Patagonia & The Art of the Mail Order Catalogue

Patagonia & The Art of the Mail Order Catalogue

“Our philosophies aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. They’re the keystones of our approach to any project, and although they are “set in stone,” their application to a situation isn’t. In every long-lasting business, the methods of conducting business may constantly change, but the values, the culture, and the philosophies remain constant.” – Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia

The way we decide what to buy can be boiled down to two questions:

Does it make sense? (features and price)

Does it feel right? (brand affinity)

A lot of businesses tend to treat these separately. They have a product team that designs the product, and they have a separate team that tries to sell it.

Conventionally, businesses tend to use the first question as the point of departure, letting features and price dictate the end result. The second question is left to the sales and marketing teams to figure out – usually by trying to communicate said features and price.

The result is communication that talks about product features that, especially in a commoditised market, are probably the same as their competitors. Leaving consumers feeling fairly neutral about the brand.

What if ‘feeling’ was given higher priority? What if the point of departure of product design was value-based first?

What if what the brand believes in is given more priority than what the market demands?

That’s the story of Patagonia.

Patagonia’s journey began as ‘Chouinard Equipment Ltd.’, a small company that sold climbing gear to the founder’s social circle and other climbing enthusiasts in the US.

At one point, the founder – Yvon Chouinard – realised that the metal climbing pitons they produced were actually damaging the very rock faces they were climbing, which led to the very first values-over-market decision they ever made.

They stopped selling their best selling product, and swapped to a cleaner alternative that their users weren’t familiar with. All because Chouinard felt that preserving the rock faces for future generations was more important than his company’s sales.

Piton damage on the face of Yosemite.

But when environmentally conscious climbers understood the reason for the change, they swapped to the new alternative almost immediately. 

And, as a result, began to trust that the decisions that Chouinard and his company were taking were good for the environment. Sales of the new product quickly eclipsed the pitons.

This mindset continued through the founding of Patagonia. Rather than just reacting to commercial market demands, the brand has thrived for decades by letting their values lead the way, making sure to let their audience know what they care about, and creating products that align with those shared values.

Chouinard and his clean climbing ‘chocks’.

They actively encourage repair over replacement. They streamlined production and distribution processes to cut down on resource waste. They focused product design on durability, providing customers with information on how to properly care for their gear. They pioneered the production and use of organic cotton. They developed long-term relationships with their suppliers to make sure overall standards are upheld, and helped those suppliers reach those standards when they weren’t.

And, essentially, they communicated all this through one of the earliest forms of what we call content marketing today – their mail order catalogue.

Printed mail order catalogues at the time were just that – product catalogues. Page after page of product after product. 

Patagonia did something a little different.

They used their catalogue to showcase their values first. 

They used beautiful photography of their favourite climbing spots. They shared articles about clean climbing. They petitioned their audience to contribute to environmental causes. They share stories from fellow climbers and adventurers. 

Then, they talked about their products. 

And even when they did talk about their products, they talked about the benefits that their core audience would actually care about.

A typical spread from a Patagonia catalogue.

By appealing to their audience’s values, they built a loyal following that believes that every decision Patagonia takes is in line with what they think is right for the world. Patagonia’s track record of having end-users either design or heavily influence their products also adds to that trust.

While features and price are still a key component of the decision-making process, the value match is a foregone conclusion so long as Patagonia sticks to this philosophy. The moment they sell out the brand for short term profit, that core audience will disappear, along with Patagonia’s future.

Naturally, catalogues are no longer the primary way with which Patagonia communicates with their audience. They use email, social media, advertising, ecommerce, etc., just like any other modern business. Yet, their philosophy of leading their operation, product design, and communication with what they care about hasn’t changed.

A typical Patagonia Black Friday ad.

I recommend anyone interested in learning more about Patagonia’s journey to read ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ – a memoir and brand guidebook written by their founder.

As you consider your own brand’s path forward, ask yourself: does every aspect of our communication and service/product offering reflect our core values, as Patagonia’s does?

Does a quick scroll through your social media or website tell the story of your brand beyond the technical features of what you sell?

Are your core values properly defined and followed to begin with?

It’s not just about standing out; it’s about standing for something.

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