Is the Outdoor Industry Using the Male Playbook to Speak to Women?

Relying on an old model to effect radical change ain’t gonna happen.

In her new book, Dear Madam President, An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, Jennifer Palmieri, the former communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, recounts a startling epiphany: “There was one moment in particular — I remember being on the tarmac somewhere — and it just hit me all at once: that we’d made Hillary a female facsimile of all the qualities that we look for in a male president. And I just had this gut punch of ‘What have we robbed her of in doing that?’”

In the world’s most high profile execution of what is essentially a positioning and promotion campaign, Palmieri sensed a fatal disconnect in their strategy: A disruptive candidate was working from a traditional playbook because they were trying to appeal to as many people as possible and that’s what the market expected.

Hilary ran with “half her humanity tied behind her back,” Palmieri said.

In a market as historically male-first as the outdoor industry, the question occurs…Does the outdoor industry do the same? In our efforts at gender parity are we applying an old, tired male ambassador model to the new initiatives promoting female outdoor role models?

The outdoor industry is in the midst of a gender course correction, with the industry’s biggest brands redoubling their commitment to women. REI has dubbed 2018 The Year of the Woman, featuring the rollout of four programs designed to increase recognition, participation of, and gear for women in the outdoors.  Outside Magazine is on a media tour promoting their new women’s outreach. Perhaps the most high-profile initiative is The North Face’s ambitious “Move Mountains” campaign, which celebrates amazing women accomplishing amazing feats, both athletic and professional. It follows the formula for success that has been well-established with their male ambassadors, with a professional multimedia campaign and visibility that only TNF can produce/afford. The cornerstone of which is a series of short films of women pushing their boundaries.

The storytelling is inspiring. The production is beautiful. But.

But the paradigm seems familiar. And that’s the opposite of disruptive.

Seen through the lens of a marketer, this looks like a mistake. It looks like the industry is missing the chance to focus on the one thing that makes women distinct in the outdoors: the group dynamic. Women are more drawn to groups than men.

Yes, this is anecdotal, but my wife and her friends are passionate kick-ass athletes on their own, yet they have their “ski group,” their “running group,” yoga classes, book clubs, girls nights…even their before-work hikes up Snow King are with a handful of friends and their dogs. Look around: Yes, men recreate in groups. Yes, many women rock it solo. But on balance, well, the group dynamic is true.

Scientifically, there are related theories in psychology and sociology about “in-group bias” and the “women are wonderful” effect. My layman’s understanding of this boils down to: women like women better than men, and so do men.

Actual sociologists do a better job breaking down the dynamics and ramifications:

“Women and men, on average, rate women more highly on ‘communal’ measures, which are warmth, friendliness, and being considerate. Men get rated more highly on ‘agentic’ measures like competence, assertiveness, and independence,” writes Alyssa Feuerer.

The agentic measures of men are what is celebrated in the male ambassador playbook. What about the strengthening of the communal group for the women? It’s this prevalence of the group dynamics that could be the opportunity for brands and causes to better resonate with women.

“I believe most women want to see things reflective of their lives versus the unattainable,” said Feuerer, who is a trail runner. “People want to consume content and buy in ways that are consistent with themselves. I think this is where most of the outdoor industry is trying to go – to reflect the everyday, powerful women, even down to the local level. I think the community aspect just needs to be relative to the context of community within each sport.”

It’s already happening in the field.

Georgie Abel’s piece in Elevation Outdoors, Real Empowerment, documents women climbers fed up with the lack of parity in rock climbing and have taken a DIY approach to defining the activity with loads of new women-specific events, summits, content, gear, and social media groups.

Here’s the crux, so to speak:

“Female climbers are creating these new spaces within the sport for themselves from the ground up—often without help or resources from big brands.

“Community is the theme that is woven throughout all of these diverse women’s climbing groups, and the support that comes from this has acted as a foundation for women to approach climbing in ways that they never have before.

“These new spaces are giving women what the industry and has largely refused them—representation, information and most importantly, a new way to define success in rock climbing.”

What if…there was a campaign that captured the distinct yet seemingly contradictory sentiment of ‘independent together’?

What if…TNF had a program helping teams of women accomplish firsts with a twist that pushed the communal group exploration further: The first all-women…night descent of the Gorge in packrafts, for instance.  What if…there was a new Strava layer for teams, like team time trials in cycling. What if…TNF could apply its marketing might to promote the power of women together, not just from an individual performance perspective but from a community perspective. Would that be off-brand for TNF? Adventure is relative, so too is the Never Stop Exploring sentiment.

Applying conventional best practices to sectors that are in search of real change will get you halfway there but still short of the goal, as the people and the movement have to first appropriate legacy paradigms in the face of resistance from conservative business environments that understandably lack an appetite for risk.  

Trump is disruption. Bernie was disruption. Hillary was halfway there, as Palmieri realized.

You can’t win on a playing field that has been designed and codified by the others, as winning has already been defined by an old paradigm. In business, this would be called a Blue Ocean Strategy. In the outdoors, it’s breaking trail.

Photos by Roya Ann Miller, Holly Mandarich, and AFIM.


Mike Geraci is the Geraci part of Geraci & Co., a brand strategy and communications group in Jackson, Wyoming.
Showing 4 comments
  • G.G.S.

    As a former brand ambassador I think sometimes the marketing of people as an aspirational representation makes them unrelatable. Having said that I don’t want TNF to turn into some midlevel marketing scheme of recruiting random people to post on facebook feed twice a week.

    Think outdoors doesn’t need role models but mentors. REI doing good work with the having classes to teach people the skills and what not. The thing about extreme adventures and first to whatever is not as appealing to women. Recreation/outdoors as wellness not competition would probably be more appealing.

    • Mo from Marin

      “The thing about extreme adventures and first to whatever is not as appealing to women. Recreation/outdoors as wellness not competition would probably be more appealing.”

      NO. I’ve been racing bikes – road and dirt – for 15+ years. Watch any women’s professional peloton and I can assure you we’re after competition as much as any man. We need our heroes and “aspirational representations” – but we also want stories of everyday women who are achieving “extreme adventures” with our friends.

  • old geezer

    Ironically, when I began climbing fifty years ago, the dawn of feminism found a niche in our humble little eclectic group of eccentric characters, and women joined in not just to look for spouses. Strong women climbed, kayaked, ran rivers, with the men and all found common ground that existed outside cultural norms, because climbing and such weird activities were viewed suspiciously as countercultural, aligned with radical campus thinking, and the infant Earth movements. As climbing has steadily grown and morphed into a more mainstream, but also more Extreme, pursuit in the eyes of both participants and the public, it has been stuffed into many of the boxes of conformity that shackle competition-oriented mainstream sports, where Title Nine actions have addressed inequities, but where Good Ol’ Boy chauvinism lingers. This re-examination of the purposes of recreation and outdoor activities is healthy, but I wish it were not merely in service of applied marketing strategies.

  • Trav

    I love the irony.

    Do we market an article about a group of accomplished/unique/passionate/comradely outdoor women, or do we market an editorial lamenting that we need more articles about accomplished/unique/passionate/comradely outdoor women?

    The fact that brand-advocacy (did TNF sponsor this piece?) has devolved to Mormon-level asexuality of wondering-about-women-in-abstract suggests an unfortunate conclusion for poor North Face: the meat and potatoes of TNF sales to sorority girls buying fleece is drying up. Did you all forget that aspect of TNF’s market? I’m talking about the absolute feeding frenzy of sales that follow when teenaged nubile girls follow a trend, a la the Denali fleece. There is no greater force, and it sustained TNF sales for a good part of the 2000s.

    I get it: articles like this peel a few girls away from buying generic clothing enough to plunk down some cash for a TNF piece. “I like the ethos” and all that jazz. But there’s an executive somewhere reading my comment, watching Southern Marsh slurp their milkshake, and overall acting with some geriatric angst that they can’t figure out how to get those frenzied sales back. If you believe in this article, take it literally, dawg. Sell us a concept rain jacket with 5 hoods so that women can group-huddle in the rain. Bueller?

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