buyer personas, oxygen

Ignoring Buyer Personas – Is The North Face Climbing without Oxygen?

One of the first tenets of inbound marketing is to build buyer personas to ensure understanding of your customer.   Marketers use research, interviews, and surveys to construct these archetypes of target buyers, and then craft messaging and content to appeal to them.   Buyer personas typically include the following:

  1. Background:  relevant information on job role, size and type of company
  2. Demographics:  gender, age range, household income, where they live
  3. Goals:  what they are trying to accomplish
  4. Challenges:  what gets in the way of accomplishing their goals
  5. How you help:  how your product or service helps them accomplish their goals
  6. Objections:  what you expect to hear from them as they consider your solution
  7. Where they buy:  what resources they use when researching and purchasing
  8. Jargon and quotes:  specific terminology they use when describing themselves, their problem, or desired solution

Here’s an example from Hubspot and one from Bizzuka.com.

Marketers use the buyer persona to build a  buying process map to illustrate the the stages of the buyer’s journey from awareness through purchase.   The goal is to ensure your website provides compelling content to each buyer persona at each stage of the buyer’s journey.  Marketers also use the buyer persona when building their sales presentations,  using the information to arm sales with a commercial insight  tailored to the unique capabilities of their solution.

Makes sense, right?  Well, apparently, not to one of the most well known consumer brands on the planet.   According to a recent New York Times article, The North Face pays no attention to key demographic information of their customer base.  Not their age, not their income, and certainly not their goals and challenges.  Instead, they focus their marketing efforts on four key activities:  mountains – hiking, trekking, climbing, snow sports, running and training, and the broadly defined “youth activities.”  Along with beautiful ads on-line, in catalogs, and in stores, it uses incredibly produced videos of serious athletes in the mountains – climbing, skiing and boarding, and running.  Their Never Stop Exploring integrated marketing campaign personalizes the  meaning of outdoor exploration in these areas.   So, does The North Face know something we don’t know?

In the Beginning, the Buyer Persona was Clear as the Mountain Sky

Two hiking enthusiasts, Doug and Susie Tompkins, started The North Face in San Francisco in 1966 as a retailer of high-end ski and camping gear.  From the very start, in choosing The North Face name, they focused on serious outdoors enthusiasts, since the north face of any mountain is the coldest, iciest, and most challenging to climb.  In 1968, Kenneth Klopp acquired the store, moved it to Berkeley, and began manufacturing mountaineering products.  It maintained its focus on the serious outdoor market even as it entered the sports wear market in 1996.  Promoted with the slogan “Cotton Kills,”  its all-synthetic Tekware® line kept climbers dry, warm, and safe by wicking away sweat.

Mainstream Expansion:  Massif Market Share and Exposure

The North Face was purchased in 2000 by North Carolina based VF Corporation, an $11B apparel and footwear company, which also owns Lee®, Wrangler®, and Nautica® brands.   The North Face is the leading brand of VF Corporation’s Outdoor & Action Sports category, which comprised 54% of total company revenue in 2012.  With major investment in advertising and branded stores, The North Face’s sales grew to $1.9B in sales in 2012, and its logo is now ubiquitous in cities and suburbs around the world.

Although still leading in market share against outdoor apparel competitors like Patagonia, Columbia Sportswear, and Mountain Hardware, The North Face risks alienating serious outdoor enthusiasts.   Its pervasive visibility  has begun to cast it as a “beginner’s” brand among those who are experienced in the outdoors, according to a Bloomberg article.   To counteract this trend, The North Face has increased its efforts on innovation, and close relationships with elite athletes to develop the technical features they require.

The Mainstream and the Long Tail:  Can Activity Based Marketing Address Both?

There are clearly two broad customer categories:  world class athletes, and the rest of us.   Perhaps activity based marketing makes sense for an aspirational brand like The North Face.  As long as it develops the technical features that serious mountain enthusiasts require, the rest of us may continue to aspire to, and be inspired by, those athletes.   Our demographics, goals, challenges, and jargon don’t matter.  We’ll continue to buy because we want to be like them.

For  global brand, this approach can be more flexible.  It allows expansion into other geographies, like China, as well as expansion into gear for seasons other than winter.    Perhaps The North Face isn’t ignoring buyer personas at all, but is taking an approach that doesn’t require them.

What do you think?  What is it about The North Face approach that makes sense to you?

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