Mail to Retail

18 May

When a consumer purchases a winter coat at a department store, she might imagine wearing it while walking the dog in winter or shovelling the driveway. A women’s shell from the Patagonia store, however, promises to prove “indispensable on vertical terrain,” and is suggested for use in alpine and ice-climbing, and ski-mountaineering.

Whether or not the coat actually is worn on vertical terrain, the suggested uses still may affect the wearer. “The products that we make are for going out and doing outrageous things. They are inspirational,” says Vickie Achee, Patagonia’s retail marketing manager. “Patagonia might even put something in the customer’s mind-set, to [make her] think, ‘Well, maybe I should consider something like ice-climbing,’” she muses.

Since its early days as an outdoor clothing and gear catalog, Patagonia has added online and retail operations, and has become a hallmark for a positive brand experience. The channels of communication and shared values between Patagonia and its customers have grown so strong that in October Patagonia used a low-key postcard to create a retail marketing blitz.

The company mailed postcards to 300,000 retail and online shoppers announcing “Capture a Patagoniac,” a national in-store photography contest. Achee is responsible for translating the idea from the company’s tradition of using customer photographs in its catalogs. “I thought, ‘Well, if it works in our catalogs, it might work in our retail stores,’ because we’ve seen customers actually come in with photos of themselves,” she reveals.

The mailing affords customers a two-week opportunity to bring “spirited photographs of Patagonia clothing in use” into a local store and then return to the store to vote. Prizes include Patagonia gift cards and a grand prize trip for two from the travel company Backroads. Patagonia advertised successfully on Backroads’ Web site and decided to partner with the travel company for this promotion (Archive code #910-173110-0710).

Patagonia’s in-house creative department produced the postcard. On the front, there are six customer-submitted photographs of Patagonia gear in use, ranging from surfing and skiing action shots to a war protest, and the copy: “Capture A Patagoniac.” Using a small 4-1⁄4˝ x 6˝ size, postconsumer recycled paper, soy inks and a clean mailing list curbs the piece’s environmental impact. “My direct mail strategy to our retail stores is more on the conservative side, and environmental impact has a part in that decision,” Achee says. A minimal direct mail strategy also makes each mailing feel more noteworthy.

Achee’s creative team developed and sent toolboxes with essential display items to store managers who built unique in-store promotions. Aside from the direct mail piece, the company used e-mails, newswires and posts on individual store Web pages to promote the contest. Achee is considering the possibility of digital submissions in future competitions, but lauds the retail effort because it promotes a very localized experience, which may be lost in an online competition. “Capture A Patagoniac” allows customers to feel comfortable coming into retail locations to shop, hang out and share their stories.

So far, the contest has solicited an average of 30 entries per store and increased customer traffic. Store managers and customers responded so positively that future contests are in the works. Achee believes that increasing the entry window beyond two weeks will encourage more entries. This year’s winning photos will be featured on Patagonia’s blog, in-store displays or both. Either way, the contest already is a big hit and will continue to cement the unique bond between an outdoors company and its cliff-hanging clientele.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, January 2008)

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