In the wake of the global pandemic, one of the last things on consumers’ minds has been traveling. However, as communities across the globe have started to reopen for business, exploration is once again an option for many. Athletic and outdoor brands that survived the pandemic are seeing a rise in brand engagement. Not all brands were as lucky as the North Face, which not only survived the pandemic but managed to thrive during it.
How did a company focused on getting outside the home thrive during the past year? Steve Lesnard discussed this and more during his recent appearance on the Product Talk Podcast.
Steve Lesnard is the CMO and Global VP of Product Creation at The North Face. He has over two decades of experience working in the athletics industry as a marketer and has worked with elite athletes worldwide. In his previous position, he launched several industry-changing product innovations, which were vital in the exposure and growth of the company. His tenure as a footwear-oriented marketing and project manager exposed him to Olympic athletes and drove changes to the very structure of his former company’s core footwear products. His contributions directly led to a $5.3 billion yearly global revenue to the company.
As well as working with Olympic athletes, his work allowed him to travel across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa as his previous company’s brand director for women & cross. This position allowed him to showcase his marketing skills: focusing on women’s-only branding and incorporating strong women entrepreneurs like Jamie King and Rhianna.
Steve Lesnard grew up in Corsica, France, but traveled extensively while he was young. He cites his experience of different cultures as providing a foundation for marketing. Specifically, he wanted a career that would allow him to bring brand awareness to brands worldwide. The challenge of marketing products to different cultures excited him. In a recent interview, he noted that sports and athleticism are what he believes to be a universal language. He approaches sports-based brand marketing as an opportunity to find common ground between all cultures via a brand.
It was this approach that brought Steve Lesnard to the Product Talk podcast. Founded by SC Moatti, the founder of Products That Count, Product Talk is about developing products with a purpose. Moatti is focused on defining what maximizes engagement in brands and focuses on products leading the way in that search. Each podcast features a new host and a new guest who is one of the biggest names in marketing.
Steve Lesnard overviewed his storied career to begin the podcast. But aside from his past accomplishments, the host started their conversation about product innovation with a question about his favorite or most memorable product launch.
As someone who has spent a career working in some of the most successful athletic brands in the world, this wasn’t a question Lesnard took lightly. He even said that he thinks of most of his product launches as his “babies.” However, the ones that stuck out the most to him were the ones that brought something new to the table but could also reach people en masse. His position at the North Face consistently challenges him to do this, but it’s not hard to see why when you look at the brand’s history and logo.
The North Face’s logo represents Yosemite’s Half Dome: a rock wall that is iconic and athletically challenging. Climbers flock to Half Dome to challenge themselves and find new and innovative ways to scale the summit. It’s the perfect “mascot” for a company like The North Face, which consistently tests and improves its products.
Product launches start with an identification of product purpose and graduate to creation. During the process, Steve Lesnard likes to ask, “does this product solve or improve a customer experience?”. Like their FutureLight products and SummitSeries Advanced Mountain Kit, recent notable releases from The North Face do just this.
FutureLight took common customer concerns about waterproof materials and flipped them on their head. Many waterproof materials are breathable but not waterproof, and vice versa. This material is both. For the Advanced Mountain Kit, The North Face synthesized the needs of alpine athletes. As a result, they created a light, ultra-warm, and protective product against the elements. As a marketer, these two products, among many, hit upon two big goals of his as a CMO: innovation and disruption.
Discussion about these products led to another question: what makes a great product? For Steve Lesnard, a great product is a product that inspires. “When you go on a trip, what are you going to put in that bag? If you can [create] a product that consumers will choose over and over again, that is what makes a great product.” Testing and improvement are two more essential parts of creating a great product, and therefore, a great brand. Getting stuck in old ways doesn’t benefit companies – it’s a combination of what works combined with what’s innovative.
Steve Lesnard has worked with hundreds of leaders in marketing over his career and has counseled hundreds of others. In the middle of the episode, the host and Lesnard delved deeper into what makes a great product marketing campaign. Lesnard’s takeaway from his career is that a great product marketing campaign is about finding the right way to tell the story about a product. The secret to his success? He starts with the inspiration for the product, then lets the product do the talking.
Behind each product, there’s the origin story, the intended user, and the purpose. But Steve Lesnard thinks there’s a secret to beating out competitors that transcends this. He calls this the “Magic Sauce” for a product, and it’s not always readily apparent. What it comes down to is this: can your product transcend its original use?
Lesnard points out that whenever The North Face creates a new product, they create it for pro alpinists. However, their success has been in its usefulness to others. For instance, New York has a deep connection to the North Face and what Lesnard calls an “concrete jungle.” The same things that drew alpinists to the North Face gear also draw urbanites to it, but for different reasons. It is light enough to get you from point a to point b without wearing you down. It’s waterproof to protect against the slushy, cold winters. It does what it was designed to do – the company just never imagined it would be helpful to people in an urban setting.
The urban is just what North Face CMO Steve Lesnard had to contend with during 2020, however. The pandemic kept record numbers of people inside and away from the outdoors – something the company had to contend with. Rather than taking the year as a threat, Lesnard took it as an opportunity. He saw this moment as a way to build something iconic by looking at human trends. Authenticity is essential to all consumers, so he started a pandemic-oriented marketing message and outreach campaign.
The pandemic was a good time to address issues in and among the outdoor community, and 2020 was a time for intense social change. In keeping with the spirit of the outdoors, The North Face addressed a massive issue among the outdoor community – getting People Of Color involved in the outdoor community and getting them into the outdoors. In the past, The North Face has contributed $10 Million to the Explorer’s Fund. They continued contributions toward the Explorer’s Fund. They participated in social media campaigns to stop the bullying of Black athletes and were one of 4,000 companies who stopped Facebook ads during a week of social justice solidarity last year.
Steve Lesnard also took the pandemic to address businesses, specifically CMO’s, with challenges that reared themselves during the pandemic. True to form, this revolved around adapting to meet customer needs. Last year, communities needed support. The most successful businesses focused not only on supporting themselves but on supporting others.
If there was one takeaway from Steve Lesnard’s appearance on the Product Talk podcast, it was this: Lesnard is a people person, which is important in brand longevity.
But rather than taking the pandemic hard, he found a way to work with it that involved others. He worked with athletes from their homes, engaged with social media, and found a way to connect people with the brand in a new and unfamiliar marketing territory. Now that more people are vaccinated, it’s time to start thinking about getting outside again.
Steve Lesnard is all about local exploration, telling the podcast host that while many of us may not be able to travel the world yet, there’s still a lot to be seen around where we live. “Have the curiosity to look around the corner and ask yourself: could I go a little further?” He says. Then, “[Ask yourself] can I try something new or different? Because the outdoors is a great place for people to discover” Finally, Lesnard recommends this: Don’t plan too much for your next exploration. Focus on present action and get inspired by what’s around you – something that anyone can apply to marketing and everything else in life.