Aaron Carpenter, vice president of global marketing at The North Face, believes the digital platform is critical to global expansion — a way to both inform and inspire consumers.
The North Face, founded in 1968 by Doug Tompkins (who sold it and went on to found Esprit), was built on the spirit of exploration and products for those outdoor pursuits. When VF Corp. acquired the company in 2000, it was generating about $200 million in revenues and losing $100 million a year; 12 years later, revenues had grown to $1.9 billion. Now, the current goal is $3.3 billion by 2017.
“A lot of you are looking at global expansion and digital is critical to that growth not just in North America and Europe, but also Asia and South America,” said Carpenter, a Bay Area native who started his career 15 years ago at Levi Strauss & Co. and joined The North Face in 2008.
Since 2008, the company has invested heavily in China, where outdoor sports aren’t as developed. In 2010, it rolled out a mobile campaign asking Chinese people to “take the first step outside and track it with GPS. We got about 2.2 million people to do that and saw over a 100 percent increase in sales at that time,” he said.
On the inspiration front, the company sponsors 70 athletes who go on 15 expeditions a year. They share their experiences through speaker series attended by live audiences of 500 and, as of last year, another 90,000 online viewers.
“We are pushing this as fast as we can to expand and share that inspiration,” he said, adding that a video narrated by Buzz Aldrin garnered responses from 1.5 million people during the holidays. “Our virality rate went from 1 to 4. That shows people really want to engage.”
Recently, the company posted videos chronicling its design of the U.S. Olympic free-skiing team uniforms.
Digital is also a means to inform customers about the product, such as last year’s launch of the synthetic down alternative Thermoball. Video embedded on the site increased conversion rates by up to 50 percent.
“When we get the balance right of video, inspiration, pictures and product knowledge, our search demand has gone up,” he noted.
Key goals for 2014 include producing and curating more video and sharing it through multiple channels; enriching the mobile experience, which generated 30 to 40 percent of the company’s sales and traffic; paying attention to social media (the brand has 3.5 million Facebook fans), and owning the one-on-one relationship with customer-relationship management and loyalty programs.
Carpenter noted the importance of managing expectations. “Anytime there’s innovation, only 10 percent is going to work,” he said.
He also invoked one of the biggest buzzwords of the day. “Omnichannel approach is really important. It surprised us how quickly people responded to assisted selling,” he said, referring to the use of iPads in stores over the holidays. “[The tablet] sold multimillions of dollars of incremental product with extra sizes and colors.”
But the company is still trying to balance brick-and-mortar with online. “People are getting more comfortable buying online, but [online sales] are still not going to account for all that growth,” stressed Carpenter. “We need to test and learn quickly.”