In his book, How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp posits that brands thrive if they focus on the following:
• Increased physical availability = Distribution
• Increased mental availability = Distinct brand strategy, messaging, and assets for easy recognition
• Increased share of voice
This is ubiquity: Be everywhere, be easy to recognize, and easy to remember. By this measure, Patagonia must be killing it.
From Nordstroms to Amazon.com, specialty outdoor to their own stores, Patagonia is everywhere.
Their bold political activism has made the brand part of the larger cultural conversation, in a way that is relevant and totally on-brand as “the activist company.” Their activism drives earned media buzz and word of mouth. Their internal creative team is on point, operating from an agency mindset and not an internal production team mindset that drives most in-house teams.
Sales and profitability are up, no doubt. But is that a good thing? Is it sustainable? While ubiquity may be appropriate for mass market consumer brands, is it the best approach for enthusiast, activist brands?
“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”—Yogi Berra
For enthusiast brands, market ubiquity can create a backlash among core customers that can eventually dilute brand integrity.
This point was punctuated at a business dinner last week in San Francisco among a coterie of outdoor industry people who have access to a wide selection of brand pro forms. We were debating purchasing alternatives to Patagonia because, said a couple of people, “It’s everywhere.” While some were looking for alternatives to Patagonia, others were committed to “flying the flag.”
Is Patagonia able to maintain brand integrity because more people are buying the products for a political statement than a performance statement? Looked at another way, is Patagonia becoming a political lifestyle brand that encourages reflexive consumerism, counter to Patagonia’s buy less, use and reuse longer ethos?
The opposite of ubiquity is scarcity, the theory that limited supply of limited editions for a limited period of time increases demand, supports premium pricing, and drives organic word of mouth that doesn’t require large media spends.
The streetwear brand Supreme is the master of scarcity. Their weekly Thursday morning limited edition product drops at a handful of stores (and later online) and creates early morning lines of fans outside of their stores and, amazingly, a bot market for online purchases. Their brand and celebrity collabs combined with highly socialized lookbook leaks drive earned media hype and word-of-mouth buzz across their customer channels, reducing the need for large paid media spends. Supreme is now valued at $1 billion.
Could the Supreme scarcity strategy be a way for Patagonia to execute a strategic shrinking in order to further the mission and integrity of the brand? They already offer exclusive SKUs at Patagonia.com. They also produce a handful of artist collabs on graphics. So, the seeds of a scarcity strategy are planted.
How big can Patagonia get before it feels as if its sheer girth is causing harm and feeding consumerism, regardless of how sustainable its supply chain is? (If they are headed to a regenerative supply chain, they are going to have to shrink anyway.)
Scarcity causes people to value the products more, take better care of these collector’s pieces in a way that hues to Patagonia’s buy less/use longer ethos. As Richard Shotten notes in his book, The Choice Factory, the most famous scarcity experiment was conducted way back in 1975 and it used cookies (the baked kind, not the internet kind). The study showed that when cookies were in short supply, they were rated by study participants to be significantly more likable/delicious, and, the participants were willing to pay 11 percent more compared to when the cookies were plentiful.
The scarcity approach is only tenable for brands whose position is in alignment and fully integrated across all of its business, as both Supreme and Patagonia are.
If fewer of Patagonia’s core customers are “flying the flag” how will that impact the brand’s reputation among the follower customers, and what are the longer term implications? At some level, scarcity starts to feel like an option to maintain quality, in product, experience, customer, and brand reputation.