(This story was updated on 10/19/2023.)
Mountain Hardwear is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and leadership at the company has been working hard to coordinate the milestone with a refresh of the outdoor brand.
The company poured the extra revenue it generated during the COVID-19 pandemic back into rebranding, creating a new marketing campaign that positions it as a premium, youthful outdoor brand.
Now the business is “in the black” for parent company Columbia Sportswear. “We’re earning our allowance,” said Troy Sicotte, president of Mountain Hardwear. “We’re driving some moderate growth.”
For 2022, Mountain Hardwear had $109.5 million in revenue, a 3% increase year-over-year in reported currency. That was on top of a 33% revenue increase in 2021, according to Columbia Sportswear’s financial documents.
For the first six months of 2023, the company had $43.3 million in net sales, down 2% from the same period last year in reported currency.
Although Columbia is forecasting a revenue decline for the brand for the full year, Sicotte remains optimistic. The Mountain Hardwear outlook looks strong considering headwinds the industry is facing, according to Sicotte. He said he’s feeling great about where the brand will land in 2023 and the resulting growth trajectory going into 2024.
“Over the past five years, we’ve turned this brand around and gotten back into a growth mindset and growth mode,” Sicotte said.
Columbia acquired Mountain Hardwear in 2003. The brand has about 90 dedicated employees in its Richmond, California headquarters. Sicotte estimated Mountain Hardwear products are in about 500-600 points of distribution in the United States.
Sicotte and Matt Burbach, global vice president of marketing for Mountain Hardwear, spoke with The Daily about the rebrand, e-commerce trends, and how the company operates differently than sister brand, Columbia.
Rebranding Effort Highlights Values, Purpose
For the past five years, Mountain Hardwear has been focused on recentering its product design and product offerings.
To explain the timeline: From 2018-2020, Mountain Hardwear focused on getting its products in a satisfactory place, then cleaned up its distribution and brought on new sales reps. 2021 was a good year for the brand. In 2022, when the team looked at its marketing and advertising, it wasn’t clear what message it wanted to send.
“We struggled a little bit,” Burbach said. “We offer products from alpine and mountaineering to snowsports to trail to camp to climbing. What does that actually look like? What is our identity?”
In figuring that out, the brand reevaluated its values, purpose, and principles, “to help us express that to our customer, to think about what we want to be known for,” Burbach said.
For help with its identity work, Mountain Hardwear partnered with New York-based branding studio Gretel. The studio helped develop a modernized mission, vision, and purpose and also introduced a new art direction, an evolution of the logo, brand color, and a custom typography family.
Mountain Hardwear also conducted an internal survey, interviewing more than half of its employees.
“We have folks who have been with the organization for a couple of months, and also 15 years,” Burbach said. “We did a bunch of insight work and really found out what we do value as a brand.”
The process allowed them to narrow down the list of what Mountain Hardwear stands for, its mission, and its vision. Then the challenge became how do they express it?
“How do we express a personality that’s wild, wise, gritty, and optimistic?” Burbach said. “That’s the work we’ve been doing for the last year.”
Building It Out
On top of the work with Gretel, Mountain Hardwear hired a creative director, an art director, and a brand manager at the same time.
“To make sure that when we launch this thing we would have the bandwidth to keep it rolling and keep it moving forward,” Burbach said. The rebranding team met each week and reported their ideas to Burbach.
“We floated them into the workflow we were doing, with the mission and idea to do no harm to the brand,” Burbach said. “We weren’t trying to break things. We were just trying to layer in small things.”
Mountain Hardwear’s marketing budget is a percentage of its gross sales, and in 2021 the business was doing well. “It just came at a really good time,” Burbach said. “We were really lucky, in terms of how the business was running.”
The marketing campaign is called Seek Wilder Paths, which the company says “introduces a bold update to the brand’s look and feel, reinvigorating the mountain ethos of the brand.”
The rebrand is a new take on visual and verbal tone, executing an awareness campaign rooted in the company’s purpose. Seek Wilder Paths plays off the wild, gritty, optimistic ’90s vibe, according to the company.
“But before we started advertising, we really needed to understand what we wanted to communicate about ourselves to our community,” Burbach said.
To get the message out, Mountain Hardwear relies on digital marketing, including social media and YouTube.
“In the past, a lot of that marketing and advertising communication has been rooted in driving traffic to e-commerce,” Burbach said. “What we’re doing now is trying to create an emotional connection with our consumer. Build stoke. Show the energy of a youthful brand.”
The end goal is to grow the business.
“Not saying we’re a multiple-billion-dollar brand anytime soon,” Sicotte said. “To be that you have to be something different than what Mountain Hardwear is. But doubling, tripling, quadrupling the business in the next decade is certainly in the line of sight.”
The Brand’s Home is Online
At the moment, Mountain Hardwear is not sitting on too much inventory, according to Sicotte, and it’s also not overdistributed or in mass-channel retail.
“We’re not having those conversations with retailers on taking product back or giving significant markdowns,” Sicotte said. “We’re in a great place to eke out some growth for this year, despite the (macroeconomic) headwinds.”
Mountain Hardwear is sold in national retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI, as well as in independent specialty retailers, but the main thrust of the marketing campaign to communicate the rebrand has been via its online presence.
“If I were to put our strategy into a nutshell it’s Mountainhardwear.com,” Sicotte said. “That’s what we’re calling our home, our house. It’s our place that’s going to be great for consumers to experience our brand. It’s a full-price model.”
Without any Mountain Hardwear retail stores, Sicotte said customers will get the best experience of the brand through its website.
Aside from that, one of Mountain Hardwear’s priorities has also been to fortify its presence with outdoor specialty retailers. Sicotte includes Scheel’s among those retailers, because “of the way their staff supports the customer experience and the customer journey.”
No Mass Channel Distribution
One thing the business doesn’t want to do is over-distribute and be everywhere, Sicotte said. “Our price points don’t support being in a Tier 2 department store,” he added.
For example, some of the brand’s top-selling products are its Ghost Whisperer jackets and hoodies, which can range from mid-$300 to $420.
“We do really well on those price points,” Sicotte said. He compared that to some of the other top-performing brands in the market, which sell a lot of $100 sweater fleece pieces.
“Does the world need another mass channel outdoor brand?” Sicotte asked. “There are some great ones out there. We’re owned by one. But what does our parent company need from us?”
Sicotte said the parent company doesn’t want his brand to compete with Columbia, but to focus on premium products.
“It’s a slower game,” he added. While Mountain Hardwear could aggressively grow the brand by opening up its distribution, “we’re just choosing to do it authentically through the channels where we know our customers are shopping. A chain department store is going to work with other brands.”
Mountain Hardwear operated two branded retail stores in Seattle and Portland, Oregon that were adjacent to Columbia brand stores. It has since closed those.
“We were getting a deal on the real estate, but it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted,” Sicotte said.
“The brand wasn’t ready to have a point of view on brick-and-mortar retail,” Sicotte said. He could see running stores in Bend, Oregon, or Boulder, Colorado, but Seattle and Portland weren’t the best fit.
“We should be in the mountains, not downtown,” Sicotte said.
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.