On Monday morning, the watercooler talk among VF Corp. employees looks more like a Yelp review than the typical weekend replay. Employees chime in about The North Face jackets they wore skiing, the Lucy yoga pants they tested out and the Jansport backpacks they took hiking.
Steve Rendle, vice president of VF Corp. and the group president of its Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division, says this comes with the territory of being part of the world’s largest apparel manufacturer — with $7 billion in revenue and a portfolio of global consumer products brands.
“We choose not to sit in our ivory tower and predict what the consumer wants,” Rendle says. “We’re fortunate that our employees to a great degree are our consumers.”
A 25-year veteran in the outdoor industry, Rendle was president of The North Face for seven years before heading up VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas unit last year. Based in San Francisco, he manages a portfolio of eight, activity-driven brands, including three worth more than $1 billion each — The North Face, Timberland and Vans.
Rendle is tasked with leading the brand strategies that will resonate with VF’s customers over the world. When it comes to front-end operations, he says there are very specific skills sets that help the company cultivate connections between its brands and consumers. The most significant is how the company develops its brand strategies: by making them a lifestyle. The company calls this “the art and science of apparel.”
“It’s that deep immersion into that consumer and understanding the consumer’s needs and expectations of our business that helps us really fine tune how we apply our business initiatives to grow our businesses,” Rendle says.
Here’s how Rendle uses these strategies to develop VF’s fastest-growing division of brands.
The first step in developing a brand lifestyle is figuring out who the brand’s potential customers are in the marketplace.
“It’s taking an approach of first understanding who the consumers are,” Rendle says. “The ‘who’ aspect is a very important part, and we invest a tremendous amount of money corporately and from our brands to understand our consumers through global segmentation studies.”
While research from focus groups and surveys is beneficial from a targeted point of view, understanding a customer’s lifestyle takes a deeper level of interaction, beyond a phone call or email. You can look at annual research or employee feedback to get ideas about what customers are going to want, but to understand who they are requires a deeper level of knowledge only possible through one-on-one interaction.
“First and foremost, we’re an organization built of passionate consumers,” Rendle says. “But that’s not enough. We want to go into the marketplace. We want to think about our brands globally and do a lot of qualitative and quantitative research to engage with these consumers and understand how they think of our brands. What do they expect from our brands? And more importantly, how would they like us to communicate with them?”
Branded events are one way that Rendle and his team get answers to these questions. Sponsoring fun, action-oriented events that engage consumers allows the company to interact with people in environments that reflect their interests and lifestyles, giving the company a better idea of “who” they are.
“We’re able to engage and understand how they’re thinking about us, how they’re thinking about this particular event and learning about their product needs,” Rendle says.
In addition to the millions of followers that Vans and The North Face have in the digital realm, both brands also generate a tremendous following by putting on popular outdoor events. Rendle frequently travels with the product and sales teams to see how the brands are represented in retail, but also attends the key brand events to learn how they are connecting with consumers.
The North Face hosts its “Endurance Challenge,” a series of endurance races across the globe that attract 1,000 to 3,000 runners per event. These races are a great opportunity to meet runners who fit the brand’s performance market as well as hold mini “expos” for families so that they can interact with the brand, Rendle says.
Similarly, Vans uses its national Vans Warped Tour, a day-long outdoor music and action sports event to connect with some of its key consumer groups, from skateboarders, to musicians and BMXers. With a history as the original skate shoe manufacturer, Vans now focuses on the broader market of men’s and women’s footwear and apparel. So as the partial owner and operator of the summer concert series — the longest running in the U.S. — it draws more than 600,000 people each year and offers a direct line to its youth audience.
“It’s a very impressive music-driven event, but it’s also an event where we’re able to touch the consumers and listen and learn as they interact with the music culture how they’re thinking about the brand, the brand’s products and how the brand is communicating from a marketing standpoint,” Rendle says. “Events are a powerful tool to not only tell the stories of our brands but to interact with those consumers.”
Ask the experts
It’s important to understand not just who your customer is but also what he or she expects from you. Because there is whole host of running footwear and running apparel competitors for The North Face, for example, the brand can’t gain market share just by resonating today’s consumer trends today. It also must stay abreast of the running lifestyle and how it’s changing. To do that, the company uses brand ambassadors.
Each of VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas brands, specifically The North Face and Vans, partners with teams of professional athletes to participate with the brands at a high level, engaging with different products and contributing ideas. The North Face has more than 70 such athletes active around the world.
These brand ambassadors help provide insight into what the brand’s customers want and will want in the future.
“The North Face is the best example, where we have the mantra of ‘athlete-tested, expedition proven’ as that primary input into our product engine,” Rendle says. “We can make sure that we’re building the most authentic and technically relevant products possible that enable our consumers to enjoy their outdoor experience to the greatest degree.”
Tapping brand ambassadors is also useful for brand innovation and product development. Your “experts” in a brand lifestyle can help you identify pain points or product ideas that you may not spot or study based on customer or employee feedback alone.
A prime example is when The North Face runner Kami Semick participated in a high altitude race in the French Alps. After nearly contracting hypothermia from the cold, wet environment, she helped the brand identify a key need for lighter-weight apparel to protect athletes from adverse moisture and weather. Semick worked with the product teams to design a new technology for the brand’s fabrics that eliminates the distraction of moisture when during athletic performance. This year, the company is releasing about 100 new products featuring the FlashDry technology.
“North Face is the brand that provides the ultimate outdoor protection,” Rendle says. “So we bring that thinking and that knowledge base into running apparel.”
Concentrate your efforts
With global brands, you need to do lot of work to identify who your potential customers are. But equally important is figuring out your brand identity. To put it into perspective, brands such as The North Face are trying to capture market share in a $320 billion global market in the outdoor and action sports business, Rendle says.
Figuring out how to position these brands in the marketplace requires Rendle and his team to spend a lot of time looking at the macro-market to size up opportunities.
“That’s building the business strategies using the consumer insights and the market intelligence to help us craft very clearly focused strategies that we execute on five-year basis,” he says. “It’s always the rolling five-year plan and looking very specifically at where those opportunities are to drive our growth.”
Looking at the larger, macro market data, VF applies filters to examine the size of different opportunities:
What is the business doing specifically from a retail standpoint? What are the best ways of communicating to the consumer within those specific segments? Who are the competitors?
In this process, it’s necessary to look at brand competitors from a very critical point of view as far as what are they good at, Rendle says.
“We’re trying to understand what makes them unique — what are their points of difference and what things are more parody,” he says. “Then we look for those white spaces where we know that our brand naturally plays or places that we should be focusing to look for incremental growth.”
The points of difference are unique to your brand, whereas your points of parity are things you need to do just to stay in business — fit of garment, for example.
“It’s not really something that we would own, versus a specific focus or an innovative platform might be a unique point of difference and gives us an emotional connection to the consumer,” Rendle says.
An example is the women’s yoga brand, Lucy. While Lucy was the first brand in the women’s training space, it lost its way before VF acquired it in 2008, giving the Canadian brand Lulu a lead in sales and brand recognition.
“When we look at the difference between those two consumers — the Lulu consumer and the Lucy consumer — we see some very distinct differences in how she thinks, how she acts, how she wants to interact with her brand and honestly how she looks at those activities,” Rendle says.
The company also uses its brands’ leveragable platforms, or things that each brand does well, to position fellow brands stronger in the marketplace. The key is to utilize each brand’s strengths, without losing sight of how each brand consumer — and consumer lifestyle — is different.
“We focus on understanding the brand’s purpose and really understanding what we stand for and what our unique value to our consumer is,” Rendle says.
“It’s making sure I help those brands remain autonomous because it is those specific brand identities and cultures that make these brands successful. At the same time, it’s helping them leverage the VF platforms to scale and access capabilities at a much more effective price.”
After applying these kinds of lenses to see what a brand does well, you can learn how to build “permission” with customers to bring new lines to market where you don’t have established expertise, Rendle says.
The ability to introduce new products to consumers is a critical step in making a brand’s products part of a “lifestyle” the can continue to grow and evolve. Currently, The North Face is trying to do this with the footwear segment — using running apparel to break into running shoes.
“For us to sell footwear it needs to be uniquely different and bring some specific value that other brands are not,” Rendle says. “Where we know we have permission to compete first is in the trail, so really playing off of that outdoor heritage and enabling consumers to run off the road and onto the trail.”
The way the company creates its brand strategies is also changing the way Rendle and his employees think about the business, Rendle says. By creating brand lifestyles that resonate with consumers, the Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division has grown from less than 10 percent of VF’s total sales in 2000 to close to 50 percent.
“It’s helped us understand that this deep connection into the consumer’s lifestyle gives us a unique point of difference, and a unique way of competing against the many number of other choices that consumers have to make in their apparel purchases,” he says.
How to reach: VF Corp., (336) 424-6000 or www.vfc.com
1. Use events to connect with customers.
2. Create brand ambassadors.
3. Find your points of difference and parity.
The Rendle File
vice president and group president, Outdoor and Action Sports Americas
Born: Spokane, Wash.
Education: Bachelor of science, the University of Washington
What do you like most about your job?
I get to get up every day and come to work and participate in businesses and touch activities that I really love. I grew up skiing. I grew up climbing. I’m a very active outdoor user. I’ve dabbled in surf. I’m not a skater but I absolutely enjoy those people as much as I do those that I’ve grown up with. I get to live and play in a marketplace that I’m just deeply passionate about. To also build that passion of building success, in this case successful businesses that add shareholder value — I may very well have one of the best jobs in our company.
On his transition from president of The North Face to division group president: First you have to immerse yourself in the businesses. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve worked with each of these brand leaders as a peer for many years. But I needed to take a step back, remember that my job is not to only think only of The North Face, but to think about eight specific brands, their contributions to our portfolio and the larger VF. It is just to take a step back and forget about what I loved so much, and begin to understand that I have eight things that I get to love.
How do you regroup after a tough day?
My best tool for sorting out a difficult day is to get outside for some sort of physical activity. My favorite choice is to jump on my road bike and roll out for a long ride. No distractions. Just time to focus on the activity and subconsciously sort out my thoughts.