Patagonia Values

McDonald's will never make us thinner, but Wal-Mart just might make us cooler. The difference? Patagonia values.

The very same day that McDonald's announced it would tie-in with Shrek to promote healthier diets, Hamas militants introduced Mickey Mouse as its new mascot of Islamic domination.

In both cases, the intended audience was little kids.

This is not to compare McDonald's to Islamic extremists. Nor did Disney have anything to do with the misappropriation by Hamas of its most famous icon. In fact, the Hamas mascot was actually just a bad Mickey rip-off.

These two incidents do, however, provide striking examples of the lengths to which some organizations will go to convey that they are something other than what they really are.

In fairness, McDonald's should be commended for at least trying to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables among kids. But there's an old saying — usually credited to Marshall McLuhan — that whoever discovered water most likely was not a fish.

Let's face it: Whoever gets America's kids to eat healthier food, it most likely will not be McDonald's. They know this. Surely they are not fooling themselves about it, but they are betting that they can fool us. Unfortunately, that's often been the sad reality of marketing, or so the critics would have us believe.

Truth is, as suggested by Bill Breen in the May issue of Fast Company, "authenticity" is, was — and has always has been — at the heart of many great brands.

When that authenticity is compromised, the brand enters decline. It's like what happened to Cadillac, for instance, and The Gap. I mean, have you been in The Gap lately? The Gap's authenticity used to be all about basics — blue jeans and button-down shirts. I can't begin to tell you what it's about now because The Gap is obsessed with trying to be something it is not.

So, it's hard to predict success for McDonald's in the health-food category or, thankfully, Hamas in the kids' entertainment business. Krispy Kreme should perish all hopes of turning its fortunes around with its new whole-wheat donuts, too. It just doesn't ring true and is destined to fail.

However, there are some exceptions to the authenticity rule. It is indeed possible for some brands, under some conditions, to embrace values that are at odds with their established images and make a success of it.

Patagonia, for example, in a move away from its roots in mountain-sports, is shifting 50 percent of its production into water-sports. On the face of it, Patagonia has no credibility in water-sports, and skeptics are saying that there's just no way it will be able to compete against the authenticity of, say, Billabong — much less giants like Nike, Timberland and Adidas.

For at least two reasons, the skeptics likely will be proven wrong. First, it's safe to assume that Patagonia will bring the same level of quality to water-sports that it has delivered in mountain-sports. Even more important to Patagonia's success is the thinking behind its contrarian move, as articulated by its founder, Yvon Chouinard: "We're getting into the surf market because it's never going to snow again and the waves are going to get bigger and bigger," he told Fortune magazine.

Think about it: One of the business world's most celebrated environmentalists is changing his business model based on an assumption that the planet is melting. His insanely honest premise is remarkable not only because it is so astonishing, but also because nobody doubts for a moment that he really, truly means it. The degree of authenticity here is profound and breathtaking.

Then again, he could be just a crazy man.

Mr. Chouinard employs a similar thought process to Patagonia's surprising partnership with Wal-Mart. He has persuaded Wal-Mart to use less organic cotton and more synthetics, applying the argument that people throw away cotton clothes, but synthetics can be recycled. "If Wal-Mart does one-tenth of what they say they're going to do, it will be incredible," he says.

Whether Wal-Mart's association with Patagonia is perceived as any more "authentic" than McDonald's tie-in with Shrek is another question.

Wal-Mart certainly is trying to reinvent itself as "environmentally-friendly" these days. However, unlike McDonald's, Wal-Mart may actually be able to make a real difference (especially if it succeeds in its stated goal to motivate 100 million of its shoppers to buy just one compact fluorescent light bulb).

At the very least, Wal-Mart may have been sharing a little too much Kool-Aid with Yvon Chouinard. One-hundred million light bulbs? We'll see if a little bit of insanity is, in fact, an active ingredient of authenticity for Wal-Mart. The acid test for both companies is whether they deliver. Right now, the odds are reasonably good that they will.

It's better, all in all, not to deny one's roots just because they've become an "inconvenient truth." McDonald's, Krispy Kreme, The Gap — none of them should ever be ashamed of why we loved them in the first place. Nor should they ever hesitate to remind us of those reasons in as many new and exciting ways as possible.

Hamas is another story altogether.

As for Yvon Chouinard — let's hope he's wrong about global warming. Either way, he'll almost certainly be a winner because he is staying true to the values that have made Patagonia the uncommon success that it is.

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