Has Patagonia Grown Too Big for Its Cultural Good?

Patagonia is ubiquitous. Supreme is scarce. Should the outdoor brand steal a page from the fashion retailer?


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
• Creativity

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.

 

Mike Geraci is the Geraci part of Geraci & Co., a brand strategy and communications group in Jackson, Wyoming.
Showing 38 comments
  • Kevin
    Reply

    I’m not a fan of Patagonia’s political activism. Even if it is sincere it looks to me like opportunism to build cachet with weatlhy poseurs in SF and LA and NYC. There are some of us who like the outdoors who don’t buy into the global warming/environmental regulation/Obama is savior and Trump the Devil shtick.

    Having said that I love and use some of their gear regularly. I just wish they’d shut up and make good stuff.

    • A Hole
      Reply

      So, what you’re saying is, Patagonia, having gone from high-end, fairly exclusive, outdoors gear brand to high-end High Street gear brand, should be trying to pander to the “Check out exclusive I am” consumer mindset instead?.. So what if their stuff is everywhere and more so each year – they make excellent quality gear in an environmentally considerate way, that lasts years so why shouldn’t we want them to be as mainstream as possible, hopefully encouraging others to follow.. So what if people buy their gear as a political statement – isn’t that better than buying someone else’s gear that says nothing at best, or “We use child-labour in Far-Eastern countries to make our clothes” at worst when forced to admit it.
      The narcissistic obsession with being the most unique, the hippest, etc is one of the biggest current environmental threats, encouraging unnecessary consumption across the board, in every department.
      If those ‘core-consumers’ reject a label because it’s ‘too ubiquitous’ then that reveals the shallowness of their connection with that brand and good-riddance.

    • Senor
      Reply

      Wow Kevin. Would the “us” you speak of be the same “us” who don’t buy into the Earth is round/ the Holocaust did happen/humans are the cause of the degradation of the planet and Trump is the epitome of that destructive type of human shtick?

      Having said that, keep up the good fight Patagonia and keep making good stuff for human (us’) like Kevin to waste their money buying your pro environmental propaganda.

    • gringo
      Reply

      Only an American would say they ‘don’t buy into global warming’

    • Patagucci
      Reply

      Thank you Kevin. I agree.

  • Rob M
    Reply

    Patagonia makes some great gear which I have enjoyed over the years however it seems rather than focusing quality gear production utilizing renewable sources they are now focusing on becoming the Left’s version of the MAGA hat.

  • James
    Reply

    I work for a large outdoor brand and every brand sells part of their soul for profit, growth and the majority of the time share holders and short term targets. How much is sold, how far does a brand go in search of the profit new mangement crave are all questions the founders of the brands will debate around the table. The truth is every company has a soul just like every human, as humans very few of us make the right decisions so we should not expect companies to be held to different rules (if we were happy to pay full price Amazon would not be the giant it is). There are new, small companies who are born with new souls, will have new followers and so the cycle of business continues……

    • Erik
      Reply

      James, I think the b-corp structure speaks to most of your issues, read below. We should certainly expect companies to make good decisions – I think humans should as well. Rolling over because it doesn’t always happen is just tossing the planet in the trash now.

      http://www.patagonia.com/b-lab.html

    • Tom
      Reply

      I too work for a large outdoor brand. James said it well – too much soul gets lost in the quarterly hunt for revenue. Small companies have that soul, but the current consumers’ social “sheep” mentality is making it harder and harder now for them to get noticed. It’s sad.

  • Karen
    Reply

    Patagonia thrives because they have been innovative and give back. They’ve been pushing against the ‘profit above all other values’ mentality for decades. I love their environmental messages; if you aren’t involved in protecting the places we all love to go and recreate, then you shouldn’t even be involved in the outdoor industry. Patagonia continues to be a leader in just about every aspect of running a business. Look at the thousands of people who get to work for an equitable company. That counts as something. The only real radical change they could make now, as I see it, is to bring their manufacturing back home. Let Americans make these products. Sure, the price would go up. But, wow, what pride a company can display. Look at Alpacka, the packrafting company. 100% made in America. Look at the products on Garage Gear. Home-grown, made in America. That’s how Patagonia started out—in the warehouse of Great Pacific Ironworks in the 70s in Ventura, California. I was there back then, climbing with friends with worked at GPI, back when they made climbing gear, and sold 3 pieces of clothing: stand-up short, stand-up pants, and rugby shirts. I remember being asked if I wanted to make a $10,000 investment in the expansion from ‘ironworks’ to include softgoods, as the Patagonia label developed. I didn’t have that kind of cash back then, but I sure wish I had. I have nothing but pride for the vision of Yvon Chouinard, Kris McDevitt, and others like Paul Hawken, who have exemplified the concept of ‘natural capital’ by starting ecological businesses. Each item of clothing I have purchased from Patagonia over the years has had a natural life of 10 to 25 years, and that is no exaggeration. And if something hasn’t quite lasted, like a 1990 Capilene-lined bomber jacket, when the zipper failed, I’ve returned it to Patagonia and it came back with a new zipper. Patagonia may be ubiquitous, but it has a soul.

    • They Call Me Tommy
      Reply

      The mantra of “Build it in ‘Merica” is not a bad thought, however as an employee of a large outdoor company that actually does make some of its product in North America, the issue here is: exactly who is it that will work in these factories? Do you know anyone who is bringing up their kid to work in a sewing factory?
      The majority of the employees in the North American apparel factories (of the very few that exist) are immigrants (they came here with the right skills!). And that dude in the white house is doing everything in his power to keep them away.

    • Will
      Reply

      America is no longer a manufacturing country. This is borne out by what manufacturing remains in the USA: largely automated, with little to no human interaction except at very specific identified QC points. Patagonia moving manufacturing back into the United States would increase prices, but it would also double a lot of the shipping that Patagonia needs to do, often by air. They have categorically stated that they’re opposed to doing any more harm to the environment than they have to, which more air shipping would absolutely contribute to.

      Moreover, who in outdoor rec wants to spend more money on gear? Arc’teryx is already seen as the premium option over brands like Patagonia, The North Face, REI, et al. Their gear is still made overseas and it’s still damn near $1,000 for their top of the line shells. I can’t think of a single person I climb or hike with willing to pay even higher than Arc’teryx prices for Made in the USA Patagonia apparel.

      The last problem is as Tommy noted: who is going to make this gear? No one I know wants to be sewing and stitching all day on a production line!

    • kurt gray
      Reply

      well said

  • Eric
    Reply

    So much of this makes no sense to me. I continue to struggle to understand folks like Kevin above who “enjoy the outdoors” but don’t buy in to mainstream science and nonpartisan efforts to respect the environment. While “Patagucci” might be purchased for its logo alone by folks in liberal cities with no real need for solid gear, as a person who works in the outdoors and is extremely focused on voting with my dollar, it feels pretty damn good to be able to support a company that’s doing the best they can to put their money where they’re mouth is.

    I live in Idaho and grew up in the woods and I need a warm coat sometimes, and I appreciate that I can shop at a company that will give me a solid product and also stand up and away from the usual business “growth forever” mentality that’s driving our planet to extremes–even if that means they haven’t found the perfect way to do it just yet. It’s kind of like when you criticize capitalism all you get is folks telling you communism’s no good–yeah, we know. Why don’t we push ourselves to imagine more than two ideas? That is what Patagonia is doing.

    But putting that aside, the idea of creating scarcity ignores the connection that Patagonia and so many groups around the country are trying to make between social issues and environmental issues. While advocates for either cause rarely interact with one another, they have the same exact enemy: the status quo, unbridled industry, deregulation, money over people or the earth, etc. By touting some artificial scarcity, you’d be perpetuating exclusivity and inequality for the sake of the Patagonia’s ostensible “do gooding” toward the environment–the wrong move. The fact that more and more people like Patagonia–for their image, for their quality, for whatever–is not some problem to be solved by keeping nice products far from the plebians, it’s an opportunity to be celebrated.

    Maybe not everybody cares about “looking cool” and perhaps some of us are just grateful to finally, finally see a company begin to consider its externalized costs and its impact on humans and the environment. I buy something–from them, from anyone–maybe less than once a year. And when it comes time to make that decision, this is what’s going on in my head. If Patagonia is fostering consumerism, that’s because they’re operating in a consumerist shit-show called the United States. Perhaps more and more folks will wake up and realize that the “away” in “throw away” doesn’t exist, that looking cool is less important than consuming less, and that there are all sorts of impacts to our actions beyond what we see. If Patagonia leads us even a bit closer to that world, more power to them.

    Lastly, I get it if you don’t like talking politics, but if you support renewable production of quality gear and don’t think that’s a political inclination, I’d argue you’re wrong. 100 of us wearing zero-waste rain shells won’t matter much if whole-sale environmental regulations are ripped up or whatever other dumb idea Scott Pruitt’s thinking of at the moment actually happens. Supporting political movements, positions, and candidates has a much larger return on investment for society and the earth, and to see the world we want to see will require lots of us to get involved. Voting with your dollar is a start, but it’s got to–and is going to–get far bigger than that.

  • B. Silver
    Reply

    But supreme’s model is based on *always* releasing something new and scarce in its own right. If Patagonia adopted this mindset, consumers may end up purchasing more product, not less. Every time the next scarce thing drops, everybody wants it, especially if it’s a color or pattern they really dig.

    Patagonia’s “use less, use longer” mantra doesn’t pair too well with the adoption of Supreme’s approach, which relies on unique and limited – on top of style freshness. If Patagonia is genuinely invested in driving that message of “no, seriously, don’t buy this jacket. The one you’re wearing is totally fine,” then they won’t change course for the sake of staying relevant or retaining customers.

    I don’t think it would happen under Yvon. Just my two cents.

  • Ya
    Reply

    Outdoor Research

  • lam jam
    Reply

    in SF Patagonia has become as common as TNF was once was. I was a pretty big fan of their stuff until it has become the official outfit of tech bros/gals

  • DanO
    Reply

    I agree with maybe 40% of Patagonia’s political stance(s). But I have Patagonia quarter snap pullovers that have lasted through 10 years of abuse. Most of what I buy from them is solid product, and if its not, they don’t hedge on my returning it. I don’t buy it because of their politics, but because it’s good. And yes, I do use less resources when the garment lasts 10+ years.

    Having read Chouinard;s writings, he admits his business is not perfect, but at least he puts his ethos out there and runs his company as close to it as he can. That guy can drink my whisky any time he likes.

  • Felicity Organ-Moore
    Reply

    While I can understand that people may think Patagonia should not get any bigger than they are as it defeats the anti-consumerism idea of their ethos, it is also nice to have a company like them get so big as a flagbearer to other large companies that they *can* still have some kind of environmental conscience etc etc, it isn’t only limited to the little guys. Setting a prime example!

    • A Hole
      Reply

      How does it defeat anti-consumerism? Selling stuff to more individuals isn’t the same as getting individuals to buy more stuff.

  • Jonathan
    Reply

    I’m a big fan of Patagonia, have been for many years and its always my first choice in gear. However, it is beginning to appear to me that “what it does” may be in opposition to “what it says” and that concerns me.

    As Patagonia professes prudence, sustainability and doing more with less, it’s product family continues to expand into new niches with a dizzying array of designs and ever-changing color rotations. On its website now are over 100 permutations of men’s board shorts. I do believe Patagonia’s environment activism is authentic but I also know its a powerful marketing vehicle – which I’m ok with if revenue growth is byproduct, not the goal. I read an article recently stating revenue has grown ~3x under the current CEO’s leadership. This kind of growth doesn’t just happen, it’s intentional and the result of well-executed demand inducement strategies. And that would seem to contradict their messaging. Reacting to demand or filling a clear need is much different than demand stimulus.

    I would love for Patagonia to (a) prune back its product family by a significant percent (over 20%), (b) standardize on basic, timeless colors, patterns and designs and stop the high-velocity fashion rotations, (c) produce the most versatile items that can be worn across a variety of activities, weather conditions and trend cycles, (d) stop pursuing growth as a strategy or KPI, and (e) trend away from urban/everyday stuff and stay focused on the outdoor market. By doing so, Patagonia could use its influence to educate its customers that they don’t need 20 styles and 100 color combinations of surfing shorts to chose from. And you’re not a lesser skier if you wear the same storm shell in the backcountry that you wear around town.

    I would wager that if Patagonia instituted a streamlined, minimalism strategy that its revenue and profits would not decline and, in fact, may continue to increase. And that would be great, being rewarded for truly walking the talk!

    Wealth is seductive and can blind the best of intentions with rational arguments. From Patagonia’s point of view, every time it makes something new, it sells like gang busters. I get it, its really hard to walk away from that! So while I believe my criticisms are valid and constructive (as opposed to bitching and moaning), they originate from my reverence for the company and I truly hope it doesn’t lose its core. I love their stuff, yes, but I love their ethos just as much. Authenticity is at the root of my brand loyalty.

    • Erik
      Reply

      I totally agree with you, Jonathan. Patagonia’s embrace of trendy styles/colors/patterns has long been a peeve of mine. Not that everything has to be Forge Gray or Classic Navy, but long-wearing, durable products also require a somewhat timeless design aesthetic. I have my doubts that those Town Beanies with the big pom-pom on top, or the high-crown Interstate Hats are going to be in circulation ten years from now…once the nostalgic irony is gone.
      That being said, the way that they run their business is far more commendable than most, and consumers buying less Patagonia would probably not mean consumers buying less–they’d just buy from less responsible companies.

  • David
    Reply

    Ditto Kevin.

    REI is doing the same thing.

    Having said that, I still have the very first Patagonia item I bought in the Fall of 1982. A pair of poly gloves. And I’m still a regular buyer.

  • Oskar
    Reply

    Their widening range of products, minimized footprint (in manufacture, shipping, repair etc) and activism, see me buying more and more of their product. They appear to care about the same things I care about. I am also drawn to other smaller companies, however they do not lead the fight for the places I love in the same way/scale as Patagonia.

    If only North Face, Colombia, Mountain Hardwear etc also had the same convictions, then we’d have some serious momentum.

  • Hale Orviston
    Reply

    Patagonia does not sell to Amazon. THEY ARE THE ONLY BRAND taking a stand against the current administration.
    https://www.gq.com/story/patagonia-versus-donald-trump?sf186321808=1

  • Amanda
    Reply

    Honestly for consumers I think this is a silly thing to consider. I buy Patagonia products because of their durability and attention to detail that separates them from the more utilitarian stylings of companies like Duluth Trading and LL Bean. If it is good quality, made responsibly, and isn’t totally dowdy, I’m into it. The brand name is really an afterthought. Let the advertising/merchandising department at Patagonia worry about whether or not their brand is being diluted by ubiquity. Scarcity is a consumerist tactic to get people to buy a company’s stuff whether or not they truly need it, they get it because it might be their only chance. I think this strategy has no place in the outdoor industry.

  • DWS
    Reply

    I think we can all agree that outdoor spaces are more important than the brands we wear while we enjoy those spaces…which begs the question: why are there so many more comments following an article about a clothing company than anything posted here examining conservation or science?

    • Amanda
      Reply

      I agree with you 100%. I like gear reviews and all but this is a little bit beyond what I’d consider to be relevant to AJ’s readership

    • Lw
      Reply

      +1

  • Daniel
    Reply

    I buy there stuff on 50% + sale and use it for years than pass it on. It works fine and I like being comfortable when I’m playing outside.

    • A Hole
      Reply

      ‘Their’.. ..’then’..

  • doug moore
    Reply

    Nearly every Patagonia item I’ve purchased over the decades still works fine, fits right, looks good. I can’t say that about other brands.

    Sure, a little pricey, but their stuff fits me better and now with their ability to repair stuff, can last that much longer.

    As far as profits, growth, marketing I don’t care about any of that. What normal customer does?

  • D
    Reply

    They jumped the shark long ago. Might as well go buy some North Face or Nike gear. They specialize in BS activism mixed with cool liking hats and grocery getter puffy coats sold at Costco.

  • D
    Reply

    Looking *

  • John Keith
    Reply

    Isn’t it for those buying Patagonia to follow the practice of scarcity that is owning only what’s needed? Patagonia’s repair service is part of this. I suggest less a focus on its corporate profile and more on us as users and what we can do individually. Run the counter would you rather it was a non ESG oriented mass market global $2 tee shirt seller?

  • Kevin
    Reply

    I didn’t say I don’t believe in global warming, it’s an obvious fact. Haven’t ever believed in flat earth, and think Trump is an idiot, so please don’t make assumptions about what I believe just because I don’t buy into Patagonia’s obviously self serving propaganda served up to groupthink urbanites so they will buy pretty down jackets they don’t need.

    What I don’t buy into is the idea that buying pricy gear is going to do anything about the climate, and if you believe otherwise you are fooling yourself and making decisions based on how you feel and not on facts. As if the popularity or advocacy of Patagonia will be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”, to quote a well known huckster.

    And for the record, neither Trump nor Obama can be a savior or destroyer of the world as it relates to climate change. There are 4 billion people in Asia and Africa and South America who will seek an energy intensive 1st world lifestyle, and driving Teslas and putting solar panels aint going to make a bit of difference unless you throw everything away and live in a cave, and as I can see you have interent access, you have not done so. Maybe the sea will rise 0.1 mm more under Trump? Wow, that would be devastating.

    But I do like Patagonia gear.

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