Erik Burbank wanted to know if Royal Robbins could be considered the first sustainable apparel brand, so he asked the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT.
The answer came back “it’s hard to say who is first,” the newly appointed global brand president recounted.
“That’s true,” Burbank said. “But the whole concept of sustainability, even though that word didn’t exist (when the company was founded in 1968), the idea of making things that last and living a life in tune with nature, was fundamentally what they’re about.”
Burbank sees the San Francisco, California-based Royal Robbins as a brand with a story that’s relevant today but that needs a push to the forefront.
“The truth is – it has lost its luster, its direction and needs to be reignited,” he said. “But I believe there’s a real opportunity there.”
Royal Robbins is owned by Fenix Outdoor, which also owns Fjällräven, Hanwag, Tierra and Primus, as well as a group of multi-brand outdoor retailers in Europe.
A Rich History
The outdoor and travel apparel company was founded in California by adventurers Royal and Liz Robbins, a couple that by all accounts led very full lives.
Royal was considered one of the pioneers of American rock climbing, with a long list of notable ascents, as well as being an accomplished kayaker with several first descents of rivers from high up in the mountains.
Burbank, who is in his ninth week at the job, said he took the new position because he believes in the brand and its founders’ story.
“Everybody knows the Royal story, he was one of the most impactful climbers of our generation, in probably the last 100 years,” he said.
“But for me, it’s a story of a life well-lived and a couple that prioritized a sense of adventure and putting nature into their lives.”
Earlier this year, Royal Robbins announced goals and lower environmental impact practices to further brand sustainability. The initiatives support Royal Robbins’ 2025 climate goals of a 40% reduction in its emissions at the company’s owned and operated locations.
This year is also going to be about resetting the brand, according to Burbank.
“There is tremendous opportunity for Royal Robbins, because I believe there’s something unique about the brand name that will resonate with consumers and add value to their lives, both in the product, but also in how we inspire them to lead fuller lives,” he said.
Burbank’s main challenge: Getting that message across to consumers who may not have heard of the brand.
“We’re working on that,” he said. “I don’t have the answers yet.”
Evaluating the industry
By the time the company gets to the next sales cycle, Burbank hopes to have a new growth strategy in place.
In the meantime, he’s watching the overall sales trends in the outdoor industry, and believes that consumer demand is not slowing as heavily as some people fear.
“There’s a possibility that we’re overreacting in terms of people thinking that demand is dropping,” he said.
Burbank, who has more than 15 years of executive leadership experience, has the background to analyze outdoor industry trends.
He most recently served as Keen’s general manager of outdoor and vice president of The Keen Effect, overseeing the brand’s environmental, social justice and governance initiatives. He also recently served as a board member for The Conservation Alliance.
Before Keen, Burbank spent eight years with Helly Hansen in Oslo, Norway where he led the brand as chief marketing officer.
One trend he noticed during the holidays was how many brands were offering site-wide sales. Meaning, instead of taking 20% off of winter goods at the end of the season, for example, brands were discounting everything by 40% – even new styles. That might help a company move inventory, according to Burbank, but he questions the impact that has on the overall industry.
However, Burbank believes there are still opportunities for companies to grow, even in difficult market conditions.
“During these challenging times, good retailers and good brands often continue to do well because people value their products,” Burbank said.
When it comes to the immediate term for Royal Robbins, Burbank is focused on developing his plan for refining the brand so that “we can really ignite it.”
“(Royal Robbins) is 55 years old this year,” he said. “And the values that they lived by, that helped them start this brand, are probably more relevant and more needed than ever before.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.