In Ep. 37 of Earned, Conor sits down with an expert on brand building and outdoor apparel: Steve Lesnard. While Steve was just named as the new Global Chief Brand Officer at Sephora, at the time of recording, he served as the CMO and Global VP of Product Creation at The North Face. Prior to that, Steve spent 20 years at Nike, working his way up to Global Vice President and General Manager of the brand’s Running division.
We kick off the episode by hearing how The North Face adapted its practices and culture to prioritize employee well-being throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Next, we dive into Steve’s 20-year career at Nike, learning what he believes contributes to the brand’s impressive staying power and how he helped grow the business by 10x. Steve details his experience leading Nike’s Olympic and Running divisions, and unpacks how launching the Nike+ app helped the brand better understand consumer behavior to drive product innovation. We then switch gears to brand collaborations, and Steve explains why the unexpected The North Face x Gucci team-up worked so well. Finally, we discuss influencer marketing via athletes, before closing the show with Steve’s approach to leadership.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“Understand your consumer journey and the timing at which you want to show up to maximize the added value you can bring to the experience”: Steve Lesnard on the Importance of Understanding the Consumer Journey
Conor Begley: You've mentioned in other interviews how much time you spend observing consumer behavior using either data, research, etc. You’ve mentioned Google searches. But what are some of the ways that you do your own consumer research, or is most of it just observation?
Steve Lesnard: When we used to travel, firsthand observation in store and in key events and races was always invaluable for our teams in general—the product creation team, the innovation team, the marketing team—because it allows you to understand how consumers actually use your products and exposes clear pain points that you might have not thought about. With the digital tool that we have right now, we have great ways to actually track people in their journey, whether they're in store or online or on our platforms, to understand what they're interested in, how they're engaging with the platform, and what their pain points are.
So you mentioned trends like Google, which is always useful for me to understand macro trends. Like we talked about earlier, “how to start running” at the time had over a billion searches between Europe and the U.S. There was an influx of new runners that didn’t know how to run, so [at Nike] we created resources and experiences to help onboard new runners—how to improve your run, what shoes you should wear. In the world that I live in today with The North Face, you have a lot of these questions on how to climb, how to camp, what to pack. So that’s one element. I think another element is really paying attention to the consumer journey of the communities that you serve, and try to be proactive in understanding what information they would need at what time.
A good example for me is when you start thinking about camping, consumers in the world that I live in start thinking about camping in February or March. The weather isn’t really camping friendly, but that's when they're starting to really do their thinking. Traditional brands really talk about camping in May, June, and July, but by then, consumers have pretty much made up their choices on what they want to do and the brands they want to work with. So thinking and understanding your consumer journey and the timing at which you want to show up to maximize the added value you can bring to the experience has been pivotal in a lot of the experiences that I've had to really match what consumers expect with what brands can offer.
“A successful collaboration aligns company values while adding new dimensions”: Steve Lesnard on Why The North Face x Gucci Collaboration Worked
Conor Begley: Let's jump into The North Face. When I was looking at the data for The North Face, you guys saw a massive EMV spike during your Gucci collaboration, and you’ve also mentioned the collaboration that you did with Supreme. Talk to me about this idea of brand collaboration. Again, you talked about the Nike and Apple collaboration, and that seems to be something that you invest in quite heavily. Is that something that has been increasing over time for you, or has it stabilized over time? What is it about those kinds of brand collaborations that you seem to be attracted to?
Steve Lesnard: So one of the unique things about The North Face is that it's probably the only outdoor brand right now, or one of the very few athletic brands like Nike and Adidas, that has a really strong performance anchor as an outdoor brand, but also has a deep resonance with street and youth culture. It started in New York in the eighties, with a lot of musicians and artists using North Face outerwear products to frankly survive the winter in New York. That created that deep connection. So when you look at collaboration, my belief has always been that a successful collaboration is a collaboration that aligns the companies’ values while adding new dimensions to both companies.
So, The North Face has a long history of collaboration. When I joined the team, one of the things we wanted to do was be very careful about how we would approach collaborations moving forward, to reduce the number of partners and increase the quality and the depth of the relationships. Supreme and North Face have been collaborating for years, it's a really symbiotic relationship. We work really well with that team. They understand the brand, they're curators of the brand, which has always been really fun to leverage.
When we came to Gucci and started to connect with Gucci, the first question was, why would the brands work together? Do we have common values? I know Robert Triefus was [on the podcast] recently as well. Robert and Alessandro [Michele] have done an incredible job of bringing a Gucci dimension to The North Face dimension. Clearly, The North Face is an outdoor brand. We care a lot about the environment and sustainability, and Gucci has really high standards around sustainability as well, which was quite exciting. Our brand mantra is, “Never stop exploring.” It's about bringing new people into the world of exploration. The Gucci team took that inspiration through the lens of creativity, but also in celebrating and bringing new people into the world of the outdoors.
So, we felt the [brand] values were really aligned, then it became about, what stories do we tell? And for the first collaboration and campaign that we did with Gucci, what we ended up doing is going back to the archive of some of our very first products ever created in the seventies—the very first catalog that we did. Alessandro, their creative director, really liked that seventies authentic camping vibe, and took these iconic original products from The North Face and added the magic Gucci twist to it. So much so that even the soundtrack of the documentary [around the collaboration] was Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose rehearsing studio was right next to The North Face’s very first store in Berkeley. And they came and performed in the store. So it was a beautiful exercise of curation to celebrate the two brands coming together and celebrating the history of The North Face with a fresh perspective from Gucci. I think it's important when we do collaborations that the two brands have similar values, have common objectives, and expand their reach from each other as well.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 36 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, Gymshark, Summer Fridays, and Gucci, visit our Earned Podcast page.