Harnessing the power of "trail magic"

5 questions for Sue Harvey-Brown, director of consumer experience marketing for Merrell
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What’s more important to today’s consumer—the product, or the story behind it? 

In a crowded outdoor market, the determining factor has increasingly come down to the brand’s background and what it stands for, says Sue Harvey-Brown. 

She has seen firsthand the power of brand storytelling in her 20 years at Wolverine Worldwide (Merrell’s parent company). That’s included five years as global marketing director for Patagonia Footwear (where sustainability and story were king), and her current role managing Merrell’s ambassadors, partnerships, and field marketing, where she comes in direct contact with the outdoor enthusiasts who drive the industry. Merrell’s latest campaign, Merrell Magic, is built around capturing and sharing their stories through an on-trail outreach program.

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How are today’s outdoor marketing campaigns shifting focus? Do consumers care about more than just product?

SHB: It’s less about pushing product and more about the authentic content, culture, and storytelling. While we believe thoughtful design and performance are key, consumers want to engage with brands they admire and respect, and with whom they share common values. It all depends on the individual, but in general consumers are looking for brands that are approachable, transparent, and add value to their lives. Some of the questions they may ask themselves include: “Does the brand share the same values? Does it support causes that are important to me? Does it provide helpful how-tos and knowledge? Does it inspire and/or entertain me?” The product (quality, fit, style, value, etc.) is crucial, but so is what you stand for as a brand.

What is trail magic, and how did Merrell include some of those storytelling concepts in a new marketing strategy built around it?

SHB: Trail magic is a term people use for random acts of kindness on trails like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. For us it was celebrating the people – those who hike the trails as well as those who maintain them. We wanted to get their stories out there to inspire others to unplug and adventure and hike more—and to spread their own trail magic. So we went out on the trail to find them, and in partnership with BACKPACKER, captured their stories. On the PCT, we provided some trail magic of our own by suprising worn-out thru-hikers with a night in a nice hotel, taking them out for a meal, doing their laundry, and then putting them back on the trail where they left off. We also hosted a surprise pizza party for student volunteers working on the trails at Mt. Rainier National Park, and set up a lemonade stand in the middle of the Moab, Utah desert about a mile or two into a trail to give folks refreshment and hear their stories.

What are some of the best responses you’ve heard?

SHB: There are so many wonderful stories, and I don’t want to spoil what we are releasing with BACKPACKER in March. I did have the honor of interviewing one PCT thru-hiker who brought me to tears because of how he articulated what hiking the trail and his trail family has meant to him. The words he used to describe the contrast between technology and work and the simplicity of nature and the trail were so profound. The trail brought him a lot of therapy and clarity.

Connecting with the high school students volunteering for the Student Conservation Association at Mt. Rainier was also a highlight. Each of their backgrounds, “whys” for volunteering, and experiences on the trail were so different. One had a love for the outdoors and his mother suggested he volunteer for SCA. Another had never hiked or volunteered before. He had just completed his junior year of high school. While he was playing video games, he felt that he had done nothing to make a difference in his four years of high school and decided that he would volunteer for the SCA. None of the students knew each other, but still made the selfless choice to dedicate two weeks of their summer vacation to work on the trails with strangers.

4. Are these “real people” stories in marketing playing better with audiences today versus celebrities and superstars endorsing product?

SHB: I think so. These people are approachable, they have day jobs and families, and because of that, they can be more relatable and inspiring to consumers. But it’s still a balance. There are still athletic consumers who are very performance driven, and they look up to those at the top of their fields for inspiration.

A brand is a reflection of the people who work for it and represent it, so we don’t take that lightly. Regardless of where they are on the performance scale, our ambassadors must be humble and kind human beings who make a difference in their sport or community.

5. What does your brand get out of this type of project? How about the broader market?

SHB: The actual campaign—meaning the sharing of the content we captured—doesn’t kick off until March, so we haven’t gotten direct feedback yet. But our intent is to share the stories to inspire others to get out on the trails more. The more they get out on the trail, the more advocates we have for public lands. And for the broader audience, the stories of the people is what will resonate.

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