Marketing Playbook for Future Patagonias

Marketing Playbook for Future Patagonias


I know, I know. The words “marketing” and “Patagonia” in the title of this post don’t play well together. But that’s the point…

I just read, and highly recommend, the updated edition of Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard. It’s the story of how a unique business succeeded by doing things its own way, sticking to its values, and taking responsibility for its impact on the world – all the way through its supply chain (its Footprint Chronicles are amazing).

The book is an easy, inspiring read – a great story with characters you like, immense love of life and the natural world, and tons of photos. You can read the whole thing in the course of a lazy weekend. And yet, as easy as it is to read the book, you won’t find easy answers here. When I put the book down, Chouinard wouldn’t go away. He got inside my head and challenged me to justify what I do for a living every single day. I’m a marketer.

Chouinard has a few things to say about marketing, which I think are summed up well on page 148:

  1. Our charter is to inspire and educate rather than to promote.
  2. We would rather earn credibility than buy it….
  3. We advertise only as a last resort …

He says that Patagonia devotes less than 1% of sales to advertising, and then only in sport-specialty magazines. Many companies in the sustainable business world allocate similar small amounts. Let’s admit it, this is a world where marketing is a bad word. Where marketers are liars. We invented greenwashing, right?

So here’s my response to that little Yvon Chouinard avatar implanted in my consciousness over the weekend.

Marketing is all about growth, and in sustainable business, growth is a dirty word. As Chouinard reminds his reader every other page or so, economic activity – today, at least – inherently takes more from the environment than it gives back. (Some amazing people are working to change that, but that’s another topic.)

Patagonia’s formula for success is organic growth driven by values, insane product quality, and employees who have fun at work. Sales growth is a byproduct of doing the right thing. For Steve Jobs fans, a lot of this will sound familiar. It just feels good, doesn’t it? Growth without marketing steroids…

Here’s the problem: Patagonia’s been growing organically for 40 years. (Apple, too.) If today’s sustainable enterprises take 40 years to reach Patagonia’s size, it will be game over for Planet Earth. We need to accelerate the switch from irresponsible industrial enterprises to responsible, sustainable businesses. We need to do it fast, and we need to start now. The faster we can accelerate that change, the better for all 7 billion of us homo sapiens.

Everything we need is in the marketing toolbox. Marketing, done right, just amplifies who you are. If you sell crappy products, if you’re a jerk, your marketing will simply add to the media noise. But if you are true to your values and use the smart marketing tools that are available today, you can respect your audience, engage them in honest interactions and, at the same time, accelerate the most important economic change of all time!

So go ahead, play Hamlet and endlessly debate whether to grow or not to grow. Pass up that deal with the marketing Devil. Take 40 years to do it organically, without any marketing accelerants. But let’s talk again in 40 years, when you look back and wonder if you could have done something, however little, to change the devastating path of our economy a little faster.

Here’s what I suggest for future Patagonias, my five-step boilerplate deal with the Devil:

  1. Set ambitious goals in line with your company’s values.
  2. Find a good marketer who believes what you believe and can give you a detailed plan for getting you there.
  3. Measure every marketing investment against that plan.
  4. Take business away from irresponsible companies as fast as you possibly can.
  5. Do it today! Start accelerating the most important economic change ever!

Also published on LinkedIn.


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  • A business is simply an idea to make other people’s lives better.

  • It is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.

  • There is no business to be done on a dead planet.

  • Sustainability is one of the most certain paths to innovation for companies seeking a competitive edge.

  • To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

  • We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through.

  • If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.