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March 1, 2018

Authenticity in the Outdoor Space

MHT Partners  | Consumer Investment Bank

Poser – /ˈpōzər/ noun:  a person who acts in an affected manner in order to impress others. We can’t think of anyone who would enjoy being labeled with that moniker.  Given enthusiasts’ hyper vigilance when it comes to proper bona fides in the outdoor industry, you’re much more likely to hear it, or a related term, tossed around on ski slopes rather than a sidewalk.  While there are many attributes that outdoor and enthusiast brands want associated with their products – durability, fashion, sustainability, social impact . . . arguably the most important is authenticity.  Without being deemed authentic, brands risk being lumped into the “also-ran” category of copycat gear – perhaps attractive to folks buying based on price, but unlikely to garner the attention of the most serious practitioners of the outdoor arts.

Admittedly, authenticity is a bit of a chicken and the egg conundrum.  Companies desire the elite, the trend setters in their respective markets, to utilize their products, thereby providing exposure to the masses, driving increased awareness and demand.  The elite players only want the best, and have neither the time, money, nor volition to go out and canvass the landscape in order to give every nascent brand the tryout it may or may not deserve.  Obviously, up-and-coming brands establish authenticity by searching out up-and-coming trend setters, the superstars of tomorrow, and either provide them with free products or sponsor them to wear gear.  They hope that these budding icons will come to adopt their brands as part of their identity, and as they climb the rungs of the pro-athlete ladder, remain loyal brand evangelists.  Endorsements and incentives are all well and good, but it is important to remember that products’ performance must be consistently outstanding throughout the harshest of trials.  A ripped tent fly during a storm at 17,000 feet elevation can be disastrous.  Disappoint one of your brand ambassadors in the outdoor arena, and you’ll soon find yourself looking for a new one.

So, what happens when brands gain a toehold in an established niche, and then perhaps grow that into a hearty slice of the overall market?  Do success and wide acceptance threaten the authenticity that got you there in the first place?  There will always be consumers who feel that anything marketed to the masses has, by definition, lost its edge, but by and large, people have accepted that commercial success and authenticity are not mutually exclusive.  In the outdoor and enthusiast arena, Northface, Patagonia, Under Armor, and lululemon are all extremely well established.  Their products are seen in every town across America, and much of the world.  Yet, they are still sported by the elite performers who will ask a lot more of their gear than the average person on Main Street.  In short, they have grasped the brass ring of the outdoor market – make premium products for the most demanding of customers, and sell them to the masses at a nice premium.  Authenticity is not only a brand’s foundation, but also good business.

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