5 Counterintuitive Personal Branding Lessons from Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia

 

The prayer request came in two days before Thanksgiving. I was slurping a cup of smooth Columbian coffee when I was politely interrupted.

“Hey! Sorry to bother you. Are you going to be there Thursday?” she said with a warm smile. 

She’s about my age. Fit and trim, the body of a runner. She’s dressed head-to-toe in the latest outdoor adventure fashion. Responsibly-sourced chocolate leather shoes. Imported from Switzerland is my guess. Cool gray pants from a trek in Casper, Wyoming. A comfy plaid shirt, likely hand-woven by a remote tribe in the Andes Mountains. And a sleek, black Patagonia vest to tie it all together, the perfect backdrop for her blonde hair and kind face. Makes sense. She and her husband own the coolest outdoor adventure store I’ve ever been to. And it’s right across the street.

Before I could answer, she continued like a waiter who tops off your water without you asking.

“Because, if you are, I would love it if you did the prayer,” she said with puppy-dog eyes.

Her store sponsors the local Turkey Trot run every Thanksgiving. All the local runners—plus a herd of wanna-be’s like me—show up. There are families, strollers, dogs on leashes, and folks of every size and shape. They descend upon the local park, which sports a tree-lined lake, a running path, and countless hiking trails.

This year’s trot included a canned-food drive and the largest crowd to date. The cloudless blue skies and golden warm sun added to the numbers.

The pre-race routine begins with a few announcements and directions about where to start. It ends with a quick prayer. (Hey, it’s the South. We fry food. Then we pray. Don’t judge.)

I step up to the mic, deliver a doozy, and finished with…“I’m counting on the truth that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Amen.” (Yeah, a little scripted. But memorable…and true.)

And with that, everyone was off. Some headed to the road slaking around the park. A 3-mile trek. Some made their way to the new running path that hugs the lake. A 2.5-mile journey. Others headed for the Green trail that darts through the surrounding forest. In previous Trots, this was the only option. When you crossed the finish line, you had a hearty 5K under your belt. It was penance for the belt-expanding meal later in the day.

Me, I’m a trail guy. I love the trees, the winding path, and the solitude. Plus I knew exactly where the Green trail starts. After discarding some extra layers made pointless by the sun, I dropped them off in my car. Then I made the short walk to the Green trailhead.

Folks were still scattering to the various starting options. I fired up a podcast and began my snail’s trot down the Green trail. I was several minutes in before I made contact with some other runners headed towards me. As they passed by with a friendly wave, I started wondering. Then worrying. Did I start at the right spot? Was I going the wrong direction?

I reassured myself. I’m right. They’re off course. I’ve run this trail a dozen times. Granted, they’ve cleaned up the trails and color-coded them. But still. 

I pressed forward. Trotting. Walking. Jogging. Breathing.

Twenty minutes pass. No humans, only an occasional squirrel. I don’t spot another soul…or sole on the Green trail. The good news is, the park is not huge or isolated. I can easily get back to my car, or out to the road, or down to the lakeside running path. But where is everybody?

Turns out, I was following a path leading to a wonderfully counterintuitive personal branding lesson.

Can I share it with you? (I promise I’ll tell you how this turkey finished his trot at the end!)

Count Me In for Counterintuitive. How About You?

I’ll be honest. I’m a fan of counterintuitive. It’s one of the values shaping my own personal brand. 

18 Turkey Trots have passed since I started my business. I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about when to follow the path and when to chart your own course.

Do You Count Yourself Among the Curious and Counterintuitive Personal Brands?

The answer is Yes if any of this sounds like you…

  • You have a personal brand or run a business (and have decision-making power).
  • You’re considering a career pivot out of the office cubicle.
  • You’re not ‘different, just to be different’. Rather, you’re different where and when ‘different matters’.
  • You enjoy the challenge of tackling a problem.
  • You and ‘status quo’ do NOT get along.
  • You know how easy and common it is to settle for common and easy.
  • You want a personal brand that’s long-lasting, unique, and thriving (instead of a flash in the pan built on fads!)

Spark, Issue No. 5: 5 Counterintuitive Lessons from  Patagonia to Build a Personal Brand Business Worth Your Life (Not Just Your Livelihood)

Note: Each issue of Spark comes from my musings about marketing, business, life, and the gospel from top podcasts.

The podcast for this Spark comes from How I Built This, with Guy Raz.

How I Built This Podcast with Guy Raz cover art

Here’s a short bio about How I Built This hosted by Guy Raz.

Dive into the stories behind some of the world’s best-known companies. How I Built This weaves a narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists—and the movements they built.

To My Surprise (And Yours)

I’m not a huge outdoor adventure guy. I wish I was. But I’ve never been rock climbing. No helicopter drop-offs for me to ski down untouched snow and uncharted slopes. At best I catch a few minutes of the X-Games when channel surfing. (And yes, that’s the only surfing I’ve ever done.)

All that to say, when this episode came up on my feed, I thought, “Meh”. But when it finished, I was shocked at how much I learned. I was not expecting Patagonia, plus founder Yvon Chouinard, equals personal branding gold.

Why?

Like you, I’m in the personal branding and marketing space. Not adventure apparel or retail.

I got so much from this podcast, I’ve listened to it twice. I’ve whittled my list down to 5 Counterintuitive Lessons for building a personal brand worth your life

I want more than just a livelihood from my personal brand. I want something I can put my life into.

personal brand quote stating personal brands can be something worth giving your lfie to

So let the counterintuitive learning begin…

Lesson 1: When I get an idea, I immediately STEP forward.

I’m a thinker. Enneagram 5. I spend a lot of time up in my head. As an ‘Observer’ and a creative, I’ve got ideas for days. For me, ideas are not the problem. It’s action.

Now before I lose you if you’re in the action-oriented crowd, let me say this. DO NOT SKIP PAST THIS LESSON! Be patient. I promise I’ll come back to you in 60 seconds.

For most of us, personal branding comes with doubts and decisions. There’s no Board of Directors for input. There’s usually no team to bounce ideas off. You leave that behind when you drop out of corporate America to enroll in Lonely U.

One of the biggest problems I see working with personal brands is indecision.

Indecision is the slave of Self-Doubt.

personal brand quote about the conflict of self-doubt causing indecision

Here’s why the quicksand of indecision is synonymous with personal branding. Because in personal branding, almost every decision you face has several good answers. (I’ll spend a future article on personal branding, indecision, and the root of self-doubt.)

Personal branding is rarely a one-to-one ratio. One part decision to one part solution. It’s one-to-many.

What brand colors should you choose? What are your core values and how do you bring them out in your brand? Is your target audience too broad or too narrow? What’s your message? What’s the best onboarding approach for new clients? Should you start a podcast? What will you name it? How many social media channels should you be on? What should your next blog article cover? What lead magnet will help grow your email list? What follow-up email copy should you write?

On and on it goes. 

Personal Branding feels more like drowning in the deep ocean than wading ankle-high down a sunkissed beach.

This reality of personal branding is what makes lesson one so helpful.

  1. Have an idea.
  2. Take one step forward and see.

Sounds simple. And when it comes to solutions, a simple solution always trumps a complex one.

Maybe you’ve heard this statement before…

Done is better than perfect.

I’ve got it written down in my office. Perhaps I need to add one. Because I tend to overvalue ideas and undervalue action…

A step is better than an idea.

Entrepreneurial Research Backs This Up…

“One needs to look no further than Netflix and Blockbuster…Small startups, which despite all the odds, manage to succeed against well-established conglomerates with all the expertise that money can buy. These startups began with nothing but an idea. How difficult is that? Having worked with some of the world’s largest companies, I’ve come to realize that the idea is the easy part; the hard part is getting your company to believe in it,” says Martin Lindstrom in his “Done” Versus Being “Perfect” article for Fast Company.

So personal branders, take one of your ideas off the shelf and take a step TODAY. Then see how it goes. If it flops, you’re only one step from where you started. So starting over is easy.

A Short Word for the Action-Takers in the Crowd

Here’s why you need this lesson, even though you’re saying…

I don’t have an issue moving forward. I’m full steam ahead,” you say with confidence.

Here’s the lesson for you: Take a Step. One step, not ‘commit to an ultra-marathon and start with a 12-mile run today’.

Personal brands prone to action will benefit in one these two ways:

  • Lengthen the time between idea and action. Sleep on it. Let your idea simmer before you serve it up.
  • Take a step (not a leap). Then stop. Do an honest evaluation. Then decide if you should take another step or not.

The Key to Lesson One for Action-Takers and Action-Avoiders

Know yourself. If you tend to sit on the front porch while overlooking a farm of ideas, take a step today. Get to harvesting. If you tend to go bet the farm before you’ve even seen it, take a seat on the front porch and look around first. Then take a step.

Or think of it this way…

  • If you struggle to take action: Shorten the time between idea and action. 
  • If you take action fast: Shorten the distance from a leap to a step.

Yes, personal branding involves constant decisions. And decisions involve risk. This lesson is a smart approach to risk for your personal brand. 

Lesson 2: I believe this company is a resource I have to steward.

Personal branding feels, well, personal. It’s a company of one. 

It’s no surprise then, how easy it is to become singular in focus. You are building your personal brand. (No one else is!) This is your baby. Your livelihood. This is you acting on your goals. Doing things your way. Building your empire.

Lesson 2 flips this on its head. And I love it!

Adopt this perspective instead, and everything changes…

Your personal brand is a resource you steward for others more than a kingdom you build for yourself.

personal brand quote stating personal brands are about serving others rather than building an empire

Having success as a personal brand means you’re good at something. You have a set of skills, knowledge, creativity, and dexterity that solve some problem in the world. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have any success.

What if you viewed your skills, knowledge, creativity, and dexterity as a resource to steward? What if you saw them as a responsibility to share and serve? To make the world a better place. Not just to make your world better.

View your personal brand—the things you know and the skills you have—as a resource to steward, not simply a ‘thing to go sell’.

Here’s Lesson Two in Action for Patagonia

Patagonia builds apparel that lasts. It’s a core value. If they sell it, they stand behind it. This means they commit to repair and recycle garments. So they’ve learned a thing or two about designing quality apparel.

They see their skills and knowledge about garments as a resource to steward, not just a way to make money.

Here’s what changed about their business because of this view…

  • They built the largest garment repair center in North America.
  • This forces them to use materials they can recycle.
  • This forces them to design a jacket where the zipper can be replaced. (Because it’s easy to design one where the zipper cannot be replaced.)
  • They have a garment repair truck touring the country. They repair people’s clothes, whether they are Patagonia garments or not!

Viewing the company as a resource to steward changes Patagonia at the fundamental level. Start viewing your personal brand the same way. It will transform how your personal brand from ‘livelihood’ to ‘something worth giving your life to’. 

Lesson 3: Price things where the customer has to ‘think twice’ before buying.

You probably know there are three basic pricing approaches you can take for personal brand. They hold true whether you offer products, services, or both.

3 Pricing Strategies

  1. Cost-based pricing (your pricing is based on your cost)
  2. Competition-based pricing (your pricing is based on competitors)
  3. Customer value-based pricing (your pricing is based on perceived customer value)

Patagonia has opted for customer value-based pricing. But it hasn’t stopped there.

They’ve zeroed in on value-added pricing. In other words, they’ve set their aim on more than giving value. They want to add value to the customer.

For Patagonia, this isn’t a marketing ploy to manipulate perceived value. This goes deeper.

Founder Yvon Chouinard says it this way. “Own fewer things…but use them more.”

Here’s what I see over and over with the clients I serve. I see clients struggling to do too much. They are in a marketing rat race. A race where they feel behind. A race where they’re trying to get further ahead.

And when I glance at the marketing ledger, I see peaks and valleys. I see where they’ve scrambled too fast followed by dragging behind. I see them burn through various marketing approaches and bounce between service providers.

My aim with my pricing is to say, “think twice.” I want to help them by throwing up a caution flag in the midst of their rat race. My business is about bringing simplicity, clarity, and strategy to their marketing. I help them tackle big picture problems. I help them get everything on a single page. I teach them a framework simple enough to draw on a napkin, but large enough to support any marketing campaign.

I’m NOT in the business of providing more rats for the rat race!

Harvard Business Review Agrees

I’m aiming higher up The Elements of Value Pyramid. This ground-breaking Harvard Business Review article backs it up, stating…

Higher prices change the consumer value equation.

I want pricing that helps clients evaluate what is most valuable for them…

  • Am I fed up with the rat race? Do I want to finally get a master plan? Am I willing to empty the silos of branding, messaging, and marketing and learn how they all work together? Am I finished with confusion? Am I sick of guessing and gambling?

Here’s the beauty of this lesson for personal brands. I want to do deeper work with deeper clients. I want clients who want less clamoring in the dark and more focused clarity in the light. I want pricing to help a client ask, “How much is clarity worth?” Not “How much does a website cost?” ‘Think-twice’ pricing helps me do it.

3 BONUS BENEFITS OF ‘THINK TWICE’ PRICING

You already know ‘think-twice’ pricing will weed out the wrong kind of clients. But do you know how this helps your client?…

  • Your client gets better work. You will always serve the right clients better than you will ever serve the wrong ones. The wrong ones don’t want the help you’re trying to give.
  • Your client gets better results. You are more motivated to create something worthy of the right clients.
  • Your client gains focus. Saying yes to you means saying no to other options for the client. They focus on doing fewer marketing things well.

When done well, ‘think-twice’ pricing educates your client. Here’s how I think about it…

My clients don’t need more stuff to do. They need less stuff to do more.

personal brand quote stating clients need help, not more stuff to worry about

Think-twice pricing helps them get there.

Lesson 4: The faster a company grows, the faster it dies.

Talk about counterintuitive. What personal brand wants slower growth this year compared to last?

This is one of my favorite lessons from the podcast. A few years in, Patagonia started to hit their stride. More of a sprint, really. They were growing like gangbusters.

“We were just going for growth. And not saying no,” the founder says of those years.

When fast-paced growth evaporated, they woke up. They changed the question they were asking as a business.

“Imagine building a company that’s here a hundred years from now. How do we make decisions through that paradigm?” became the leading thought.

Personal Brands can Steal Ideas from Big Storied Brands

This Forbes article points out some clear ways brands create longevity. To boil it down:

  1. Brands like Lego evolve, but keep their brand promise over the long haul. (Help children be creative.)
  2. Consistent quality outlasts a flash in the pan. (As personal brands, we have DIRECT control over quality.)

Yes, you want to grow your personal brand. But…

Don’t just focus on growing, but also on lasting.

personal brand quote stating personal brands should focus on the long haul

Imagine building a personal brand that’s here years from now…How would that shape your daily pursuits?

Try that one on for your personal brand. No, your personal brand won’t likely be here a hundred years from now. But it could be here 10, 20, even 50 years from now.

American Idol, The Voice, and My Grammy…(-Award Winning Friend) Agree

Not long ago I was talking with a friend in the music business.

I was seated on a sleek, black leather couch, my feet perched on the stone coffee table. My friend sat opposite. His recording studio equipment flanked him on both sides creating an oval office shape. I’m sure there are five more ‘oval offices’ in his neighborhood alone. We were in Franklin, TN, just south of Nashville. 

My eyes kept darting over his right shoulder. Peering between pieces of keenly placed gear was a golden Grammy Award.

As our conversation hit the second verse, we landed on popular TV shows like The Voice and American Idol. You can spot more than a handful of former contestants gigging around Nashville.

What he said about the young contestants on these shows struck a chord. “When those guys skyrocket to fame because of a TV platform, they miss something. They don’t have time to learn all the lessons along the way. So when the show is over and the lights fade, they plummet back down to reality. They don’t know what to do with the huge platform they had. It was given to them, then yanked away.”

Don’t chase a meteoric rise for your personal brand. You need time to earn your stripes. The lessons of adding two clients at once, losing a big proposal, and honing your craft along the way help you last.

Build Your Personal Brand Like You’re 45, not 25

In your youth, you focus on growing. You eat a lot, lift weights, and try to get ‘woke.’ You try not to be skinny.

In your mid-40’s, you focus on lasting. You eat better, run longer, and try to stay fit. You try not to get fat.

There are 2 kinds of growth. One where you grow strong and one where you grow fat. —Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia

Lesson 5: Invent your own sport. Then you can always be a winner.

A big draw to personal brands is the opportunity to build something meaningful to you. No one else tells you what to do.

But you will face a test. Every personal brand does. The test comes on the heels of disappointment. You lose a bid. A big project goes south. You try casting a new marketing net, but it only snags a couple of fish.

When this happens, the temptation is to retreat. Retreat into the mold of another successful personal brand. Do what he or she does. ‘They’re having success. They don’t have my struggles. I’ll conform my personal brand to hers. I’ll do what he does.’

Hear the words of Patagonia’s founder…

If you want to be successful in business, you don’t go up against big companies like Coca-Cola. They’ll kill ya. You do it differently. You figure out something that no one else has thought about. And you do it in a totally different way…To break the rules [and win], you have to be creative. And that’s the fun part!

Yes, you need wisdom. Yes, you can learn from other successful personal brands. Yes, you need to adjust. And Yes personal brands can fail, same as any other business.

But don’t conform. Don’t pour yourself in someone else’s mold. 

Instead, come run the Turkey Trot with me…

A Counterintuitive Conclusion to My Turkeyest of Turkey Trots

As promised, here’s the rest of the tale on the trail…

My watch tells me I’m 2-miles in. “Surely I’m not the only one running the Green trail,” my mind races. This is impossible given the number of runners gathered at the opening prayer.

Finally, I run across a realization. It pops into my mind and pours out like sweat on my forehead. I start to smile, which turns into a chuckle. There are two places to enter the Green trail from where we started in the park. I took the entrance used in past Turkey Trots. Everyone else took the one they were instructed to take this morning.

In my ignorance, or hubris, I had become the answer to my own ‘first shall be last’ prayer. I was dead last. All I could do was laugh. Embrace the failure. 

Then something changed.

At the 3.5 mile mark, with no one behind me, or in front of me, I thought, “I’m not last. I’m first.” I realized…

The best way to win the race is to make sure you’re the only one running it!

personal brand quote stating personal brands should do their own thing

This is the counterintuitive personal branding lesson I learned on Thanksgiving morning listening to a podcast.

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