Moving to Maine in a mask this year made me think about how grateful I am that I’ve personally been able to spend far more time outside. And I’m not alone. This past January, an Outside Magazine article found that in 2018, only 17.9% of the U.S. population got outside once a week. Once the pandemic started, a new study found that 43% of Americans over the age of 13 said they were planning on spending more time outside, and a separate study found that 6 in 10 Americans had “a new appreciation for nature.”
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that every company in the outdoor industry should be thriving. What better time to make canoes, or hammocks, or bikes or…well, anything that people use or wear outside? Instead of hearing bitter complaints about the cold this fall and winter, most people I know have shown a cheery gratitude for any semblance of “walkable” weather.
But, things aren’t that simple. An economic crisis and ongoing restrictions on tourism and travel mean that the new appreciation for Mother Nature hasn’t necessarily translated to booming business for everyone. And across the spectrum of outdoorspeople, there’s also been a renewed scrutiny—rightfully so—in the relationships between materialism and environmental issues.
Within this once in a lifetime moment of change, there are a few key things that I think any outdoor company can do to navigate the months, and years, to come:
1. Lean-in to environmentalism. Whether you’re ready or not, the time is now to reimagine the outdoor industry as being at the center of one of our society’s most critical issues. You can be a change agent and loved for it. You can and should directly address brand relevant climate issues. Raise awareness about environmental racism and injustice and what you’re doing about it. You can expand renewed interest in the outdoors in the form of positive self-sustaining initiatives. This is not about profiting from the pandemic. It’s about seeing your role in creating a broader purpose for our industry and giving it important new meaning.
2. Take some reinvention risks. Reimagine your entire product line and purpose. Align it with a broader cause and belief system authentic to who you are or aim to be as a brand and company. When Adidas went through a brand purpose exercise several years ago, they didn’t make their purpose “make amazing, sustainable shoes”—they made their brand purpose to save the ocean from plastic pollution. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is working with denim brands to “make fashion circular” and rethink harmful manufacturing practices. Not trying to tackle such big issues? Scale it down. Make water bottles? Include a branded regional trail map with each purchase to take a stance on accessibility. Make cross-country skis? Welcome newbies with a crash course on urban skiing via IGTV.
3. Prepare for what’s next. What will your consumers carry with them out of the pandemic? Does your marketing plan put you in a position to adapt to rapidly changing consumer behavior? How are you going to keep feeding and riding the waves of renewed interest in the outdoor activity?
Lastly, be good but always be you. Patagonia is Patagonia. Nike is Nike. You are something else. Business results don’t come as a result of made up ethics or morals. Your true brand personality, performance and purpose need to be re-framed in such a way as to be an authentic guiding light for your team. But, truly taking the nugget of goodness that’s at the heart of your outdoor company, and aggressively, fearlessly, perhaps even riskily, revolving your company around that? Done right, it can be a huge win for everybody. When good permeates everything you do, you will win hearts and minds and ultimately, business.