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Why Patagonia Succeeded With Its Social Message

By Melissa Baratta | On December 8, 2017

Earlier this week President Trump announced a plan to drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. If it passes, it’ll be the largest reduction of protected lands in U.S. history. The announcement has been stirring for months, and although some local officials and large corporations are enthusiastic about the turn of events, it was met with great criticism from environmentalists, the Native American community, and the general public. A few outdoor retailers – Patagonia, REI and North Face – also immediately jumped on the issue, with Patagonia going so far as to change its whole website to black, write a lengthy blog post, and issue a statement saying it would sue.

The media ate it up. AdWeek ran a feature on the campaign, and pushed it out over its newsletter the next day. DMNews ran a feature too, then Slate, then Forbes, and today Bloomberg ran one. Customers have embraced them, thanking them for boldly taking action.

Over the last year, many brands have spoken out on social issues they have felt strongly about. Some have won, and many have lost. And in some cases, brands have even been criticized and boycotted by their customers for NOT speaking out. According to the DM News article above, “We’ve entered a new era of activism…retailers no longer have the option of sitting on the sidelines.” If this is true, what can we learn from the success of Patagonia’s campaign?

If you’re going to put your brand out there and take a stand on a social issue, there are a few good lessons to be learned from what Patagonia got right this week. Here are some key things to keep in mind:

  1. Keep the issue close to your brand. There is a reason why Patagonia, REI and North Face jumped on the issue of reducing national monuments – and it isn’t simply because it’s a “feel good” topic about keeping the land wild, open to all and free from development. The brands all depend heavily on their customers having access to national parks in order to enjoy the outdoors, and thus, to use their products. When speaking out, they talked about the importance of protected lands to the outdoor economy. Although this is a social and political issue at heart, it is one that aligns very closely with their brands, so these companies could safely bet that their target audiences would back them up, and perhaps even become more loyal than before.
  2. Gather data – be the voice of reason. In the era of fake news and loose arguments, your brand needs to be trustworthy. Straight emotion will not win you much favor. That means having the facts straight and backing up your statements with data. Patagonia did just that, coming armed with facts such as how protected lands power a whopping $887 billion outdoor economy and support 7.6 million jobs – significantly more than the oil or coal mining economy that would likely take over the land – and protected areas also significantly boost the economies of communities nearby. To really hit home, the company changed its whole home page to list facts and data about why public lands should remain public vs. go private, and then pointed readers to a blog post that offered more detailed data points.
  3. Have statements + social media prepared. While most media attention was positive, the Trump administration did come after Patagonia on social media, which was picked up by CNN. Social media moves incredibly quickly, and if you’re speaking out on a social issue, you need to be prepared to handle social media inquiries almost immediately. Be prepared for every scenario. Don’t wait for the negative comments to come in before you figure out if you’re going to respond or what you’ll say. Be prepared in advance.
  4. Expect some backlash. Despite your best efforts, the truth is, when you comment on a polarizing social issue you will not win over everyone. These outdoor brands received mainly positive feedback, but Patagonia did still get a few snarky comments on its blog post – presumably from some customers. If you speak out, you have to be prepared to potentially alienate and even lose some of those customers. The flip side of that is you may endear other customers for life, and even win some new ones.

Melissa Baratta

Melissa is a Senior Vice President at Affect, where she uses her extensive background working with technology and healthcare companies to raise her clients’ brand profiles and position them as thought leaders in their respective industries. As an expert in stakeholder communications, she is adept at helping clients develop creative ways to communicate thoughtfully with their key audiences. Prior to joining Affect, Melissa served as Managing Director for Ricochet Public Relations.