What Social Media Marketers Can Learn From Patagonia

In 2004, Patagonia published an essay titled, “Don’t Buy This Shirt Unless You Need It.” The following year, the company launched the Common Threads initiative, to make every piece of clothing it manufactures recyclable. In 2011, Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Timeswith the headline, “Don’t buy this jacket,” alongside an image of the company’s R2 coat.

Strange, no, for a manufacturer/retailer to encourage us away from buying its products? But Patagonia’s reasoning was simple and compelling: We have too much stuff already, and when we buy stuff we don’t need, we waste money, destroy the environment, and contribute to a culture of disposable consumerism that has yet to offer any benefits to society or the planet.

These unusual moves have turned out to be as self-serving as they are selfless. Patagonia’s sales in 2007 were $270 million; sales in 2012 were estimated at $500 million. Turns out that people appreciate being treated with respect. Turns out people appreciate buying from choice rather than coercion. Turns out, honesty engenders trust.



Whether the reverse psychology drove us to buy more unnecessary things than we otherwise would have is for the statisticians and the ironists to determine. But there is an important lesson to be learned from Patagonia: Not every sale is worth chasing. The fact that you sell it doesn’t mean it should be sold.

So. Social media. I’ve been involved in this industry since the pre-Facebook days, and I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: People who know very little about social media are often convinced that they need it.

“We have to be on Twitter,” they tell me, or, “We hear Pinterest is really hot right now.”

My response is always the same. “What are you selling? Whom does it benefit? In what context will a message about your product make sense?”

And then, frequently: “What makes you think you need to be on social media?”

The first role of sales is to fill the needs of the buyer. The second is to make money for the organization. There is no product in the world that can, or should, count everyone as a customer. And while a good salesperson can sell to anyone, a master salesperson will sell only to those who will derive true benefit from the product.

(A ninja salesperson will sell only what she believes in, but that’s a column for another day.)

I once had a potato grower come to me saying they needed to be on Facebook. Think about that. Ask yourself honestly: Can you imagine being swayed to purchase a particular brand of potato because of a promoted post in your Newsfeed?

For many companies, social media marketing makes sense, combining reach, targeting, and the ability to leverage networks for word of mouth.

But for many other companies, social media is a complete waste of resources: If the product is not in any way social. If you are selling wholesale or B2B. If it is a small company with nobody on staff who understands the medium. There are a million situations in which social media should not be the highest priority sales channel, and those of us who are in the industry should be entirely unafraid of pointing this out.

Over the years, I’ve told dozens of companies -- including the potato growers -- that I don’t think they should be on social media. And I’ve noticed a response similar to the Patagonia Phenomenon. Honesty engenders trust. Customers are more willing to commit their hard-earned dollars when they feel you are putting their needs first, even -- or especially -- to the extent of losing a potential sale.

Imagine for a moment what the world would look like if we only sold what we believe needs to be bought. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

Thanks for leading by example, Patagonia.

3 comments about "What Social Media Marketers Can Learn From Patagonia".
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  1. Tippy Mcfoo from capital newspapers, January 9, 2015 at 10:54 a.m.

    I'm sure you're aware of the cynical side, but are you suggesting Patagonia was sincere in its efforts to try to persuade us not to buy they're products? If so, they could have ensured it by closing its doors. They are a business and exist to make a profit (or, if you prefer, they have to make a profit to exist). This was just great marketing.

    (On a side note, disposable consumerism creates jobs, and that's a huge benefit. If nothing else, it keeps us all off the streets.)

  2. George Linzer from Potomac River Media, January 9, 2015 at 12:12 p.m.

    As usual, Kaila, you're right on the money here. The same thing happened with the web early on. I remember visiting a client - an auto parts store - for the usual dog-and-pony back in '96 to convince them that I should be the one to get their web design business. Their IT guy was eager to put videos of guys spinning car batteries on their fingers to get people to keep coming back to their site. I asked why, reminding him that the purpose of their site was not to sell anything but to drive people to their stores. This was, initially, strictly a brochure site - not even offering coupons, so it would be up to the stores to provide the merchandise and customer service to keep customers coming back.

  3. Aitana Cardoso from Aoneessays, January 20, 2015 at 6:26 a.m.

    Patagonia’s strategic marketing must be implemented by every Aone writing company online in order to make the people appreciate them for their honesty before being hired!

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