Patagonia sign

The Risk of Patagonia Envy

February 21, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • When asked about “high reputation” firms, one that always comes to mind is the outdoor retailer Patagonia which has a very high reputation due to its commitment and authenticity to its mission.
  • You can learn a lot from Patagonia but don’t just copy their approach: a good reputation is based on being authentic to your own beliefs.
  • There are several objective, data-driven rankings of corporate reputation but I also like to take a subjective view of what makes for a high reputation.

“Who do you think is a high-reputation firm, Bill?”

Clients and friends often ask who I consider to be “high reputation firms”. I usually refer to the work of the Reputation Institute and their RepTrack ranking. These ranking are well-established and are featured in Forbes magazine annually, listing the high reputation firms in the US and Globally. Companies like Rolex, Lego and Google top this list and are obviously firms with excellent reputations.

I have no disagreement with using these companies as examples of high reputation firms but I also have my own, more informal approach. I think that this more subjective view of reputation is particularly helpful when you notice firms like Campbell’s Soup and Apple land relatively far down the RepTrack index. This can seem incongruous (I mean, who has a poor opinion of Campbell’s soup?) especially when popular firms like Starbucks don’t even appear in top 99.

So when I’m asked which firm I consider to be “high reputation”, I also like to list a few other firms who might not appear so highly in the US segment of the RepTrack index, companies like Campbell’s, Starbucks and BMW.

But the company I talk about most is outdoor retailer Patagonia.

Patagonia = authenticity

Patagonia specializes in high-end outdoor gear, starting in back 1972 when the founder, Yves Chouinard, and other climbers couldn’t find reliable climbing hardware.  Chouinard started blacksmithing his own and, over 45 years later, the company is a mainstay of the outdoors apparel sector.  

But Patagonia is equally well known for its commitment to environmental and social causes and I believe that this authenticity lies at the heart of its perceived high reputation. Chouinard explained how this environmental commitment transpired and I think the last sentence is the most important (highlighting mine).

At first we were all interested in making the best products … then as we got concerned about the state of the planet, we added on “cause no unnecessary harm.” And as we got more depressed and concerned [we started] influencing other companies to use our business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. That’s what I really think about: Leading by example, not just talking about what we’re doing.”

                  Yves Chouinard in ‘Don of the Dirtbags’ The Usual Montauk Magazine, 2016

One example of leading by example is their tool called ‘The Footprint Chronicles’ which I cited in my book as an excellent example of transparency.  The tool allows you to track and follow the manufacturing process for individual garments all the way back to where raw materials were sourced. Patagonia also co-founded the ‘1% for the Planet’ initiative (1% of sales income goes to environmental causes) and they have recently been at the forefront of campaigns to protect public land in the US.

However, unlike other firms which separate activism from business, Patagonia gives these social and environmental causes equal billing alongside sales and marketing.  So their ads are just as likely to be a call to action to protect the environment as a product story. This mix of social activism and savvy business acumen was recognized by Fast Company Magazine which ranked them #1 in the ‘Social Good’ category of their 2018 list of Most Innovative Companies.

And this commitment to social and environmental issues doesn’t seem to hurt their bottom line: Patagonia is now a multi-billion dollar company. For them, mixing business and activism is both smart and profitable.

But most of all, it’s authentic.

Patagonia lives what they believe in and their values permeate everything they do and how they do it.  For me, it’s this authenticity that is the key to their success and high reputation.

I believe that there’s a lot we can learn from this example but first, an important point. You can learn a lot from Patagonia and applying their lessons to your own business will help you develop a high reputation. But your business is unique so you need to avoid succumbing to “Patagonia Envy”.   

You aren’t Patagonia

”Patagonia Envy” can be a challenge for the rest of: we think that being just like them is a shortcut to our own great reputation. But firms like Patagonia didn’t get the ‘halo’ that they’ve achieved without hard work and making sacrifices. Patagonia has a long track record of doing the right things for the right reasons for their business, their employees, customers, and the planet.

They tell this story in great detail in their book The Responsible Company, What We’ve Learned From Patagonia In The First 40 Years which lays out the lessons for anyone to see. But this is Patagonia’s story and, even though it describes the path that they took to success, it isn’t a roadmap that every company can follow.  

Your company’s road to success will look different from theirs and trying to follow them exactly is simply “Patagonia Envy”. Instead, the true lesson to learn from Patagonia is the need to be authentic.

They are authentic to who they are, their beliefs and values. That’s what underpins their success.

Similarly, it’s vital for your company to remain true to its core beliefs and values as it builds its reputation. This ties back to the first of the four A’s from our book: awareness. (The other three are assessment, authority and action in case you were curious.)

Know and be yourself

Awareness includes being self-aware: knowing who you are, understanding what you believe in and being clear about what you can and can’t do. You also have to define your mission and your values and explain what you stand for. Articulate this and be absolutely clear because this ‘awareness’ is the foundation for everything else your company is going to, through the good times and the bad.

Then you can start to build your reputation as a reflection of your behavior which in turn is a reflection of your beliefs. This honesty and authenticity, coupled with hard work and sacrifice, are what will allow you to earn your own halo.

But we can’t claim that halo unless we’ve done the hard work. And we certainly can’t just copy what’s in the Responsible Company because we feelPatagonia Envy”.

Don’t be envious, be authentic

So while using Patagonia as a benchmark is incredibly valuable, don’t have “Patagonia Envy”. Your company can’t grab their halo by simply copying what they do and you won’t succeed without making the kind of sacrifices that they had to in order to get where they are today.

Instead, learn what you can for your own company from Patagonia’s example but be authentic to your beliefs and values.  That authenticity is how you forge your own path to a high reputation and business success.


Header image source:
Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.