It’s an enviable position for a brand to be so loved by youth. But with fame comes fakes—and The North Face has been plagued by cheap knock-offs. There is even a website, TheNorthFaceGuru.com, whose primary mission is to report on North Face counterfeits.
Counterfeiters target The North Face for a number of reasons. First, the jackets in particular are outrageously popular, pricey, and rarely discounted. The logo is not difficult to reproduce. Many of the garments are made in various locations outside of the United States, so a seller of counterfeits can simply claim the clothing is manufactured somewhat differently in different countries. Online shoppers look for bargain prices on The North Face jackets and find them. The problem is the product is not authentic.
While some may see forgery as flattery, VF Corporation, owner of The North Face brand, sees it as a threat to the brand. In March 2006, the company won a judgment of over US$ 1 million in a New York court case against a family that was selling fake North Face jackets. VF, by the way, is the largest apparel maker in the world. In addition to The North Face, VF owns such brands as Wrangler, Lee, Gitano, Chic, Reef, Eagle Creek, JanSport, and Nautica.
How did The North Face climb to the top? It’s a Cinderella story: Two hiking enthusiasts opened a small mountaineering retail store in San Francisco’s North Beach. They called it “The North Face” because in the Northern Hemisphere, the north face of a mountain is generally the coldest, iciest, and most formidable to climb.
In 1968, The North Face began designing and manufacturing its own brand of high-performance mountaineering apparel and equipment. In 1975, the company introduced the geodesic dome tent, which became a standard for lightweight, high-performance tents. A sleeping bag introduced that year also became an industry standard. In the early 1980s, extreme skiwear was added to the product offering. By the end of the decade, The North Face became the only supplier in the United States to offer a comprehensive collection of high-performance outerwear, skiwear, sleeping bags, packs, and tents.
In 1996, The North Face entered the sportswear market with the launch of Tekware, a collection of high-performance sportswear. Later that year, the Company acquired A-5 Adventures and added big wall gear to its collection of outdoor equipment. The North Face launched its own line of trekking and trail running shoes in 1999.
Despite the continuous growth of the brand, The North Face had a few stumbles along the way. In the 1980s, for example, the company tried manufacturing all of its own products. In the same decade, it opened outlet stores which some feel cheapened the brand. In 1988, The North Face was acquired by a holding company that, five years later, filed for bankruptcy. By the end of the 1980s, that the company would some day become a major target for counterfeiters seemed inconceivable. What caused this reversal of fortune?
A new decade brought with it a new way of thinking at The North Face. What ultimately saved the company was its strategy to enter the leisure apparel market in the mid-1990s. While it was still positioned strongly in its high-performance niche, The North Face was embraced by consumers. Furthermore, the company’s status as a tent supplier to the US Marine Corps also helped boost sales.
Today, The North Face has certainly not abandoned its core market either. On the contrary, The North Face invests heavily in high-performance athletic events. For example, The North Face sponsors “The North Face Endurance Challenge” presented by Gore-Tex (a North Face partner/supplier).
The North Face Endurance Challenge Series includes four regional events and one Championship event. From April through December 2008, five endurance events will span the US, starting in New York, passing through Washington, Washington, DC, and Wisconsin, and culminating with the Championship in San Francisco, California. Each offers options for runners of all levels at an array of distances, including: 50 Mile, 50K, Half Marathon, and 10K. Each men’s and women’s regional 50-mile champion will take home $1,000 and a trip to the Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco in December, where a cash prize will go to the top male and female 50-mile finisher. The Endurance Challenge is expected to attract some of the country’s top ultra-endurance runners.
Other brand-building initiatives have included innovative in-store kiosks, on which customers can watch videos of expeditions, and advertising that has highlighted “visual journals” of athletes’ expeditions. The company also launched an online magazine called Epic that features photography and articles appealing to “people who are passionate about backcountry sports, from rock climbing, backpacking, and bouldering, to trail running, mountaineering, skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing and more.”
With a firm grasp of its many markets, a continuing cachet among youth, aggressive growth plans, and an owner focused on protecting the integrity of the brand, The North Face has nowhere to go but up. Not even the most ingenious of counterfeiters can replicate that type of success. They'll certainly try.