The North Face positioning brand for market leadership into the future

In August, The North Face's research, design and development team was restructured around four specific outdoor activity segments the company identified as being important to its future and necessary to support sustained growth -- outdoor, action sports, performance athletic and youth. Steve Rendle, president of The North Face, told SNEWS® that the idea was the result of 18 months of work that led to a restructure plan to "expand our business opportunities and strengthen our ability as a company to bring the best product possible to the consumer by focusing on an activity-based business structure. In addition, we will be able, as a result of this change, expand logically into new specialty points of distribution, increasing our touch-points with a broader consumer base."
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In August, The North Face's research, design and development team was restructured around four specific outdoor activity segments the company identified as being important to its future and necessary to support sustained growth -- outdoor, action sports, performance athletic and youth. Steve Rendle, president of The North Face, told SNEWS® that the idea was the result of 18 months of work that led to a restructure plan to "expand our business opportunities and strengthen our ability as a company to bring the best product possible to the consumer by focusing on an activity-based business structure. In addition, we will be able, as a result of this change, expand logically into new specialty points of distribution, increasing our touch-points with a broader consumer base."

For Rendle and team, the decision and steps that led up to the August reorganization began with intense discussions around what it meant to truly be a product leader, he told us.

"Everything that goes into being a product leader defines us to the end consumer," said Rendle. "This includes using our athletes and our expeditions as product testing grounds, which is one of the core things that has helped to define and direct the brand and made it special for 40 years.

Even in the challenging economy, Rendle noted that it was not just important to invest in materials and production resources and best-in-class processes, but equally important to evaluate how the company continues to look at the end consumer and know how that consumer uses The North Face products.

"Within the company, we have classifications of product -- outerwear, footwear, snowsports, activewear. We have reorganized our product teams around the four distinct areas of activities we identified as important to our consumers," Rendle told us.

"Outdoor includes anything that has to do with mountaineering, climbing, backpacking and bouldering, for example. Action sports has a winter focus on the snowboard and skiing product line, but we look at it from a 12-month perspective. Performance athletic is a potentially very large market that takes on a whole new set of competitors from an endurance trail running perspective -- running trail or road, training (yoga, indoor workouts, etc.), things you do to prepare yourself to train. And then we add in the youth business, and essentially break that into the three categories I just described above. What is very important with our youth business is ensuring we are designing and building products from an authentic voice that will enable kids to go outdoors with a team, with their family, or by themselves."

Rendle told SNEWS that the restructure and focusing of his product team's talents in a uniquely collaborative way allows The North Face to maximize efforts to extend the meaning of the company's brand into new activity disciplines, and, as a result, look for new specialty points of distribution.

"We will have new retailers accessing new consumers in very authentic and credible ways," said Rendle. "And to support that, we have a reorganized marketing team and now have refocused brand managers along with new expertise on our team from other industries -- all intended to help us craft authentic, credible marketing strategies that will drive sales in new and existing markets."

That means all The North Face's retail stores and its website will, by 2010, become a community touch point, where, according to Rendle, shoppers will feel they have arrived into a unique environment that is full of brand experiences, athlete interactions, expedition stories and more. All will be delivered through sight, sound and touch supported by retail staff who are experienced in the activities the stores represent.

It is all about "duffle-share" for Rendle. "The changes we have made to our teams, and the restructuring to our program, is all about ensuring the consumer has the opportunity to fill that travel duffel up with The North Face equipment and clothing authentically appropriate for every outdoor or action sports adventure they might want to experience."

But all this goes way beyond a basic reorganization for Rendle and team. The mood at The North Face and the team's marching orders now are all about providing an "exceptional brand experience" to the company's consumers.

"We used to be all about providing an exceptional customer experience," Rendle told SNEWS, "but that was not enough. Two years ago, we were providing that customer experience, but we were not anywhere close to getting product out in a fashion that should be expected from a product leader. We have refocused with VF (The North Face's parent company) with an emphasis on delivering efficiently and as expected using a brand-centric model of distribution.

"Our wholesale customers are very important to us as they sell our brand and represent our brand, and a high percentage of our business flows through wholesale," added Rendle. "In addition, we want to focus on our consumer, our retailers' stores and how the brand is merchandised, our website, our warranty and work to ensure that anyone who touches a consumer, even in an event, does so in a manner that reflects well on our brand."

To that end, Rendle and his team have spent a great deal of time building criteria and deliverables on how they want consumers to feel about The North Face as a brand. Beyond just the quality of product specs and how its developers and designers are working on seasonal product, the guidelines also dictate how any company employee or representative interacts with consumers and retailers in a social environment.

That means The North Face is now investing more than ever before to ensure all of its employees feel very good about the company and its core values, and are well versed in them.

"We have a whole new onboarding procedure. We're very focused with how we onboard our associates and connect them with the history of the brand. There is such a rich history around The North Face brand," said Rendle.

Part of that connecting comes through the opportunity for any employee in its headquarters to interact with athletes in residence. Rendle has mandated that an office be established to ensure that at all times, and on a rotating basis, at least one professional athlete, like Conrad Anker for example, is on hand for employees to have access to as a sounding board for a product or idea, or simply as a reminder of the company's heritage and connection to its expedition and performance roots.

Beyond all of the reorganization and training, Rendle told us he and his team are constantly asking themselves the question: "How do we continue to grow without selling out and in a sustainable manner that helps to grow participation?"

Some of the answers to that question can be found in the actions that The North Face as a company has recently taken, Rendle told us. The company now has one person focused on working with employees and the company in reducing their waste stream, developing more sustainable products and reducing the company's carbon footprint.

The company also continues to actively seek out local, regional and national programs it can work with that will help increase outdoor participation among all ages, but especially youth. Most often, it works with these programs by providing both financial support and encouraging and allowing employees to use work hours to support getting folks outside and falling in love with the outdoors, Rendle said.

SNEWS® View: In the last year, The North Face established a program to offset 100 percent of all its North American facilities energy use; became a member of Bluesign, the independent industry textile standard based in Europe; worked with the Environmental Protection Agency Climate Leaders program to measure greenhouse gas emissions to begin a greenhouse gas reduction strategy; reached agreements with EI Solutions and Recurrent Energy to host a 1MW solar energy system at its West Coast distribution center, which will power more than 25 percent of its energy and eliminate more than 1,300 metric tons of CO2 annually; made a $1 million donation to Conservation Alliance Legacy Fund earlier this year; and began collaborating with the Children & Nature Network to sponsor the Natural Leaders program, which is designed to guide and develop young adults, ages 14-24, in the outdoors, ensuring youth leadership dedicated to getting their peers outdoors.

Oh yeah…the company also celebrated its 40th anniversary. Say what you will about the outdoor industry giant, it is working as hard if not harder than most to do more than just walk the talk. We'd say it is working to lead by example. Even in this challenging economic climate, that's the kind of example we need much more of.

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