in April, The North Face gave employees the day off. They closed down headquarters and all of our stores, similar to what REI does for their Black Friday opt outside day. Everyone is encouraged to get outside and volunteer in their community. And on top of that, in addition to regular paid time off, everyone gets one day per year that’s called an Explore Day. You can use it for whatever you want, but it’s really encouraged to use it to go outside. People share about their explore day on our internal social network and hashtag it.
Another advantage is that The North Face has a gear rental program. So, if an employee wanted to go camping, they could check out a tent or some sleeping bags for free. The idea is, if we care about this, let’s not just give people a discount, let’s let them try the gear, and get outside.
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Bonus interview questions:
GH: Are there any other things that the company does that speaks to your culture?
BE: One that I just love is our Renewed Program. What I didn’t know, and this is a sad statistic, is that every year, about 85% of all of the textiles that are produced, end up in landfills. North Face Renewed is a program that we launched to refurbish clothing that might otherwise get thrown away just because it’s gotten old and worn out. And what’s really cool is that earlier this year we also launched Renewed Design Residencies. It’s a training program for designers so they can go to workshops and learn about circularity, creative repair, and other things that they might not have learned in school about sustainable fashion. I love that it feels like people are caring more about that. Even when we post about it on social, the responses are great like, “yes, I’m so glad you’re doing this, I want to buy it,” and that’s so encouraging to see.
GH: Bethany, is there anything you have been able to do or pass on to somebody else as a result of your time at the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship last year?
BE: There have been several things! One of them was re-looking at myself in how I interact with my team and trying to be a lot more intentional. Another is definitely with regards to storytelling. That was a huge take away; the importance of it and that we have to tell these stories about ourselves to humanize us as a brand not only externally, but internally as well. The other takeaway was I loved the performance appraisal framework that David Salyers shared. I actually rolled that out to my team. It’s about trying to get people to where they feel like they’re in their element, focusing on the positive rather than emphasizing the negative. That was such a refreshing approach.
About Bethany Evans
Bethany Evans is the Director of Digital Marketing and Loyalty at The North Face. Prior to moving home to CO to join TNF, Bethany worked at Southwest Airlines and JCPenney in Dallas. She holds a Bachelor’s from Washington and Lee University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University. She and her husband have two boys and two dogs, including a puppy who keeps them on their toes (and out of socks).
Together, we truly can build Unstoppable Cultures!