In the specialty retail industry, perhaps more than any other, we aren’t just selling commodities—we’re selling community. Retailers and manufacturers alike strive to create a brand that appeals to their unique community. A well-curated brand—especially one with high-quality product and strong, consistent marketing—does not have to worry about price.
Consumers pay for brands. A tiny tag or specific pattern can increase the price of a product twofold. The price is justified solely by the brand and the community that comes with it.
So how do these brands build that community and create a covetable product with a significantly higher value? We’ve looked at two brands in the specialty retail industry who have done just that and broken down the “how,” so you can apply those concepts to your own brand.
The mission of this outdoor mega-brand alone is enough to inspire a community:
“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
It's Patagonia’s appeal to the heart of its customers that makes it such a valuable meaning-maker and marketer. It’s like an issue of “Celebrities—They’re Just Like Us!” but with branding at its core.
Patagonia fashions its personal history in the midst of mid-century rebels and environmentalists. Its founders and their community were rock-climbers who evaded rangers in Yosemite when they overstayed their permits. It’s that kind of “lovers of nature at all costs” with a subtle hint of system-bucking that still defines Patagonia today.
The brand is at its core a storytelling mechanism. From the tale of the brand’s origins, to their humble marketing campaigns that show real outdoorsmen (and women) in real conditions—not too pretty, just right—so you can envision yourself there too, they tell the same story that prioritizes a passion for the outdoors.
Their storytelling techniques are executed in broad strokes across the company. Take, for example, their Worn Wear program. Rather than hype Black Friday sales, Patagonia encourages folks to repair their own gear or even sell back their gently used clothes. At the center of the initiative is a 30-minute documentary which features their iconic, well-loved apparel and the stories behind the garment, told by the users.
For a long time Patagonia has used editorial stories as marketing, but it doesn’t really come off as marketing because they’re so genuine. They’re transparent and trustworthy in their message, and they appeal to the activist and environmentally-aware outdoorsman who they long ago identified as their ideal market. They’ve cultivated their community with methodical intention over decades with transparency and activism, and because their fleeces have become so iconic, they’ve actually broadened their community and turned new consumers into activists.
If Patagonia is the brand for the environmental activist and pure at heart, Vans is the brand for the rebel.
Since the Van Doren brothers founded the brand in 1966 in Anaheim, the brand has defined itself by its uniquities. When they started, for example, they manufactured and sold the shoes in the same facility, which was unheard of then (and really, still is today). Next, the brand inserted itself into the realm of the skateboarder—the misfits of the specialty retail industry.
It was the ‘60s in southern California, the epicenter of a cultural revolution, and the brand took off. But Vans still maintains that special brand of rebellious charm today. Their slogan is “Off the Wall,” and it’s a phrase that defines their marketing and appeal.
From those early days to today, Vans has embraced and cultivated its wacky roots. They championed skateboarders when they were still outliers and curated quality products that worked—with a unique style that set them apart. Their influence spread quickly to other subversive groups, like punk rockers and street artists.
Like all things rebellious, the brand quickly became cool. And it maintains that cool-factor today. They created a new kind of community that then became their ideal market. The creatives, the rebels, the street athletes—they all needed to wear shoes too, they just needed a common brand to stand behind. Vans identified their tribe and united what were different communities into one.
Over the years, Vans has maintained that desirability of product with a unique approach: they haven’t changed. Whereas other brands would sway with the changing tides, Vans appeals to the same folks with the same products. You’ll still find the same Authentics and Sk8-His that your parents wore.
And like Patagonia, Vans also relies on storytelling to maintain a customer-base willing to pay for their unique products. They tap into a realm of under-the-radar celebrities and athletes to serve as spokespeople. Their social media is vibrant and personal, easy to engage with from a consumer’s perspective. They let their customers tell their story by giving them a huge amount of control over their designs and products. And they keep their name in the headlines of all types of stories as sponsors of huge subculture events like Warped Tour and the Triple Crown of Surfing.
Vans and Patagonia created and maintained unique communities in order to build their brands. Today, and for decades in the past, they’ve appealed to their customers and justified their prices by offering unique products with clearly defined messages. They are also inherently identifiable products, with tags and patterns anyone would recognize anywhere.
It might be difficult to imagine translating these mega-brands’ philosophies and approaches into nuggets that are applicable for your small retailer, but it’s really not. The biggest take-away is concision and consistency. From their outset, both of these brands identified their ideal market and devised clear-cut strategies to appeal to those people within that market. They use storytelling and consistent marketing to create a community that’s devoted to their products. You can do that too.