Friday, December 18, 2009

The North Face and Bad Press

The North Face has done an absolutely spectacular job of supporting climbing athletes and climbing causes over the years. It has been a major sponsor of climbing events like Red Rock Rendezvous (an event that the American Alpine Institute also sponsors). And they have lobbied for sustainability and environmental protection. In other words, they've done a lot of good. Indeed, these are all things that make us feel good about the entire outdoor industry. It's an industry that cares. It's an industry that gives back. It's an industry that's just full of good people...

But occasionally a company does something that hurts that image. Unfortunately, the North Face has fallen into such a trap. And this trap is big and public and dangerous for their image.

On December 14th, the Associated Press reported the following:

ST. LOUIS — The North Face Apparel Corp. is suing a small suburban St. Louis-area company called The South Butt and the teenager who started it. The lawsuit filed last week in federal court in St. Louis seeks unspecified damages and asks the court to prohibit The South Butt from marketing and selling its parody product line.

The North Face says it does not comment on pending litigation.

The South Butt's attorney, Albert Watkins, says the company was started by 18-year-old Jimmy Winkelmann to help pay for college. It puts out products with the tag line "Never Stop Relaxing," a parody of The North Face line, "Never Stop Exploring."

The parody company sells T-shirts, fleece jackets and sweatshirts on its Web site.

Okay, so let me get this right... The North Face is suing a teenager because his product is similar to theirs?

The North Face and The South Butt
Jimmy Winkelmann is the owner of The South Butt

Somebody at the North Face headquarters must have missed the memo that that said this would be national news. Somebody else missed the memo that said that if you do this, the South Butt's sales will skyrocket (which has reportedly happened). And somebody else missed the memo that the company would be mocked for such a move by the very people that they are trying to sell their products to. Check out this forum and this forum and this forum. In addition to the forums, there are countless blogs that are bagging on the North Face for this move.

In recent years there have been some complaints about a loss of quality in some of the company's products. Whether these complaints are founded or not is beside the point. Ten years ago everybody in the mountains owned a North Face jacket. Now only a fraction of the people out there are wearing the clothes. Bad press and good social networking equals more bad press. It definitely brings the complainers out of the woodwork. And more complainers means more bad press which ultimately means less North Face jackets in the mountains.

It's understandable that the North Face might be concerned about some cheap rip-offs of their products. Last time I was in South America, I saw dozens of these for sale on the street. But those are intentional rip-offs which are trying to pretend like they are something that they're not. The South Butt is a parody. Nobody is going to mistake it for the North Face.

It's too bad that a company that has done so much good for our community has placed itself in such a negative position. In the eyes of many, the company has rebranded itself. It has rebranded itself as a Goliath.

In the biblical story of David and Goliath, David wins. I seriously doubt that the limited funds available to the South Butt will allow them to prevail in this case. But if the heart of this battle isn't litigation, but good press versus bad press, then the South Butt has already won...

--Jason D. Martin


Matthew Anderson said...

Well put Jason. I hope the bloke is selling his hoodies like the wind. He may need the cash to pay some pretty hefty legal fees in the near future.

American Alpine Institute said...


Maybe...but check this out:

This personal injury lawyer seems to think that this is a "frivolous lawsuit." And he wonders why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hasn't stepped in and thrown it out...

I'm not an attorney, but if this sentiment exists out there, then maybe the South Butt has a chance...


Nickd said...

The fact is that most of "the outdoor industry" to which you refer is owned by large publicly traded conglomerates. North Face is owned by VF Corp., whose brands include Lee, Wrangler, Lucy and Vans in addition to North Face. Marmot and K2 are owned by Jarden Corp., whose brands include Mr. Coffee, Coleman and Bee playing cards. The list goes on.
Subsidiaries like North Face, Marmot, etc. try to keep up the images they developed from their early days, but the fact is the original founders/owners sold, and now the shots are called by a corporate parent. Not to sound cynical, but their support of athletes, etc. is driven more by calculated marketing than shared values.
I don't know about Tompkins, but the '82 Marmot down jacket that still hangs in my closet says Eric wouldn't have sued a parody website named Weasel.

American Alpine Institute said...

Certainly athlete sponsorship and environmental protection could be seen as a means to "keep up the image." And while the parent companies might not care, it is something that many outdoor companies pride themselves on...

--Jason D. Martin