what your underwear says about you

My Patagonia catalog arrived in the mail today and I was reminded once again of all the things the Patagonia brand does that don’t seem to make sense — but they do.  The catalog’s inside cover spread,


featuring a picture of fallen rock climber Zoe Hart and the story about her breathtaking fall and valiant recovery, captivated me…and yet it seemed to have nothing to do with Patagonia.

I mean, perhaps the clothes and shoes which Zoe is wearing in the photograph are from Patagonia — but there was no indication of such — and even if they are, you can’t really see them very well or read any information about them.  Plus, they’re shown on Zoe as she lies in agony after her 30 foot fall —  I’m guessing most brands wouldn’t want their products shown in such a graphic context.

But that’s the point — Patagonia isn’t like most brands.  In fact, one could argue there is no other brand quite like it.  The company does things which leave most other businesses baffled.  Recently it got some buzz from its move to remove all packaging from its underwear  — take a look at the video from Fast Company in which Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard explains how much pushback he initially got from his team when he suggested making this change.

Other examples of Patagonia’s unique operations:

  • it doesn’t confirm to industry practices — 16 of the 60 pages in its most recent catalog (over 25%) did not feature any products (2 of the pages were devoted to whooping cranes — yes, birds)
  • exceeding generosity to its employees — it has an on-site child care center which it started back in the early 1980’s long before the practice was even considered by most companies — and it subsidizes a portion of the center’s operating costs so that employees can pay lower rates than they would elsewhere
  • a faithful corporate steward — boom or bust, it gives 10% of its profits each year to small groups working to save or restore habitat
  • willingness to be transparent and vulnerable to criticism — a few years ago it introduced a groundbreaking program, Footprint Chronicles, which allows people to track the carbon footprint of its products from manufacturer to point of purchase
  • some pretty unbelievable innovations — the fabric of its Synchilla fleece is made out of post consumer recycled plastic soda bottles

I could go on — but instead, I’ll simply recommend you read the book, “Let My People Go Surfing,” a memoir/manifesto from Chouinard.  It is one of the best studies on “brand-as-business” — that is, how a company operationalizes its brand values.  The stories and principles relayed in the book provide a strong challenge to the way most people build a brand and run a business.

Which brings me back to my original point:  the Zoe Hart catalog spread which stopped me in my tracks was such a departure from the product- and sales-oriented catalogs du jour — it seemed to have nothing to do with Patagonia, but in fact, it had everything to do with it.

The Patagonia brand is all about courage, commitment, and challenging conventions — in everything it does.

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  • Great post, thanks. Gives one pause and a little hope.

  • Craig

    I once read that the founder of Patagonia was approached about hiring some “new talent” including some MBA’s, and he turned it down flat saying something to the effect that “I won’t hire a bunch of business people – they’ll ruin the company.” I think you’re right on, they are a brand-as-business. They built the culture and the brand first, then learned how to sustain it with profits. Great post and great call out.

    I also read somewhere that Gore, makers of GoreTex, are of a similar nature…