It’s not rare to spot trendy teenagers rocking the Patagonia logo these days. Just another short-lived fashion trend? Nope. Patagonia is an iconic Californian brand founded in 1973 with a marketing philosophy that could make most of the latest hypebeast fads go pale. Values like authenticity, love for the environment and a hardcore passion for the outdoors are the roots behind the brand’s unique marketing and communication efforts. This is how they do it, and what we can learn from it.

Yes, this is a real shot from Patagonia's Spring 1995 catalogue. / Credits - Patagonia

I spent the last two weeks reading Let My People Go Surfing, the autobiography of Yvon Chouinard – legendary climber, businessman, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia, Inc. The man has lived a truly fascinating life. He spent years climbing in both hemispheres, facing some of the most challenging peaks on the planet. He then took his experience into building an Earth-first brand, juggling between environmental activism and business meetings. What Let My People Go Surfing does so well is not only narrating Patagonia’s captivating growth journey, but also exploring why and how it has become such a role model for ethical, successful entrepreneurship – dissecting its key philosophies and sharing some enlightening lessons that other brand builders can benefit from.

Talking marketing, Patagonia’s philosophy is pretty straightforward. They tell people who they are. Clean and simple. Writing fiction is much harder than non-fiction after all, right? Patagonia’s image arises directly from its core values – the contagious love for climbing and the outdoors, the primordial passion for wilderness, the ambition to leave the planet in a better state for the future generations. There are four key pillars the brand relies on to shape its marketing strategy across all consumer touchpoints. Let’s look at what they are and what lessons can be learnt from them.

A very recommended read. / Credits - Patagonia

#1 Telling the entire story

According to Yvon Chouinard, communicating solely through advertising is not enough anymore. Advertising has become a virtual world of fast-moving, vacuous images, words and sounds – capable of grabbing attention but not to hold it. Patagonia needs undivided attention to tell its story. For this reason the brand’s main communication medium is a different, established and rather traditional one… the catalogue. Yes, a good old catalogue. Patagonia’s catalogue is the base for all other touchpoints – from the website, to retail displays, press releases and videos – setting the pictorial and editorial standards to narrate its complex history, values and product details. It is a true piece of advertising art, the most intimate line between Patagonia’s core and its consumers. It might reach less people than a mass-scale TV ad but the quality of those interactions makes all the difference.

LESSON. Don’t get lost in advertising. Promotion is important (as you will read later on) but a well-thought story is more important. Get your brand basics right and only then start spreading the voice through the right channels.

#2 Photography

Since its early days Patagonia has been using photos of real consumers to showcase their gear on most communication assets. Why? As Chouinard puts it, “A photo of a real climber (…) on a real rock climb and showing a little skin can be a lot sexier than a half-naked nameless New York model posing as a climber“. Nothing to add.

LESSON. Put consumers front and center in communications. It makes the brand feel human. People will recognise it.

#3 Copy

Since storytelling is so critical to Patagonia, it’s not a surprise that copy plays a fundamental role in the brand’s marketing strategy. Patagonia uses two basic kinds of copy across its channels: personal stories – illustrating the company’s values and causes it cares about; and descriptive copy – to explain the products in detail. Both are fact-heavy, accurate and straight to the point (remember, it’s all about being real). Most importantly they are written for the consumers as though the brand was the consumer in an engaged, intelligent and trusted fashion – the kind of qualities Patagonia wants to be associated with.

LESSON. Don’t underestimate the power of copywriting. Having a good story is just half of the job. Knowing how to tell it in a way that captivates consumers is the other critical element.

#4 Promotion

Branding is telling people who we are. Promotion is selling people on our product.” The brand has three general guidelines when it comes to promotion. The first is to inspire and educate rather than promote. After all, a sell is simply the consequence of sparking a functional or emotional need in the consumer. The second is to earn credibility, not buying it. Word-of-mouth recommendations or favourable comments in the press are far more useful to Patagonia than one-way targeted advertising. The third is to advertise only as a last resource and in specific channels such as sport magazines. In particular, tactical advertising is the go-to messaging for Patagonia – from new product announcements to new store openings.

LESSON. There are a many different learnings from this last pillar but the most useful for me is the importance of earned media. Everyone can shout about how good they are. Only a few can get others telling them how good they are. Make sure you belong to the second category!

If you’ve read the book Let My People Go Surfing I’d love to hear your thoughts on it too – drop a comment below or swing over to @dailyadcoffee on Instagram.


Brand Manager by day, I edit AdCoffee by night. And I don't even drink coffee.
Get in touch?

Hey, you. If you liked this post, you should get the next ones straight to your inbox.

All AdCoffee posts are meant to be consumed quickly, just like your favourite espresso. They are fairly sporadic so there’s no risk of inbox cluttering and you might even end up learning a little something new. Worth the try, right?