As Monty Python lampooned, the drive to conquer mountains, endure extreme weather and put yourself in the jaws of death may seem like madness to many people—which is why The North Face brand is marking its 50th anniversary with a global campaign called “Question Madness” that flips that notion on its head by celebrating athletes’ life-affirming stories.
When it opened its first store, on October 26th 1966 in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, The Grateful Dead played the opening party (above) and a poster of Bob Dylan hung in the window (below). What a long, strange trip it has been since then.
Now, in advance of celebrating 50 years of pushing boundaries – equipping and inspiring in the pursuit of exploration — on Oct. 28th, the brand this week opened two new retail experiences: an Urban Explorations concept pop-up in San Francisco for its premium streetwear collection and a permanent flagship store on New York’s Fifth Avenue that offers an immersive brand experience.
“QUESTION MADNESS” CAMPAIGN
In honor of its 50th anniversary, the VF-owned brand on Friday unveiled its new global brand campaign, “Question Madness,” and announced the opening of its first ever New York flagship store, located on Fifth Avenue.
According to a press release, the campaign and flagship store are “the next evolution in The North Face’s rise as a global market leader from humble beginnings as a single storefront in San Francisco in 1966.”
Over those five decades, the brand is proud that its commitment to exploration – from the peaks of the Himalayas to the sidewalks of Manhattan – has remained unchanged, and continues to drive the brand’s work across retail, advertising and customer engagement.
Its mandate continues to be: “To inspire and enable athletes to push their limits – to seek new routes, new lines or new distances and to Never Stop Exploring.”
Against that backdrop, the brand’s #QuestionMadness campaign’s digital content series showcases emotional stories by athletes from throughout the brand’s history “finding joy and fulfillment along their own paths of exploration as they break perceptions, redefine success, and inspire others to do the same.” The campaign features raw emotion and breathtaking imagery captured from remote places around the world, with much of the footage shot by the athletes themselves while on expedition. The hero video’s soundtrack is the Cat Stevens tune, Miles From Nowhere.
“Question Madness” examines individual motives for exploration and the gratification that comes from pushing norms and boundaries. As a brand, The North Face is challenging how achievement is defined – and hoping to inspire consumers to do the same – while promoting the notion that exploration is about moving forward as individuals and as a society.
“This campaign comes at a time in our brand’s history when exploration – of all kinds – matters more than ever,” says Todd Spaletto, President, The North Face. “As a society, we are questioning traditions, systems and institutions. What was considered beyond the norm yesterday, even impossible, is commonplace today. We rally behind and celebrate those who have the courage to take on the unknown and define success in their own way.”
“We have the unique benefit of having these amazing athletes as part of our brand, and in addition to being amazing athletes, they’re really great storytellers who have done things that only a handful of people in the world have done,” says Tom Herbst, the company’s vice president of global marketing, to Fast Company.
“They are a really important part of our overall brand DNA. The North Face is a brand that is true to its core. It has real stories to tell, and not only do I think that’s important for today’s marketing world, it also builds a lot of belief in the product itself.”
Stacy Peralta, a legendary skateboarder, surfer and filmmaker, and Director of the campaign’s digital shorts, explains, “The fine line between progress and madness is something athletes cross and re-cross daily. I’ve spent time around athletes and in my opinion they’re really misunderstood. The rest of us assume it’s madness, but what they’re chasing isn’t a tangible reward – it’s greater than that. It’s about using every single fiber of your being to pull something off, and when you finally get there, it’s unbelievably liberating. When everything else is stripped away, and it’s just you and the moment – that’s the greatest feeling on earth.”
The “Question Madness” campaign will launch on Facebook and YouTube and be distributed globally throughout the fourth quarter in more than 16 markets including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. It will appear on online media around the world, as well as via out-of-home executions.
“Question Madness” features The North Face athletes Xavier De La Rue, Emily Harrington, Alex Honnold, Angel Collinson and Renan Ozturk. To accompany the anthem, The North Face also created a handful of digital shorts featuring their stories.
— Gabriel Kinder (@gkinder) October 14, 2016
The #QuestionMadness athletes also participated in an event in New York this week that was co-hosted by its new flagship and the brand’s Upper West Side store on Broadway and its Soho store on Wooster Street — a partnership with The Lowline to celebrate its first anniversary and The North Face’s 50th and Fifth Avenue location opening. A panel featured athletes from the campaign’s digital short films.
Consumers are invited to share the stories of how they are pushing their own boundaries in the pursuit of exploration on social channels using #QuestionMadness. The poster and print campaign also highlights the opposite emotions that could be applied to each athlete, depending on how you view it: Crazy/Calculated, Cult/Community, Devoted/Obsessed, Fear/Free, Freaks/Family, Madness/Progress, Pain/Perspective, Pioneers/Freaks, Weirdo/Visionary.
NEW YORK CITY FLAGSHIP
In honor of the brand’s legacy, The North Face is celebrating its path forward by opening its first-ever New York flagship at 510 Fifth Avenue. The new store offers consumers an immersive brand experience including an interactive climbing wall, community seating and a Lot, Stock and Barrel custom embroidery service.
The store will also feature touches like a climbing wall; custom product available only at the Fifth Avenue location, including a limited edition Original Daypack collection; a collaboration with lifestyle brand, New Era; and, on-site product customization featuring vintage and new collectible patches in partnership with Lot, Stock and Barrel.
The New York City flagship arrives as The North Face earlier this year restructured its business around four specific consumer usage occasions, resulting in four new business units: Mountain Sports, the brand’s heritage approach featuring its most technical gear; Mountain Culture, an outdoor lifestyle focus; Mountain Athletics, its training category; and Urban Exploration, which aims at the outdoorsy city resident.
On the company’s second-quarter 2016 conference call, Steve Rendle, president and COO of VF Corp., said the four business units will give The North Face leverage to reach higher price points. He added, “What you’ll also see is real thoughtful line segmentation covering those key price points in those key categories for those channel partners that we do business with across the globe.”
Cue the arrival of the brand’s take on the great outdoors to the old Manufacturers Trust Company building on Fifth Avenue, a New York City landmark of modernist architecture.
As Chain Store Age notes, “Though the canyons outside the expansive windows on the second floor of store are formed by skyscrapers and not rock bluffs, North Face’s VP of direct-to-consumer retail Erik Searles finds the airy atmosphere a fitting backdrop for the high-end camping and climbing gear being merchandised there.”
“This is our biggest full-price brick-and-mortar store outside of Chicago and Anchorage, and it is meant to showcase the North Face brand. We expect people to walk into the store and experience how they will engage with North Face in the outdoors,” said Searles during a pre-opening tour.
To ensure the brand-authentic experience, most of the items in the store were created using the same high-quality materials The North Face products are designed with, down to the nylon and aluminum poles used to build the changing rooms. Architects collaborated with The North Face equipment team on the design to ensure consumers feel comfortable and inspired from the moment they walk in the door.
The flagship is a natural extension of the brand’s expansion into urban exploration. As of the 2010 US Census, 80 percent of the US population lives in an urban area. The next generation of explorers are likely to live, or grow up, in or near a densely populated urban environment and The North Face is committed to outfitting its consumers for any aspect of their daily journeys, whether protecting against elements in the city or prepping for adventures on the mountain.
Passersby on Fifth Avenue, where the new store has taken over from previous retail tenant Joe Fresh, are engaged before crossing the threshold by a sight that harkens back to the brand’s origins—tailors embroidering designs onto down coats. As Chain Store Age notes, “The first thing one sees in the front window when approaching the shop from the north are embroiderers on sewing machines weaving intricate designs into pricey down jackets.”
“We have 20 designs we’ve created that can be sewn into the garment without compromising its functionality. We want people to be able to customize the product, to go a little wild with it,” Searles told CSA. According to the report, “North Face will debut its new high-performance Summit Series at the store, and intends to use the high-street New York platform to debut other new products as they emerge.”
Friday marks a soft opening for the 20,000-sq.-ft. store, with a grand opening planned for Oct. 26, the official 50th anniversary. The location’s landmark status also posed a challenge, according to the publication.
“While the apparel, equipment and footwear leader is not allowed to make any changes to walls or floors at 510 Fifth because of its landmark status, it’s capitalizing on the situation to treat the space like a natural outdoor setting and use it to display its gear as it would in the wild.”
What’s more, “When finished, the second floor will feature a ‘base camp’ patterned after the kind set up by top climbers and a ‘campsite’ where visitors can relax with a cup of coffee and access Wi-Fi. Fitting rooms sit mid-floor and are constructed of pipe and the same fabric used in North Face tents. ‘You’ll come up the escalator and you’ll feel you’re in the outdoors,’ Searles said.”
SAN FRANCISCO “URBAN EXPLORATION” POP-UP CONCEPT STORE
The New York store opening follows a pop-up brand activation in San Francisco earlier this week. On Monday, also celebrating 50 years after its first store opening in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, The North Face opened a pop-up concept shop in San Francisco aimed at the city explorer.
Celebrating its premium streetwear collection, it’s come a long way since The Grateful Dead played at its opening party in North Beach, where a poster of Bob Dylan hung in the store window.
50 years later, a discreet storefront in the Jackson Square neighborhood is the first of its kind in the US, and will focus exclusively on the label’s premium streetwear range. A similar space is featured in The North Face New York Flagship store on Fifth Avenue.
Open for a limited time, the Urban Exploration shop will be devoted to protective gear suitable for the modern urbanite. New product will be regularly dropped in-store in the coming months, including collaborations and curated pieces from the brand’s Japanese and Hong Kong collections.
The shop will feature exclusive and limited edition product like the Original Daypacks and Soft Duffels reissue. In honor of the company’s 50-year tradition of making handcrafted outdoor gear, The North Face revived some of its first-ever packs that were sewn and sold at the company’s original location.
Made entirely in the US, The North Face worked with a third-generation factory in Chicago and the Horween Leather Co., one of the oldest tanneries in the nation. The throwback bags were crafted for durability down to the last detail and feature 17-ounce waxed cotton canvas, double reinforced panels, riveted stress points and premium leather trims. The collection (left to right, below) includes the ’78 Duffel – Large ($300), ’68 Daypack ($225) and ’78 Duffel – Small ($250). Available in limited quantities at the San Francisco shop, these reissues will be sold online and at the Fifth Avenue location.