What Are The Top Challenges Facing The Top Outdoor Clothing Brands?

In The Digital Marketing Blog by DaveLeave a Comment

Outdoor clothing and equipment brands have become increasingly fashionable amongst the younger generation. Walk down any street now and you’ll see North Face waterproofs, Rab down jackets, and even Berghaus… Walk into high street fashion chains more commonly associated with streetwear like Size and Urban Outfitters and you’ll see North Face & Patagonia on the shelves. Clearly, the audience has grown. It’s no longer just the uniform of the local BBC news reporter reporting from Cumbria in some sideways rain.

Some people refer to this group as millennials, which is a phrase I absolutely detest, but it is true that those people born between the mid-80s and mid-90s have been raised on a diet of Red Bull and Monster sponsored extreme sports events, gap years, websites like Mpora and Outside Online filling our social feeds with (admittedly, pretty epic) content and the GoPro advertising their latest Hero5 range with videos like this…

(Full screen and turn it up to 4K if you can – you won’t regret it)

You can argue any number of reasons behind the increase in popularity among the young. Perhaps a rejection of the modern, smart phone driven life (although it’s somewhat ironic that you’re going to need that very thing if you want to Instagram your latest #VanLife adventure), a less rigid 9-5 work schedule allowing such pastimes, or simply our more connected world allowing us to see a life that was always there, just less visible? Perhaps it’s simply seeing celebrities wearing outdoor gear as a fashion statement? See Drake below sporting both Patagonia and North Face:




Either way, it’s a market that’s currently booming. For example, in 2013 the daytime outdoor recreation industry was worth £21billion to the UK economy. If you take into account associated overnight stays (i.e hotels, b&b’s etc.), it jumps to £27billion. If you look across the pond there is over $120bn per year in sales alone (clothes, equipment etc.)

Like any retail sector it will face challenges and in this post I’ll be looking at the top 3 challenges that I feel they are currently facing. It turns out I have one main point to make and several smaller ones.

How do outdoor clothing brands become & remain relevant to the younger generation?

young people outdoors

A major problem to the outdoor clothing industry (though not exclusively) is the fact there is so much competition. I mentioned in a previous retail blog post I wrote that competition and relevance are vital to any brand. The outdoor clothing industry is no exception and they need to be able to keep customers bought into their philosophy for when fashion inevitably moves on. Whilst everybody knows the big players such as North Face, Berghaus, Rab, Jack Wolfskin etc., how do the smaller brands even get a look in? Well, it could be one of two ways. I’ve already shown you the GoPro video above (feel free to watch it again… I would) and one of the reasons I feel GoPro is so successful is not just because it makes great products, but that it hit the nail squarely on the head when it came to user generated content. It was so successful at getting people to film and share their adventures and exploits while using their cameras that nowadays, action cameras are often referred to simply as a GoPro. This is despite the fact that the likes of Sony, Garmin, Nikon and Olympus all make viable alternatives.

For brands to remain relevant they have to show that their products are relevant to the people of today. One way of doing this is to adopt an approach similar to these big companies and encourage user generated content. But… it’s going to be hard to outperform the big boys. You’re unlikely to outdo the likes of Red Bull and Go Pro on their content & social media marketing.

There may be a way though… This article from Outside Online hits the nail on the head:

(Pre-warning: it contains reference to that ‘Millennial’ word again)


In my opinion, it’s not just the price that could be the reason why some of these brands are struggling to appeal and seem relevant. Young consumers nowadays often have a social conscience and outdoor clothing and equipment brands will need to demonstrate that they do too. Can brands demonstrate that their products are environmentally friendly for example?

One example of this in practice comes just this year, and it’s a big company doing it… In brief, traditional wetsuits are made from neoprene which is petroleum based, energy intensive to manufacture and is non-renewable (FYI, a lot of boards themselves can be just as bad for the environment) and Patagonia have recently introduced a range of natural rubber wetsuits. For a sport which generally prides itself on being at least environmentally conscious, this could be a big way for Patagonia to garner long term brand loyalty.

Other ethical factors can also be considered; are your products ethically produced? At a company-wide level do you do your best to minimise your environmental impact? Do some of your profits go into charitable or community projects? These things could be the way for outdoor brands to truly resonate with young people who are so important to their futures.

It’s not just the brands though, what about the outdoor retailers? They can adopt this approach too. If you think of the major outdoor retailers you probably think of Blacks, Millets (same company), Cotswold and Go Outdoors and the reality is that we will probably go to whichever is closest or has an offer on. We feel no loyalty to either. In this industry, simply having the best prices, although certainly beneficial, may not be enough.

The approach of combining your products and your marketing to appeal directly to your key demographic is the way forward.

The Price of Outdoor Equipment

The elephant in the room is that outdoor clothing and equipment is effing expensive! I touched on it in my last point with the article I referenced but if the big outdoor brands (we’re looking at you North Face, Patagonia, Rab) want to get the younger generation on board then surely there has to be a concerted effort to introduce more cost effective ways for people to buy into your vision.

I’m actually a believer in ‘you get what you pay for’, and I get that a lot of the outdoor gear out there could take you to the north pole, but for a generation that has been squeezed by the global recession, rising rent and arguably poorer job prospects, many may be simply priced out.

But (there’s always a but), the risk of this is potentially cheapening and ultimately destroying the brand. Burberry is probably my favourite example of this, what was once a classic, iconic and high-end British fashion company became widely derided in the space of a few years.

Changing Marketing for Outdoor Clothing Brands

We mentioned at the start of the year that retailers and brands were going to have to change how they did things in 2016 in order to stay relevant and successful. As we’ve covered, the outdoor industry is no different and I would argue may actually be easier…

The outdoors is often inherently beautiful, it’s a way of life that many aspire to and therefore shouldn’t be hard to market but when I look at the marketing campaigns of these big companies we don’t see so much the ‘lifestyle’ brand that young people want, we see people on an adventure. We see people summiting Everest, climbing El Capitan and surfing waves larger than my house. All very impressive, but very few resonate…

top outdoor brands

Perhaps the outdoor industry should take a leaf out of the fashion industry’s book and start working closely with high profile bloggers and influencers. We know from our own work at SiteVisibility that this can be a very effective way to interact with your audience early-on in the funnel. We all know why Nike have made Cristiano Ronaldo the world’s highest paid athlete and why Pepsi paid Beyoncé $50m to sell their drink, but these people are unattainable and other-worldly celebrities. Bloggers are (mostly) like you and me; we can relate to them. Perhaps outdoor brands and retailers should start exploring influencer marketing on a larger scale, begin embracing user generated content or simply marketing a product that their audience can realistically attain?

I’d love to know what you think of my opinions; do you agree? Do you think they’re rubbish? Let us know in the comments below or on social @SiteVisibility – we’d love to chat.



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