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Cotopaxi: Doing Good Or Just A Trendy Outdoor Vibe?

Today on THE ROCK FIGHT (an outdoor podcast that aims for the head) Colin takes a peek under the hood of Cotopaxi following their announcement last week about the return of the Questival, their college student focused outdoor adventure race series.

Over the past ten years Cotopaxi has grown because of their vibe, their stated purpose of creating 'Gear For Good', and their colorful outdoor basics coming into trend. But if they closed up shop today, what would their legacy be when compared to other outdoor brands?

Today Colin looks at what is interesting about Cotopaxi but also what they could be doing better.

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Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Rock Fight where we speak our truth, slay sacred cows and sometimes agree to disagree. This is an outdoor podcast that aims for the head, I’m Colin True and today I want to talk with you about brands, outdoor products and outdoor vibes. Stick around because we’re talking about Cotopaxi today.

But first! Have you supported your local rock fight yet? There are several ways to do this.  Firstly, follow, rate and review the rock fight wherever you are listening. Do this makes it easier for others to find the rock fight. So that’s huge. Secondly, subscribe to our weekly newsletter, news from the front, where every sunday you’ll get an update on all things happening in the RFU along with a few goodies you can’t get anywhere else. Head to rock fight dot co an click join the mailing list. Thank you for supporting the rock fight. Alright let’s start the show.

Last week outdoor apparel and gear brand Cotopaxi put out a press release announcing the return of the Questival. 

The Questival was a series of events that Cotopaxi put on around the time they launched their brand as a way to build awareness with younger consumers.  Held over 24 hours teams of college kids complete challenges in city and backcountry settings.  And it looks like Cotopaxi is bringing it back to increase college age engagement with their brand.

Reading this got me thinking about Cotopaxi because I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on who they are.

Yes they market themselves around ‘doing good’ in the world and promise 1% of revenue to non profits fighting poverty. And I think it’s fair to say they’re sort of standing on the shoulders of patagonia in that regard.  But accomplishing that ‘good’ by being an apparel and gear brand means that all the good they do is financed by what they sell.  And what they sell isn't really that special.  

Think about the brands that serve the outdoor world that are ubiquitous with our experiences as adventurous individuals. For nearly all them there is a product or several products that have meaningfully impacted our ability to go outside in some better way. Some iconic piece of heritage or innovation that changed the game entirely or took something that was good and made it great.  

The North Face helped to pioneer internal frame backpacks and created the `Denali and Nuptse jackets.

Patagonia contributed to the widespread adoption of synthetic fleece with the Synchilla and effectively created modern base layers with its Capilene line.

Arc’teryx effectively invented the soft shell.

Mountain Hardwear pioneered wind blocking fleece

Jetboil changed how we cook outside. 

The Nike waffle, Hoka maximalist, Timberland yellow boot all changed the footwear game at varying points in time.

How stuff gets made in the outdoor space is the same as other fashion or lifestyle categories but the brands that endure the longest tend to be those who have solved problems we face in the outdoors through design and innovation.  Function coming before fashion.

That, and I’m going to use the most overused word in the history of outdoor marketing but it suits in this case, authenticity is needed.  Like we’ve talked about a lot on this show brands are making too much.  But they also have earned what they’ve achieved through being real ones for the outdoor community.

Then along comes a brand like Cotopaxi. Who wants their innovation to be Gear For Good.  

I have a history with Cotopaxi that gets a little inside baseball but I feel like everyone should know what I’m about to tell you by now but I continue to encounter people who don’t. So not only do I get to connect the dots on my Cotopaxi observations but you get to walk away understanding a little more about how stuff actually gets made.

Because, none of your favorite, or least favorite brands make anything. All the products I just mentioned from all of those outdoor brands? 

They don’t knit, stitch, sew or assemble.  What do they do? They design and source.

Think of your favorite hoodie.  The one you are probably wearing right now. The one you’ve skied in, hiked in, put on in the evening while camping, taken with you on airplanes or to the movies. It’s a staple of not just your wardrobe but of your life. Here is how it was made.

That hoodie was designed by someone at the brand who’s mark is on the chest or sleeve or inside the collar. That design was then given to the brand’s materials team. Who source the fabric, trim, drawstrings and zippers from textile and component makers. The brand doesn’t make any of those things.  They don’t have knitting machines or plastic molds.  They have designers, marketers, supply chain managers, sales people and customer service.

The brand then took all that information to a garment manufacturer (crassly also known as a cutter) in a place like Bangladesh, Vietnam or Guatemala. And then the garment manufacturer bought all of the components from the textile and component makers that the brand worked with through the design process to have it shipped to their factory where they then cut and sew and assemble the final garment.  Those garments are then shipped to the brand's warehouses around the world.

There’s no financial risk for the brand until there are finished garments arriving at their warehouses.  The material makers bill the garment makers and then the garment makers bill the brand and finally the brand sells you your new hoodie either directly or after they have sold that hoodie to your favorite retailer who then sells you your hoodie.

You’ve heard me say on this podcast that I used to work for Polartec. Who is a textile manufacturer.  Polartec makes fabric.  As the director of sales and marketing for North America for Polartec part of my job was traveling around with my sales team to meet with the brands who used or could use our fabric in their products.

As such I was able to sit with every relevant (and plenty of irrelevant) performance apparel brands in North america. Because we wanted them all to use Polartec products.

So it was, that I found myself in Salt Lake City in the 2014 timeframe sitting at a kitchen table of one of the early hires of Cotopaxi. They didn’t have an office yet, it was early early days, talking about what their line was going to look like and which Polartec products could be a good fit for their line.

Their philosophy of being philanthropic was there from the get go.  But they were interested in being a competitive outdoor brand. They definitely wanted to hang with the big dogs.

Fast forward a decade and Cotopaxi has not only entered the chat they’re a staple.  The’ve grown from that handful of initial employees to more than 120, they’ve opened multiple brick and mortar stores to complement their web store and, according to the store locator on their website, have a presence in more than 1000 stores nationwide.

But what is their legacy item? If they closed up shop today, what would we remember about them?

Insiders will point to the Del Dia collection, a line of bags and packs made from the scraps of material left behind by competitor pack manufacturers and looking at their range that would also be my nomination for the product or products for them to spend more time talking about.  But when you start on Cotopaxi’s home page Del Dia is buried behind new products and promotions for what to buy for your next adventure.  And even when you see a link to Del Dia it doesn’t call out what makes it different.

Their apparel doesn’t stand apart from anyone else’s and the last time I actually touched some of it I was really underwhelmed at the quality of the materials they use.

What I’m trying to say is that Cotopaxi is building their brand on vibe. Their early days investment in young consumers with the Questival seems to have bought goodwill and the market has responded well to their color blocking aesthetic, but as they mature what is going to carry them?

Trends run out and like I asked my co-host Justin Housman in Monday’s episode of the rock fight, if you were in the market for a basic black puffy, why would you choose Cotopaxi’s over anyone elses?

I’m not throwing errant rocks here for no reason or to just pick on them. I’m bringing this up because I want to live in a world where Cotopaxi is successful.

The outdoor industry works best when a problem is being solved. The best products and brands have a heritage of creative and innovative solutions to common issues within our community.  How do we deploy materials to keep us dry and warm. How do we improve how we make things so they last a really long time and fit isn’t a problem.  What can we put on our feet that allows us climb like a mountain goat but are light as a feather and dry super quickly.  How do we create portable shelters that barely weigh anything but can withstand elements that would batter a house?

The thing is that most of these problems have been solved.  The challenge for new brands is either creating a better mousetrap or finding the needed innovations that have been overlooked.

During my time with Polartec I can tell you that everyone from the Cotopaxi type startups where we met at kitchen tables to goliaths like Nike thinks what they’re doing makes a difference. They think they have the secret sauce that consumers don’t even know they want and when those consumers have a taste, that their brand will become the next big thing.  But if you look at the brands that have established themselves, there was an innovation story at the heart of their ascent.

The last real frontier for product innovation is sustainability and circularity.  How do we create products that last as long as what we have now and minimally impact the world through their creation and eventual home in the landfill.  

I see Cotopaxi and I applaud them for all the good they do.  I see what they’re doing with their Del Dia line and the folks they’re helping around the world and want them to get more attention for it.  But then I see the way they’re positioning their brand and I scratch my head.

Because they’re playing the same game as a lot of these bigger more established brands.  But they're playing against brands who  can point to their legacy and say “we brought you this and it changed the world!” 

When the public perceives your innovation to be color and vibe, I worry that eventually you’ll just get left behind.

Look, this game is hard.  Think of the process I laid out just to get stuff made.  The cost and time it takes and one little stumble screws everything up and costs these brands a ton of money. They may not make anything themselves, but they still take the greatest risk and finance it all.  At the end of the day the material and garment makers can find new customers, the brands have to hit big every season.

So good luck to Cotopaxi and to the newly relaunched Questival.  I hope they put their Del Dia initiative on display at each of these events and do their best to create buzz around the product that seems to mean the most to them and that it pushes them to talk about it even more. Cotopaxi may Do Good for others, but they probably need to do a little good for themselves too.

That’s the show for today.  Do you own any Cotopaxi gear or apparel? What do you think? Do you work at Cotopaxi and want to push back on my comments? All of you with opinions on today’s rock fight can email the show at my rock fight at gmail dot com.

The rock fight is a production of rock fight llc. I’m Colin True. Thanks for listening.

And here to take us out, Johnny Quest thinks he’s a goddam sellout it’s chris demakes with the rock fight fight song.  We’ll see you next time rock fighters.


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