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The North Face China: Finding True North

Tom Richardson and Morgan Cao

Warc Prize for Asian Strategy
Entrant, 2012


The North Face China: Finding True North

Tom Richardson and Morgan Cao
Warc Prize for Asian Strategy
Entrant, 2012

The North Face China: Finding True North

Tom Richardson and Morgan Cao
Campaign details
Brand owner: VF Corporation
Agencies: OgilvyOne, Shanghai
Brand: The North Face
Country: China
Channels used: Events and experiential, Games and competitions, Internet - general, Online video, Outdoor, out-of-home,
Point-of-purchase, in-store media, Print - general, unspecified, Public relations, Social media, Sponsorship - event or property,
Word of mouth and viral
Media budget: 1 - 3 million
Executive summary
In recent years, researchers have started to whisper the unthinkable that white-collar workers in Chinese cities are
beginning to doubt the ideal of success that they've been brought up with. The ferocious pursuit of money and career has
come at a cost that people can sense but can't easily articulate.
When the Chinese say they 'can't find North', it means they've lost their way or their sense of direction in life. It's a deeply felt
idiom, now more so than ever. So The North Face (TNF) created a series of epic events that immersed people in 'real-life'
experiences, enjoying activities along a route that headed from the southern city of Guangzhou to the 'True North' of China.
Timing and frustrated ambition combined to spark a reaction. The campaign generated 3.2 million website hits and one million
posts on social networks and microblogs, and 21 magazines and a documentary film crew followed the route. Most importantly
of all, sales grew by 46%, thrashing Columbia (32%) and the category (29%).
Market background and business objectives
Market background summary
The outdoor-apparel market in China is growing quickly. From just US$10m in 2001, it grew to be worth more than US$1bn by
2011. Between 2010 and 2011, the market grew by around 30% year-on-year.

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Given all the opportunity there is, outdoor apparel is a fiercely competitive market. There are 325 international outdoor brands
and 229 domestic brands registered in China, and because apparel is a fragmented category with low barriers to entry, there
are a large number of brands trading on price.
Position in the market
The North Face is still an upstart in this category, with mainland China sales of just US$90 million in 2011. At the start of 2011,
awareness of the brand was just 7% significantly lower than Columbia (18%) and Toread (14%).
Our key objective was to keep up with category sales growth for 2011. But we also believed that we had to peg our results
against our key rival, Columbia, because the outdoor category is growing so quickly from a low base and is consolidating more
every year. The North Face was trying to eat into Columbia's market share quickly, by planting a flag firmly in the ground as
the authentic outdoor brand. Our aims were to:

Outgrow a rapidly expanding category (estimated to be 30% sales value growth in 2011)

Eat away at Columbia's market share

Increase brand awareness to 15%

Establish The North Face as the most 'authentic' outdoor brand in China.

Insight and strategic thinking

Cultural context
During the Middle Ages, China was seen by its people as a balanced society. Mandarins living in large settlements offered
moral leadership, while farmers fed the country. The town and the countryside were valued equally highly. But from around
1850, as international trade brought riches to the cities, urban life became the pinnacle of aspiration.1
From 1979, this trend accelerated dramatically. From 1995 to 2005, around 120 million people flooded into the cities, which
were seen as centres of both wealth and culture. As urbanisation gathered pace, rural China became defined by the character
'T?' (?), meaning dirty, crude or uncivilised.2
This makes it uniquely difficult to sell outdoor adventure as an aspiration to Chinese people. The North Face doesn't just need
to grow its brand; it has to sell a lifestyle that goes against the dominant narrative of development.
While researching the cultural context of rural China, the TNF team dug up a fascinating academic paper, which indicated that
this dominant narrative might have weaknesses.3 The paper looked at the phenomenon of 'Nongjiale' ('Happy Farmer') in
Liaoning Province, arguing that people who lived in cities were driving to the countryside at weekends to eat, drink and live
like peasants. We researched this further and found signs of a similar pattern emerging across China.
In the context of what the team already knew about dissatisfaction with urban life, this gave The North Face confidence that
the outdoor lifestyle could be revived in China. But they knew they had to make outdoor challenges and achievements
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resonate with those who'd been brought up in the city.

Since Deng Xioaping's Open Door policy was introduced in 1978, Chinese urban professionals have been funnelled into a
prescribed route for success: a good university, a good salary, property ownership and sensible investment. This ideal is not
immediately vulnerable money will remain the dominant indicator of success in China for the foreseeable future but as our
target audience travels and earns more, they start looking for more out of life, which gives the ideal of success a nuance.
The TNF team spoke to people who said that money was a moving target always out of reach and never enough. In pursuit
of it, they were forgetting what was important to them and losing their way. There were four strands to this strategy:
Firstly, it was vital to needle people into questioning the direction their lives had taken, while simultaneously pointing them in a
new direction. The bitter pill of insecurity had to be sweetened by aspiration. Because the TNF team was trying to affect a
fundamental change in the way people related to success, we knew that we had to root our strategy in a timeless truth, rather
than a current trend.
Secondly, the campaign had to be authentic and participatory; it couldn't just appeal to emotion. True to TNF's broader
ambition of creating a culture of outdoor exploration, it was important to balance a sense of achievement with making it easy
for people to get outdoors.
Thirdly, it had to be based on teamwork. Crucially, research told TNF that, unlike many western explorers, the Chinese
explorer's ideal of the outdoors was not solitary. As Richard Nisbett points out in The Geography of Thought, western ideals
tend to be built on the Greek idea of agency, or self-determination, whilst Chinese ideals are built on the bonds of
companionship, which foster trust, and mutuality in a group.4
And finally, it had to be social. It had to allow people to share their achievements in return for recognition.
How was this strategy different?
The ambition of the TNF brand, in the words of APAC General Manager Jacob Uhland, is to "inspire a movement of outdoor
exploration." So we knew that our key message had to both act as a call to action, and give The North Face a truly authentic
outdoor identity.
The conventional wisdom of the outdoor category in China has been that it's impossible to sell the outdoors. However, you can
sell the outdoor aspiration but you have to make it relevant to the modern urban lifestyle, incorporating street wear, graphic
design and music. Many brands had always talked about 'the outdoors' in an abstract sense, but not bothered to show people
how to connect.
The North Face decided that it didn't want to make these compromises, and would gamble on its ability to not just market a
brand, but to create a culture.
'Finding True North,' aimed to forge an enduring link between the outdoors, The North Face, and a search for life's direction.
Rather than a foreign concept clumsily forced into a Chinese context, it was a cultural strategy born of China itself.
Creative approach
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With the strategy in place, copywriters started playing around with the cultural context of 'north' and 'never stop exploring'.
They struck on the Chinese idiom 'can't find North', and realised it could be turned on its head as a rallying cry to join a series
of outdoor activities.
The TNF team then designed a route from Guangzhou in the south of China, to Mohe in the far north, that took in 10 cities
along the way and recruited people through social media to join our mission 'to the North'. In each city, the 'True North' team
designed a series of outdoor activities (hiking, mountain biking etc) that took people from the centre to the northernmost point.
At each checkpoint, people were able to unlock 'achievement badges' via their phones, which were then shared across social
The top nine performers in the first nine cities were invited to join an exclusive group that would set out from Mohe, in northern
China, to find the country's 'True North'.

Media mix
Remaining faithful to The North Face's aim to plant a flag of authenticity, and so differentiate it from its rivals, this campaign
was built around outdoor events on the 'True North' trail. But to kick the buzz up a level:

We invited outdoor and urban lifestyle media to a launch event in Guangzhou

We built installations in our stores so that people could track the team's progress

We spent less than one-third of our budget on strategic print/OOH to build awareness of the event

We created a campaign website, integrated with social media, where people could sign up to events, track progress and
get tips for getting out there

We partnered with Weibo and location-based, mobile social network to allow people to check in and win
badges that acknowledged their achievement.

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Breakdown of spend (US$2.94m) by individual media


Traditional media (OOH/print): US$1.4m

Digital: US$540,000

Activation: US$300,000

PR: US$250,000.

Performance against objectives

Outperform projected category sales growth of 30% in 2011
With the outdoor category expected to grow by around 30% in 2011, The North Face aimed to outperform category value
growth. In reality, this campaign helped TNF to grow 58% more than the category.

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(Source: The North Face China Sales Report, 2010, 2011)

Eating away at Columbia's market share
Perhaps the best indication of the impact of the strategy comes from comparing media spend with the impact of that spend.
TNF was massively outspent by Columbia, but achieved significantly higher sales growth, in that:

every US$1m The North Face spent on media in 2011 returned 1.15% sales growth

every US$1m Columbia spent on media in 2011 returned just 0.35% sales growth.

(Source: Maxus/GroupM data tracking)

Improve brand awareness from 7% to 15%
This campaign was like a snowball that just grew and grew as it rolled downhill. The momentum generated by our outdoor
events led to:

3.28 million hits on the campaign website

1 million posts on social networks and microblogs

162,544 badges unlocked by mobile check-in (the highest number in the history of the site)

More than 50,000 followers on Sina Weibo, three times more than just a year earlier

21 magazines writing 111 articles about the campaign

One documentary film for The Travel Channel

RMB13.5m (US$2.14m) earned media value

257% increase in total brand awareness (see below)

Total awareness and purchase, 2010 vs 2011

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(Source: Maxus/GroupM data tracking, Agency PR tracking report, Sina Weibo analytics,, IPSOS ASI Brand
Awareness Report, The North Face China Sales Report 2010, 2011)
Improve perception of The North Face as the most 'authentic' outdoor brand in China
Interestingly, The North Face's awareness to intention-to-purchase conversion rate was significantly higher than its rivals in
2011, suggesting that those with any interest in the category now see TNF as the 'real deal'.

(Source: IPSOS ASI Brand Awareness Report, The North Face China Sales Report 2010, 2011)
Lessons learned
The Chinese dream is changing
The surge of materialism and fierce ambition triggered by Deng Xiaoping's reforms in 1978 has been remarkable for its
endurance. But now it is changing, slowly and irresistibly. While 'face' will always be an important concept in China, now
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success is not being measured by the accumulation of 'things'. The middle-class Chinese are on the cusp of post-materialism.
Outdoor brands have to lead by example
In a culture where outdoor exploration has a short history, outdoor brands still have to show people how. Everything about the
brand has to embody the outdoor lifestyle. These brands should have the courage to take up the challenge of building a
culture, rather than satisfying themselves with flogging kit.
Brands should create social environments that incentivise exploration, by rewarding explorers with peer approval. The key to
the success of this campaign was the use of achievement badges that could be unlocked at checkpoints and shared with
friends. Although the western exploration ideal has a romantic strain of isolation and self-reliance, the Chinese don't see
connectivity as contrary to the experience of the outdoors.

The elite explorer team arrive in Mohe, China's 'True North'

1. The Search for Modern China, Jonathan D. Spence, W.W. Norton & Co., 1991.
2. Dr Michael Griffiths, Discovery, Shanghai
3. Chinese Consumers: The Romantic Reappraisal, Michael B. Griffiths, M. Chapman, F. Christiansen, Ethnography 11 (3)
4. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, Richard E. Nisbett, Simon & Schuster, 2003

Copyright Warc 2012

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