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What Active Lifestyle Brands Can Learn from Silicon Valley

By Paulo Ribeiro

What does startup land have to teach brands way over in the active lifestyle space? 

Not everything. Not even most things, but there are a few really powerful ideas that if applied correctly can help a sleepy brand wake the hell up. 


In THIS classic post Marc Andreessen explains this fundamental concept and why it is so powerful for startups and particularly software companies. I’ve spent almost half of my career working in Silicon Valley and the other half working in very different business cultures (NY and PDX). But, there is much more to learn from one another than you might think at first…

Generally Silicon Valley marketers don't understand brand strategy. Here comes the hate mail. As a pool they have depth in growth marketing, performance marketing, product marketing. All of the technical specialties are table-stakes, but they don’t really understand brand strategy as a group. Related: Marketing is often confused with Advertising as this post highlights.

[Buried in the comments Seth sets the brand position straight]

There is an amazing contrast of technical sophistication in SV with a lack of understanding of the creative arts. But, I digress. That isn’t the topic of this post. 


Most of the active lifestyle brands we’ve worked with found product-market fit decades ago. They don’t talk about it that way. But finding product market fit was a challenge that preceded the current crop of employees. Borrowing this notion can provide an incredibly helpful strategic framework for evolving their customer base and entering new markets. 


So many marketing briefs start from the assumption that the tactics are fixed, and maybe even the audience is fixed, so the only thing we can play with is the message. Which is crazy of course. But sadly it is the norm. 

Just because the core business operates one way doesn’t mean that each product line needs to go to market the same way. This is where the framework of Product-Market fit is super useful. Think of the market you are targeting as a ‘use case’ that can be defined by an audience and a behavior. And think of your product as the way you choose to serve that use case. By thinking about these as two variables the strategic playing field opens up significantly. But you have to tackle each of those assignments with clarity. Know which is which and play with each. Each of these two variables create opportunities to change the target audience definitions, the channels and tactics the creative briefs that generate new ideas. All it requires is borrowing a bit of wisdom from Silicon Valley. I said a ‘bit of wisdom’ they have blind spots too. 😉


These are two totally different things. We need to stop confusing them. 


As a marketer you should have a clear understanding of who your buying customers are. This might vary by business unit, product line and channel. There are so many tools at your disposal to paint a picture of who is buying your product via each channel whether direct or through retail partnerships, whether IRL or URL. 


The audience(s) that your marketing targets should also be clearly defined even if a significant portion of your spend is programmatic or performance in nature.

If your customer and your target are thought of as the same thing internally, then good job! You’ve captured the Total Addressable Market and you aren’t needed any longer.

Thank you for your service. I’m kidding of course but it's shocking how often this basic distinction is confused. 

The relationship between these two profiles are huge levers for marketing. Are they the same types of people? Are they vastly different? What is the relationship between the customers you have and the audience you wish to serve? What is the profile of someone who experiments and drives trial? What is the behavior of a loyal customer?  If you don’t know then start your work with questions like these. Define hypotheses and test them. You’ll find that almost everything stems from starting to paint this picture.

It's totally and completely cliche up and down the San Francisco Peninsula to talk about how many failed ventures entrepreneurs have been a part of. Why? Because of the widely held belief that you need to go big and if you fail then you LEARNED. It's so widespread that it has become a boring introduction up and down the SF peninsula. Baked inside of that overused backhanded compliment however, is a way of operating that many in the outdoor industry ignore thinking everything has been established. The weird thing is that this is not at all how many of their founders operated. 


Dave Lane and Jeremy Guard knew nothing about waterproofing jackets when they started Rock Solid Manufacturing in 1989. They just knew there was a better way to make a harness. Nor did they know the 140-million year old fossil that inspired their name change and logo (Arc’teryx) would become one of the most recognizable icons in outdoor gear—synonymous with quality and caliber. 


Yvonne Chouinard didn’t know much about business, in fact, he just wanted to find a way to keep adventuring. After setting up a blacksmith shop in 1957, Chouinard’s hand-made pitons quickly caught on like wildfire in the climbing communities. But in early 1989, the company—Chouinard Equipment—filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the assets of the company were purchased by former employees…eventually forming Black Diamond Equipment. And Chouinard? Well, he kept climbing…so much so that after a trip to Scotland in 1970, he realized there was an appetite for high-quality clothing for climbers. And then one inspirational trip down to Argentina with the future The North Face founder and best friend Doug Thompkins, Patagonia was born. 


Roy and Ryan Seiders didn’t know their coolers would upend the market, they first wanted to build cool fishing rods and custom, aluminum fishing boats so they could keep doing what they loved outdoors. Instead, they found themselves frustrated with the cooler options available and sought to build the best, most rugged, protective cooler out there. Hello, Yeti.

THIS Is a good example of embracing experimentation and failure today. We know for a fact that Nike has applied lessons learned from experiments like this to their subscription strategies.


Flirting with failure is core to many active lifestyle brands’ origin. It should be core to their marketing strategies as well.


Which is of course related to celebrating failure. Co-labs have become the default method of driving news for brands in this space. And no doubt there have been some really fantastic and unexpected ones Nike X Tiffany’s is a great example. But this is classic borrowed interest strategy. Which is not dissimilar from casting celebrities that come with their own followings in advertising. It works, but it's short lived. It drives quick hype and then it's over. REI put climbing walls in their stores over 20 years ago. Nike pushed virtual shoe drops starting in 2016. After the pandemic shutdowns we have an opportunity to reinvent how brands meet customers. Who will take the next leap to stand out from the herd?

[Buried in the comments Seth sets the brand position straight]

If your customer and your target are thought of as the same thing internally, then good job! You’ve captured the Total Addressable Market and you aren’t needed any longer.

Flirting with failure is core to many active lifestyle brands’ origin. It should be core to their marketing strategies as well.

[Buried in the comments Seth sets the brand position straight]

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