The North Face: Not so VIP

The North Face (or TNF for short) is a huge brand with broad awareness and preference.  I know – as I’ve been wearing and using North Face clothing and gear for a long time (longer than I care to admit here).  Back a few years ago, I even had an opportunity to meet some of the folks running North Face – really nice people.  So when I got this (seemingly) innocuous email the other day – your basic holiday offer email – buy $125 get $25 – I didn’t think much of it:

TNF email 110915But as I read through the copy, addressed to “VIPeak members” – something didn’t feel right.  As I read further – this is what I learned.  TNF wants me to: a) go to a physical store; b) spend $125 before Thanksgiving; c) come back to a store in early December to then be rewarded with a $25 discount.

Being in the SF Bay Area, it just so happens there are two TNF stores within a reasonable drive – but I hate to shop and prefer to buy online: strike one.  In addition, I don’t think I’m alone in liking instant gratification, so I’m less than thrilled to have to make a second trip to a store during the holiday rush just to get my discount: strike two.

The email did get me to visit thenorthface.com – but primarily to check out the benefits of being a “VIP”.  There was a time, back a few years ago, that I did feel like a TNF VIP.  At the huge Outdoor Retailer conference I saw Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker speak – and got to meet Conrad briefly.  For those of you who don’t know him, he’s probably one of the best mountaineers in the history of mountaineering – and I was thrilled to be able to ask him about a recent expedition in which he found the remains of George Mallory on Mt Everest.  I’m not easily star-struck, but I was in awe that day.

The VIPeak program is an “earn & burn” program – so every $1 spent gains you 10 points – which can be redeemed for cash back – or for access to special experiences.  Unfortunately, the experiences aren’t published until a catalog is issued in March of each year – so you don’t really know what’s going to be offered – and you have to wait until mid-spring to learn what’s available.  In looking through the 2013 program examples that were provided, I’d guess spending time with someone like Conrad would require at least 100k points – or $10,000 in spend.  A lift ticket would require a $2,000 spend, approximately.  That’s a lot of down & fleece – and strike three from my perspective.

TNF provides a great example of the difference between two very different objectives: driving loyalty vs. driving frequency.  TNF doesn’t need a loyalty platform to distribute their underwhelming spend $125 get $25 offer – simple email marketing or direct mail will suffice.  Frequency is much easier and less expensive to pursue.  Loyalty is much harder.  To this last point, I think the TNF program is also an example of the challenges presented by the use of “VIP”.  As a VIPeak member, I want special VIP treatment – all year.  Give me something special just for the inconvenience of driving to a physical store.  Give me exclusive expedition video.  Give me something for advertising the Half Dome logo all these years.

TNF would benefit from taking a step back and seeing their marketing efforts from the customer perspective.  The combination of offers with multiple (and unpleasant) hoops that the customer must jump through and a reward program with huge spending tiers and little in terms of day-to-day VIP treatment leads me conclude that a much larger part of the program value for TNF – the ability to identify and communicate with actual buyers of their products – is being significantly undervalued.

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