What started out as a small store in the backyard of the parents of Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) selling steel pitons for climbers soon became a leading outdoor brand that pushed the boundaries of conventional branding. Now pioneering with a radical believe system, the brand of Patagonia shows us that profit & purpose can co-exist in a company. In this article we will find out how Patagonia ‘walks the talk’. But most importantly, we will look at the ways this company can be a great example for other social enterprises. 

Photo of Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Brand of Patagonia, with climbing gear

Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia. Photo by Tom Frost 

Table of Contents

How Patagonia shows us to kick some as with branding

2. Campaigns: the branding of Patagonia

- Don't Buy this Jacket
- Telling the Dam Truth
- Bears Ears National Monument

Social mission: walking the talk

Firstly, it is important to understand the social mission of Patagonia. Patagonia states it aims to make the best product with no unnecessary harm. Patagonia also uses business to implement solutions to environmental protection and social justice. But what does that exactly mean in practice? Let’s break that down:

In the first years, Patagonia made different climbing equipment that did not cause permanent damage to the rock wall. The new steel pitons of Yvon Chouinard protected the rock. Yvon realized from the very first beginning that doing something good for the environment while at the same time increasing revenue was actually possible.

Activists Patagonia painting scissor on dam to protest

Nowadays, Patagonia also supports grass roots activists by allocating 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. But Patagonia goes further than support; it protests against dams, the removal of natural parks and the loss of the ancestral land of indigenous people. That is what we call ‘walking the talk’. Social enterprises with a well-thought branding strategy realize the potential of their brand. These companies know the ‘why’ of their story and use that to create a powerful brand. 

Campaigns: the branding of Patagonia

So let’s take a look at the brand Patagonia and its different campaigns. It is impressive to see that most of the campaigns are not particularly related to the products of Patagonia. They truly understand that a brand has to sell a story and not a product. Nowadays, we see that this ‘story over product’ shift in marketing is used by nearly every company. But so many companies just sell stuff, without an innate meaningful story to it. Let’s look at Pepsi for example. They sell sugary beverage, which does not generally have an innate meaningful story for people. With that in mind, the big controversy around last year’s news about Pepsi’s advertisement is not a surprise. The ad, in which a TV celebrity offered Pepsi to a police man to calm down a protest, was in many ways bad and disrespectful. But it also showed us that traditional companies generally find it really difficult to create a personal and immersive brand experience that is connected to their product or service. Social entrepreneurs have a big advantage over traditional entrepreneurs and Patagonia realizes that. 

'Don't Buy this Jacket' ad from Brand of Patagonia

Photo: Patagonia advertisement from the Friday, November, 25, 2011 edition of The New York Times

Don't Buy this Jacket

This is crazy: paying for a full-page ad in the New York Times during the busiest shopping day of the year. The clear slogan of the ad is: ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’. Every marketing book tells the opposite and every ad aims at exactly the opposite. In fact our economic system as a whole is the opposite to these kind of messages.

Yet, this ad is brilliant.

It is brilliant, because this message results from the company’s deep believe. A deep belief that we all need to consume less to lighten our environmental footprint. We all use something from the planet the moment we produce something to sell or we buy something to consume. We all tackle issues of consumerism head on if a consumer thinks twice before buying a product. And if companies make less products but with a better quality. We don’t know if this counter intuitive ad has actually led to a more conscientious consumer. But what we do know, is that this ad is right in line with the social core of the company. It envisions a world ‘where we take only what nature can replace’. That is why it resonated to so many people.

Sandstone mountain formations in the desert of Utah

Saving Bears Ears National Monument

Home. That is how five indigenous tribes call this ancestral land in the United States. Former president Barack Obama proclaimed the Bears Ears National Monument. After the new president came in to office, the US government reduced 85% of the original size of 1.3 million acres of this area. Besides the loss of protections of oil and gas development in this area, there are indigenous cultures at real risk. People call Bears Ears a ‘Living Museum’. The history of Bears Ears is literally written in the canyons, on the rocks and the sandstone walls. Together with the Native American people in the Bear Ears, Patagonia is trying to prevent the government to damage this rich cultural history. Patagonia uses the company to raise its voice. The website of Bear Ears is a multiple media experience that is optimized for sound and VR. In this way visitors of the website are immersed into the touching stories of the Native Americans and their land. 

With this campaign, Patagonia positioned itself as a company that not only fights against global warming, but the brand broadened the horizon of their social goals. They now fight for the rights of indigenous people. We will have to see if Patagonia will push social justice to the forefront of its policy. Hopefully, this would not have been the only time they focus on this issue.

Screenshot website Blue Heart from Brand of Patagonia. Mountains and the text 'all dams are dirty'

Telling the Dam Truth

One of the latest campaigns of Patagonia is the fight against new hydropower dams. The hydropower dams will stop one of the last remaining wild water rivers in Europe and will have a damaging effect on local communities.

The design and the content are in good balance and the visual identity of the project is just amazing. With its separate moving elements that look like torn pictures, it gives the visitor of the website the right feeling of urgency. Patagonia really wants to stop the 3.000 new dams that are in the work from Slovenia to Greece. In every pixel of this website you know that they mean serious business.

If you take a closer look at the brand of Patagonia, ‘meaning serious business’ is what is so consistent to the brand. Every campaign is born from a deep believe. By giving a strong opinion about a social or ecological issue through a campaign, the brand builds a human connection with the public. Patagonia understands the unique potential of social enterprises: establishing a true connection with people by telling a meaningful story.

Storytelling of social enterprises

Now you probably think: ‘okay, wait! This is way too positive. Is this some kind of advertorial supported by Patagonia?’

Our answer is: nope, it is not. But as a branding agency supporting social enterprises it is so exciting and inspiring to see a global player act, think and talk in a way we want our clients to do as well. Branding a company is not easy. It takes time, energy, skills and courage to design a brand that resonates to the public. A brand that transforms your passion into a clear and appealing story.

A brand that tells the right story.

Patagonia is just a great example of the enormous potential of storytelling for social enterprises. The moment you start your own social enterprise, you have to remember that you already have a personal story. A story about growing a food forest in Indonesia, a story about building a community for refuge teenagers or a story about a person building steel pitons for climbers so the rock wall wouldn’t be damaged. The moment many social entrepreneurs start their business, they forget their unique, personal story. Become the new person that builds those steel pitons and then: tell your story.

Photo Niels Lap

Niels Lap
Founder of Lap.

Every company with impact deserves a story with impact.