Influencers, diversity & sustainability: What does marketing mean to you?

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Influencers, diversity & sustainability: What does marketing mean to you?

Featured image | SKIER: Chris Benchetler, PHOTO: Peter Morning

Sit back and take a big, long, deep breath and close your eyes. Pretend for a moment we’re not in the throws of a global pandemic and our biggest worry is the snowpack. Ahhhhh, that felt nice didn’t it? Now, let’s talk about what you saw when you closed your eyes. What images popped into your head?

As a writer often working in collaboration with brands, I am constantly studying marketing trends trends, looking for pivot opportunities, speaking with consumers spanning multiple “gens” and watching how every thought-leading manufacturer is advertising online and in print. But when I sat down to put some of those observations on paper, I wanted to give you something that was less than obvious.

We all know Instagram is a trend and, well, if you want to know how to succeed there, that’s a much longer conversation. I wanted to know what is coming next, what upcoming trend might drive our human behavior, our learning patterns and, of course, buying habits looking ahead to 2022 and beyond.

Sustainability and Community

Kristin Carpenter in her Channel Mastery podcast and outdoor brand consulting business recently referred to the “evolving consumer mindset,” the very thing we are all seeking to unlock. She spoke about the power of empathy and human connection—and how this can translate into brand loyalty, in a dynamic landscape in which almost every norm and assumption has been thrown out the window. Everyone says they want to build community, but what is that built on? An Instagram following?

Despite all the discussion around sustainability for the last ten years and, especially, over the last several, I am often skeptical—not of the need for sustainability—but of its actual power to drive sales on a level that is viable for large brands. But industry trend-setters, fortunately, remain bullish on this trend, and smaller brands in both hardgoods and softgoods are beginning to prove that it’s possible.

“People are attracted to two things: being part of a community, and a great story. As a marketing team, it is our aim to harness the power of both to build a brand that balances purpose and profit,” said North American Marketing Manager of Faction Skis and FW apparel, Henrik Lampert.

And what about that ultra-2020 keyword… diversity? According to Sam von Mettenheim, founder of the inclusivity-focused consulting group RagTag Outdoors, “Creating equal opportunity starts with future generations, being able to show that no matter who you are or what your skin color is, anyone can ski.” 

Von Mettenheim started RagTag after having spent his life growing up in the mountains as a competitive BIPOC skier, cyclist and riverman. “One key to success is putting money toward non-profits or companies that help get kids on the slopes. These foundations work with schools to provide transportation, ski gear, and no kid is left out because of their income status. One thing wrong with marketing now is it’s very extreme—for example, you see Red Bull riders doing nothing but crazy stuff that is going to make some people feel they can’t do that or it’s not for them.”

“At a macro level, we’re seeing success with brands that are nimble and connecting with their consumers using omni-channel tactics and connecting on cause: well-coordinated and choreographed plans use various tools and tactics in the modern media mix, ” explained snowsports industry veteran Penn Newhard, founding partner at Backbone Media, Carbondale, Colo. “From the Smartwool Grateful Dead launch with skier Chris Bentchetler, to working with Burton on the One World film tour on Amazon or anon athletes like Michelle Parker to debut Perceive goggles, there is not a one size fits all approach. [At Backbone], we look at the goals and build custom programs that tap into search, paid and earned media, affiliate, ambassadors and influencers to yield the best results.”

According to CMO & SVP Global Brands, Marketing & Design for Marchon Eyewear, Thomas Burkhardt, “Athlete collaborations allow us to connect with our customers on a deeper level. Our partnership with Alex Hall and Spyder Eyewear has helped bring our newest launch with this brand to life. In the crowded e-commerce space, having an athlete like Alex helps Spyder Eyewear standout amongst other offerings and put a face and story alongside the products.”

Life as Art

“From the beginning it was just me being passionate and authentic to my true self,” renowned skier, artist and surfer Chris Benchetler told me about his multi-year, multimedia project in collaboration with the Grateful Dead, Atomic and Smartwool. Since the launch of the movie “Fire on the Mountain,” last winter I’ve become fascinated with the project, a symbol of contemporary marketing success in our industry.

One of the most powerful things about the Benchetler collaborations is the prominent use of art to tell these stories and gain trust. Nothing resonates on a personal level like artwork, as it’s a glimpse into someone’s soul, allowing you to relate to that athlete on another level beyond what you see them doing on snow. Après brand, Rumpl, even launched a “Rumpl Artists Division” this year to bolster its products visually with consumers and toward a larger community. Its current collaboration with Native American artists Jordan Craig and Darby Raymond-Overstreet are in partnership with the First Peoples Fund, a non-profit organization that supports and empowers Native artists, and reflect Rumpl’s ongoing commitment to indigenous community and against the use of culturally appropriated designs.

“I use my art to influence something and to inspire people, it’s part of the process for me,” Benchetler said. And while the integration of art and skiing isn’t new—just look at Icelantic Skis dating back to the early 2000s—Benchetler’s cross-platform integration is particularly deep, from ski topsheets and limited edition socks, to a movie, book and soundtrack on vinyl, in a unique, envious and tedious licensing deal, according to Benchetler. 

“My voice comes through in the products and what I would actually want to wear,” he said. Now, if you don’t already know, Benchetler is one of the founding members of the legendary Nimbus Independent crew, which changed the face of the ski movie genre being one of the first to go online with “webisodes,” and a focus on the creative as much as the skiing. He’s also a famed product developer in pro model skis with Atomic, goggles with Dragon, a decade of mitts and packs with Dakine and Smartwool apparel, among other collaborations. “At the root, it’s because I have a long standing relationship with these brand partners and I have at least a decade of proof [showing] concepts of mine that have worked.” 

Maggie Meisinger, Strategic Communications Manager at Smartwool, explains, “These collections create a deeper connection with our brand. Chris has deep roots with the Smartwool brand and his artwork and skiing have been able to bring our products to life in new and exciting ways. In order to transcend typical brand marketing, it is crucial to team up with athletes that know and can relate to our consumers in a compelling way and truly love the products they are creating.”

So why the Grateful Dead, a band who’s lead guitarist and figurehead died in 1995? “The Grateful Dead encompasses a unique ideology—it represents a counterculture that is inviting and fun, enjoying the here and now and seeking a better future for all Deadheads. This idea of being a Deadhead transcends age, as people from all different generations can connect and relate. This is why brands want to associate with this group that crosses ages, demographics, geography and can introduce new, loyal audiences to the brand,” says Meisinger.

“It’s massive. It’s a way of life,” added Benchetler. “As an athlete I am taking inspiration from their improvisation, of which they are the masters. You have an idea of what you’re going to get when you start out, but you don’t know exactly what it gets going to look like until you get there. That’s exactly how a professional athlete approaches the mountain or waves. You have your skill set but you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Collaborations build a stronger brand trust with consumers. The combination of the Grateful Dead and Chris Benchetler just made a lot of sense, as we know that many of our core outdoor consumers are fans of the band, and that many Grateful Dead lovers also enjoy skiing and getting outside. People like to express themselves with products connected to their favorite athletes and musical groups, so this collaboration delivered on both of those fronts.” 

This is a trend that will only continue and platforms like Instagram are perfect for sharing this work in all its forms—except the tactile, of course—democratizing the process and the distribution for all to enjoy.

Athletes as Influencers

Certainly athlete endorsements as a key marketing pillar isn’t new, and athlete influence has always been a part of outdoor/action sports. But the rise of Instagram was like pouring gas on the fire. What happens when an athlete becomes an influencer, and what role do influencers play in our industry? 

“Brands pay a lot of money for influencers. There’s a place for them, but not within endemic sport,” says Benchetler. “When you take something that’s super performance-based, you’re going to get your best feedback from an athlete that’s gonna be out there all day every day. Or, at the very least, brands need to understand the difference between an athlete and an influencer; it depends on what you want to accomplish.”

So what’s driving brands and advertisers of all kinds to pour so much of their money into these little squares we see in our social media feeds? In interviewing more than a dozen brand managers about their approach to contemporary marketing, it almost always boiled down to one word: Trust. 

“Athletes having a social presence and platform only helps build the authenticity of a brand partnership,” agreed Burkhardt. “When athletes post on their Instagram feeds or stories about a brand, it not only is another touchpoint for new consumers, but it also allows consumers to trust the brand more.”

Lampert agrees, “Athlete-brand collaborations are more prevalent today because of trust between fans and brands. An athlete, as an ‘influencer,’ effectively represents the personification of a brand. In this day and age, the most ‘human’ brand wins.”

But this trust isn’t just tracked by likes and comments; now, there are third-party analytics that brands utilize to better understand the impact of an athlete-influencer on its particular audience. “The matter of trust is revealed in data: studies consistently show that upwards of two-thirds of fans trust influencers’ opinions significantly more than what brands say about themselves and their products. Through athletic prowess and achievements, personal style and marketable lifestyles, athletes captivate us,” added Lampert, “Attention is like a currency, we earn it, we spend it. For a brand, it’s an attractive prospect to align with an athlete who commands attention. As far as marketing goes, where the fans’ attention goes, the money follows.”

“Athletes can be some of your best influencers because they know how your gear performs when pushed to the limits, so the relationship evolves pretty seamlessly,” adds Meisinger. “The more authentic and organic these partnerships feel, the better they are received. Benchetler has deep roots with the Smartwool brand beyond this Grateful Dead collaboration—but this collection blends art and music, two things that people feel a deep connection to. The Grateful Dead has had a lasting impact on people for generations and Chris has been deeply inspired by them, which comes through in a genuine way in his art, and we saw that resonate with our customers—whether or not they were Deadheads.”

“Athletes and influencers can blur lines,” says Casey Garrity, marketing for Sweet Protection North America. “But the dedicated audience is very discerning as to which is which. There are many ‘influencers’ that can turn on the sales faucet for a brand with the flick of a filter or neatly placed hashtag. However, the purchasers they influence are often not the return consumers and brand loyalists that the snowsports industry relies on for continued growth. The athletes, by virtue of their lifelong dedication to the sport, community and understanding that their place and perception is only maintained by the loyal followers of Ullr and his blessings, are the flag-bearers for brands and products.” 

Still, other brands bet on mountains guides as influencers—a trend I’ve long hailed—and, only now, are these relationships becoming more mature as guides themselves are becoming more social media savvy. “Traditional sponsorship agreements largely exist between brands and athletes, but day in and day out, it’s guides who are out there working with clients, literally demonstrating how rad their sponsors’ gear is to hundreds of consumers a year. Influencing is what guides do,” says Ryan Koupal, founder and director of a new influencer program called Ambassa/Door. Koupal also owns 40 Tribes Backcountry Adventures, so he’s seen first-hand how his clients have craved advice and input from him and his guides. “It’s in their nature, and it’s by design. If you’re not influential, you’re not a good guide. If you’re a brand that’s not tapping deeply into the guiding community, you’re missing out on that unmatchable personal connection that turns clients into customers.”

Looking ahead—what comes next?

According to Sweet Protection’s Garrity, the obvious trend is toward more omni-channel approaches, and we’ve seen that play out through the Benchetler/Grateful Dead project, through Michelle Paker’s art-infused collab with Anon, and others. 

“All marketing has to speak to potential customers in all sales channels,” he says. “The difficulty is that the message must be very carefully crafted to the audiences within those channels. Customization and continuous re-targeting are always the tip of the spear. Fresh, new content is vital. It can’t simply be product driven anymore—there has to be a story, a reason, a level of personal involvement.”

“As the world becomes more digitally and electronically inclined and educated, the trends for a robust digital marketing platform with varied social outreach has become necessary,” agrees Pep Fujas, world-renowned freeskier, product designer at K2 for almost two decades and now VP Marketing & Product Development for WNDR Alpine. “Brands are working to define their voice, communications and how their consumers interact with their brand in the digital world. The political and social climate over the last few years has led to a bigger emphasis on brand transparency and social goodwill.”

But Fujas says that when it comes to trying to unlock the holy grail of marketing secrets, it boils down to one concept: Bio-based everything. “Quality products built and sourced responsibly are slowly becoming a requirement, not simply a value added for the morally conscious consumer,” he says. “The veil of disillusionment is slowly being peeled back, revealing the intentions or lack of intent of brands. There seems to be a little bit of a scramble to define this positioning. In the ski space, most brands are clamoring for the innovation story, whether that is in re-orienting their materials to provide a perceived benefit or integrating a new material from another industrial application. This trend is not new, but as relevant as ever.”

Benchetler concurs, “The biggest thing I hope to see every brand do is care more about sustainability and overconsumption. That’s an endless battle that we will always be fighting. We’re in an archaic industry,” said Benchetler. “So much can change for the better. I hope we get to a point where performance is equal on sustainably produced products, where you’re not sacrificing anything else, then we’ve won as an industry.”