Why The North Face Made Chinese Customers Run the Gantlet

Brand's Asia Marketing Director Talks about Crazy Contests and Fighting Fakes

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China's outdoor sporting industry is still young. But as its megacities grow more crowded, fast-paced and polluted, the idea of getting back to nature is catching on.

The North Face is tapping into that.

The brand saw China sales growth up more than 20% in 2013 from 2012, said Neville Lin, The North Face's Asia Pacific marketing director.

Working with Factory Design Labs, the brand launched its biggest-ever integrated TV, print, digital and social campaign in China and recruited people to compete for a trip to the United States to be "The Next Explorer." The competition, buzzed about on social media, put people through a gantlet of physical trials at community festivals and culminated with a rock concert and campout in the hills outside Beijing. The integrated campaign drew 216,000 new members to the brand's online community.

Mr. Lin spoke to Ad Age about the brand's crazy competitions, strategy for Asia and how it deals with fakes. This interview was edited and condensed.

A North Face ad featuring explorer and photographer Jimmy Chin.
A North Face ad featuring explorer and photographer Jimmy Chin. Credit: The North Face

As part of "The Next Explorer" competition, you and Gore-Tex put people in three cities into "torture rooms." What's that?

Neville Lin: Basically it was a rain and wind room. People had to go through rain and wind and still be able to answer questions during the process. Meanwhile, they were testing our products. A lot of times people feel that going outdoors is torture. We just wanted to challenge their conventions. And the torture was not really torture. They came out smiling.

Your slogan is "Never Stop Exploring." How does the idea of exploration resonate in China?

Mr. Lin: In the U.S. they did a consumer study and the insight was, there are people who like to explore and there are people who like to watch -- couch potatoes. In China our insight is that there are people who like to follow, people who always follow the script in life, and there are people who like to explore ... I do believe we have a strong calling in China to get people to see more possibilities than just their current script in life.

Neville Lin
Neville Lin

Do you sense that China's growing air pollution problem is starting to encourage people to get out of the cities to enjoy nature?

Mr. Lin: I think that's part of it -- getting back to nature because of the pollution, the city, the atmosphere. Everybody's tense, the lifestyle is so hectic, you want to have a change. Not everyday, but once in a while.

Do you have any products tailored to Asia?

Mr. Lin: We're introducing "Asian fit" this year -- I think none of the other major global brands are doing that. We won't do any communication around that, but it will be on the product label. … Asians are still a little bit smaller (than Western consumers).

North Face counterfeits are widely available in China. What do you do about them?

Mr. Lin: Frankly, seeking to combat that is really hard. In the past our lawyers did some serious work on some of the counterfeiters. Because there are so many of them it's just really difficult to get them under control. I don't think any other brand has succeeded in doing that.

I feel the most important thing for us is not to worry about counterfeits, it's to really focus on growing the outdoor culture, bringing the brand story to the consumers, so they really know more about outdoor. Once their level of understanding of outdoor and our brand increases, their need for counterfeits will decrease … On a hiking trail, you don't want to feel too heavy wearing a counterfeit product. You don't want it to get wet, because it's not really waterproof.

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