As a chief strategy officer at Landor, I do a lot of thinking about brands and their evolution. Perhaps the most essential and challenging question facing any brand leader is how to continuously grow their brand and make brand expansion a priority while remaining true to what it stands for. Recently, I spent time looking at the outdoor retail category. It’s an interesting segment because retaining credibility as an outdoors brand can be so tenuous.
Many of these brands struggle with varying degrees of success. Lands’ End was once an outfitter of sailing gear. Now (post-Sears spinoff) it is grappling to find its way. Who remembers that Abercrombie & Fitch was once the bastion of luxury outdoors equipage? I do, but only because I have my grandfather’s shooting stick with the A&F brand etched on the side. L.L. Bean began as an outfitter for hunters selling only one product—the Bean Boot. Hermès began as a supplier of equestrian supplies. Beretta is the world’s oldest gun manufacturer, and yet today it also has a stylish clothing boutique on Madison Avenue.
Significant growth requires new products, new markets, new categories, and, in many cases, new employees. Maintaining the right balance between traditional and new is no easy task. There’s a natural tension that is as much art as science when it comes to making decisions about how far, how fast, and how much change is required.
Looking at one category and the decisions its companies make can be revealing and instructive for other categories. What is the natural tension in the outdoor category? As a brand strategist, I can’t help but think in terms of an XY grid. The first axis is “lifestyle versus practical.” In other words, some customers want to buy products for very practical uses such as fly-fishing, hunting, etc. Others, like me, are buying into an outdoor fantasy they aren’t quite living. They are drawn to the authenticity of the brand and the way of life it connotes, even if their manicured fingers haven’t touched an axe or a fishing rod in years. The second axis of tension (which is common to almost all businesses) is “premium versus value.” As we know, some outdoor brands are very expensive. Others not so much.
I believe all outdoor brands struggle with these quadrants. Focusing on lifestyle affords many opportunities for brand expansion through new product lines and markets, but it also carries greater risk of losing credibility. Move to premium and the brand starts to be considered luxury. Aside from the narrowing of its market, it also risks being perceived as prissy and losing authenticity as an outdoors brand.
I’ve looked at four brands that I believe illustrate each quadrant. All of these brands have existed for more than a century and have similar foundations. Each has struggled with determining the best position. As they have grown and expanded, they have taken different paths and reached different levels of success. And they all continue to balance the tension between traditional and new.
Orvis is the classic outdoor brand that has morphed into more of a premium fashion brand today. When Orvis opened its doors in the mid-1800s, it was all about fly-fishing, with its early beginnings as a tackle shop in Manchester, Vermont. As the company has matured, Orvis expanded its product portfolio into adjacent areas, including hunting and camping. It also runs fly-fishing and shooting schools for the well heeled. But, at times, its product line has been a bit too posh, risking its outdoorsy cred.
Filson is the ultimate premium utilitarian brand. It sells both work and hunting clothes and has a beloved following. Historically, Filson stayed relatively small, not expanding too far beyond its original base and was unknown to all but a few enthusiasts. I’ve had the same Filson briefcase for 20 years. I carry it everywhere. I used to get stopped on the street by fellow Filson owners. We were almost a secret club. Today, Filson is in rapid expansion mode. It has a retail store in SoHo and its product line has been vastly extended for both men and women. It’s even selling watches! So far, Filson seems to be sticking pretty close to its brand, but I’m keeping an eye on it.
L.L. Bean has come a long way since its founding in 1912 when it sold only one product, the Maine Hunting Boot (now known as the L.L. Bean Boot), a waterproof boot for hunters. The boots came with a 100 percent guarantee of customer satisfaction and with the promise that the product would last. If a customer didn’t like the boots, they could be returned, no questions asked. Today, while that return policy remains, L.L. Bean has a large, broad customer base and works to appeal to both hardcore outdoorsmen and urban and suburban nature fans. And with a moderate price level with regular sales and discounts, its products are aimed at the masses. But the connection to its heritage remains in its focus on quality and customer service.
Carhartt was founded on a single successful product in 1889. Today it is the ultimate practical, good-value gear. But wait. Carhartt is also a punk, hip-hop, and urban fashion icon! This is a fascinating brand story. Arguably one of the least cool brands in the world (sorry, Carhartt), it suddenly became one of the coolest. And impressively, it has stayed pretty true to its heritage and principles—however, tempting it might have been to go the Abercrombie & Fitch route.
There’s a real challenge in managing brands to succeed decade after decade. It’s a balancing act between the natural tensions of staying true to the core identity while also growing the business. And, as we can see in the outdoor retail segment, there’s no defined path to success. Companies must work diligently to understand their customers and the market opportunities to determine how far, how fast, and how much to focus on brand expansion at any point in time. But above all they must “to thine own self be true.”
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