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Know Your Audience: Why Patagonia Can Sue the President — and Thrive

Image credit: Bernd Zeugswetter/Patagonia

Last week, in response to President Trump’s decision to scale back Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, outdoor retail brand and sustainability leader Patagonia in turn announced it would be suing the President, a definitively bold move — even for the likes of the brand that brought us “Don’t Buy This Jacket” and “100% for the Planet.”

In the past year, we’ve seen brands — sometimes willingly, other times forcibly — thrust into the national political conversation and all that comes with it, from castigation to commitments of support. Even companies that have traditionally kept quiet on political issues have jumped into the fray, from IBM’s support of DACA to Merck’s CEO’s departure from Trump’s manufacturing business council after the Charlottesville protests. And sometimes, the reactions have been extreme. In the past year, we saw consumers boycott everything from yogurt to cereal to hot dogs. Yet, this is the first time we’ve seen a brand be so brazen, so direct in its opposition to the Commander in Chief, with the rallying cry “The President Stole Your Land” plastered over Patagonia’s website, email blasts and social media presence. Marketers across the nation are wondering: Can even Patagonia pull off such a bold move and not only survive, but thrive? And if so, what can other brands learn from this?

How Patagonia’s move stacked up on social

To answer this question, we took to the best resource we have to check the immediate pulse on a brand campaign: the conversation on social media. A scan of the online conversation from December 1 through December 11* revealed a few telling signs. Total conversation around Patagonia and its support of Bears Ears generated more than 15,000 mentions with more than 11,000 unique authors. A pronounced spike occurred on December 5 — with nearly 5,000 posts — the same day Patagonia put a full-court press on its announcement. Trending topics included “public lands,” “President,” “largest land heist in our history,” “sad” and “defend the lands you have left.”

As all marketers know, just because you’ve generated a conversation around your brand, doesn’t mean it’s a good conversation for your brand. Although volume is part of the story, it’s certainly not the whole story. So, we dove deeper. After analyzing each tweet, we found the conversation was good — really good: Eighty-seven percent of overall sentiment around the Patagonia/Bears Ears conversation was supportive, as compared with 7 percent neutral and 6 percent oppositional. In fact, Patagonia’s own hashtag #MonumentalMistake accounted for 62 percent of overall hashtag usage, totaling more than 11,300 mentions, compared to the second most popular #StandwithBearsEars, at 10 percent of the conversation. In contrast, #BoycottPatagonia garnered just 4 percent of overall hashtag usage, with 674 individual posts and a second oppositional hashtag, #NoPatagonia, commanded even less of the overall conversation with under 160 individual posts and 1 percent of overall usage.

And certainly, while tweets may be an initial indicator of success, they don’t pay the bills. Should history repeat itself, however, Patagonia will be in good shape. Patagonia’s bold moves typically result in dollar signs — from a 30 percent sales increase after “Don’t Buy This Jacket” to a record-breaking $10 million in sales last Black Friday (all of which the company donated to grassroots organizations working in local communities to protect our air, water and soil for future generations) — five times the expected amount.

What (or who) propels a campaign like ‘The President stole your land’?

So, how can going head-to-head with the President ever come out as a positive move for your brand? Simply put, Patagonia knows its audience. Analysis** of Patagonia’s Twitter followers reveals some distinct personas. In alignment with the products it sells, fans include “hikers,” “climbers,” “surfers,” “yogis” and “runners” — all, you may assume, are passionate about the great outdoors. But beyond passions for a specific outdoor activity, Patagonia also has followers who just simply love nature, including “outdoor enthusiasts” and “environmentalists.” Then there’s the grab bag of other followers who fall into categories such as “digital marketers” (like myself), “southern Millennials” and “fashionistas.”

Yet, another unique persona is a group of followers we call “social justice liberals,” who are passionate about hot-button social and environmental issues and have an affinity for following liberal influencers and leaders within the Democratic party. Although “social justice liberals” make up just 6 percent of Patagonia’s total Twitter audience, their engagement is off the charts — this group creates more Twitter content than any other. In fact, social justice liberals post an average of 29 times a month — or 2,980 times a day as a group, versus the “surfer” who averages about seven tweets a month. Combine that with “environmentalists,” who contribute upwards of 19 posts a month, and you’ve got a sizeable segment ripe to rally. And this is really the crux of it: This group of supporters is what gives Patagonia the permission and license to go big and bold — connecting beyond product attributes on issues that matter.

We can’t all “pull a Patagonia,” but here’s what we can learn from it

Not only did Patagonia go “all in” on a provocative, headline-grabbing announcement, it tapped into its most vocal online advocates, activating an enthusiastic and engaged audience to further amplify its message and override any negative conversation. And although having a primed consumer base is part of Patagonia’s success, it’s definitely not the entire picture. Patagonia can pull off such a bold move with minor backlash because the company has painstakingly built Purpose into the very bedrock of its organization. Patagonia’s Purpose, or authentic role and value in society that allows it to simultaneously grow its business while positively impacting the world, has been carefully curated over decades. And once Purpose is deeply embedded into an organization such as Patagonia, it is uniquely positioned to build deeper bonds with existing consumers — as we saw the chatter around “The President Stole Your Land” expand its consumer base by leading with an issue, rather than a product attribute; and finally, amplify its brand message by enlisting its loyal and loud following (cue “social justice liberals”).

So, what can we learn from the Patagonia playbook? Here are six takeaways:

  1. Have a firm grasp of your brand, its values and beliefs, as well as its role in society. Or more simply, define your organization’s Purpose.
  2. Understand your consumer base and what matters to them — connect with consumers in ways that go far deeper than product attributes.
  3. Take a stand, but make sure you are walking the talk with programs, policies and commitments.
  4. Understand your company’s level of risk (because we can’t all be Patagonias, after all).
  5. Give your passionate advocates the tools to spread your message.
  6. Foster a conversation — and whatever you do, don’t back down.

In these turbulent times, staying silent can oftentimes be more damning for a brand than standing up for an issue. And with the right planning and understanding of your brand audience, taking a bold stance can not only be a source of pride, but a positive reputation and revenue generator.

 

*Methodology: Brandwatch scan of Patagonia social media conversation from December 1, 2017 – December 11, 2017. Hashtags tracked included #keepitpublic, #monumentalmistake, #unitedoutside, #standwithbearsears, #protectwildutah, #savegrandstaircase, #savebearsears, #boycottrei, #boycottpatagonia and #nopatagonia.

**Methodology: Affinio analysis of @patagonia Twitter followers from June-July 2017.


Whitney Dailey guides agency brand strategy, marketing and thought leadership as the director of marketing at Cone Communications. With a strong background in CSR, sustainability and social impact issues and deep understanding of Cone’s mission and culture, Whitney positions Cone… [Read more about Whitney Dailey]


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