There was half an expectation that Keith Byrne would start this interview by complaining about the restrictive nature of his blue plastic underpants. Failing that there was a possibility he’d briefly inform us that there were ‘enemy tanks approaching’ before curtailing our conversation to take cover.
Such are the assumptions the mind makes when you’ve been told that you’re about to speak to ‘a real action man’.
The reality of the situation was slightly less surreal, and only marginally less impressive, than conducting an interview with an iconic totem of my childhood. Byrne has earned the action man moniker through his endeavours as an accomplished adventure racer, participating in races that can last ‘as little’ as five hours and as long as ten days.
In his own words he enjoys pushing himself to \"weird and wonderful new limits\", including, as you can see from the accompanying picture, throwing himself down flights of stairs on his mountain bike at break neck, back and leg speeds.
As such he’s the perfect ambassador, not to mention sales and marketing head, for sportswear brand The North Face.
\"I wasn’t like this when I started in the industry, not at all,\" he crackles down his mobile from an anonymous airport departure lounge. \"I grew up in Hulme in Manchester and sport for me then was just kicking a football around the streets. But the passion of people in this industry for the outdoors is infectious and once you join in, well that’s it, you’re hooked. From then on it kind of takes over.\"
Byrne got his first fix of the sector back in the late eighties when he worked in retail management for the YHA’s chain of stores. He then moved on to sales repping, and eventually marketing, for rival clothing brand Sprayway, before strapping on his backpack and taking a hike over to The North Face around six and a half years ago. It’s proved to be a pretty fruitful adventure for both him and the firm.
At present the brand is, according to its PR team over at Brazen, performing \"out of its skin.\"
TNF currently has a reputation, prestige and allure that bestrides both mountain ranges and fashion pages; being equally at home on Everest or just out and about in The Garden (Covent Garden that is, home to the company’s first dedicated retail outlet). As if to gild this genuine crossover appeal, last year saw the firm achieve ‘Coolbrand’ status from the Superbrands Organisation, admitting it to a VIP party where only names such as Audi, Blackberry and Coca-Cola are invited along. A cool achievement indeed, but something Byrne seems relatively blasÃ© about:
\"It’s nice to be recognised alongside such big names,\" he asserts, \"but that’s not been an ambition of ours and it’s not really fundamentally important. If you look at our marketing it’s based on our technical and credible heritage, that’s what’s crucial to the strength of the brand.
\"We create a real aspirational quality through the sponsorship of mountaineers, ice climbers, extreme skiers and so on. Whenever you see a picture of a North Face product it’s being marketed with real athletes in real situations, so our customers understand that it’ll take whatever you can possibly throw at it. That’s one of the principal ways in which it retains its credibility and through that many people see it as ‘cool’. It’s a brand with real integrity.\"
Which is something they can be justifiably proud of... at least for now. You see the problem with niche brands achieving mainstream appeal is that their success often undermines what made them so appealing in the first place. Their integrity therefore suffers through overexposure, even if they do ‘keep it real’ and don’t use Kerry Katona to endorse their product range (‘that’s why real bad mothers rely on The North Face’).
So, how can they walk the tightrope of ‘cool’ and ‘specialist’ without falling into the perceived brand abyss that, say, Helly Hanson did late last century?
\"Yes,\" Byrne says, chewing on his words, audibly uncomfortable to criticise rivals on the record, \"they are one of the examples of how it can definitely go wrong. In that respect I think distribution has to be one of the key considerations.\"
After another pause, he elucidates: \"If you use that kind of example, then they suddenly started appearing in high street sports stores; like Allsports or wherever. That’s all well and good, as you’ll make lots of money, but at the same time you’re losing your standing with the specialist stores that have been the foundation of the business for years. So, you’ll lose their support and risk diluting the brand by making it ubiquitous. As often happens in such cases you may also take your eye off the technical development of the product in search of a mass market, and then you risk fatally undermining the brand.
\"We could easily roll the brand out into department stores or general sports retailers, but that’s not been what we’ve wanted to do. All the retailers that stock our products are specialist outdoor shops and that focused distribution has helped us keep our credibility. A lot of people are keen to get on the back of the success of The North Face, but we know when to say no.\"
One thing that Byrne’s said ‘yes, yes, yes’ to is the development of the brand’s standalone retail proposition, with the UK’s first TNF stores in the aforementioned Covent Garden and now on Deansgate in Manchester. He clearly sees this as a continuation of his controlled distribution, while also giving the rather staid outdoor retail market a well-placed (Gore-tex) boot in the seat of the pants.
\"They’re a completely new environment,\" he says with fresh vigour, \"and a break from some more traditional outdoor stores that, in all fairness, aren’t always set up in a way that makes you think they’re the future of retailing.
\"Our stores are well lit, the products are well presented and it’s a positive brand experience (the store in Manchester houses the UK’s largest ice wall in a retail environment). In some outdoor shops they’re not as well presented and the experience can be quite intimidating, particularly if you’re new to outdoor activities and you’ve got no technical knowledge at all. We’re changing that perception; making the products accessible and the experience pleasurable. It’s an important step for the brand.\"
It’s clear that in Byrne’s world brand is king and must be protected at all costs, and rightly so. But this interviewer still wonders if its wider allure is always a positive? Outdoor enthusiasts often revel in the feeling that they’re seen as a breed apart; in every sense of the word they enjoy being ‘outsiders’. So, will they actually appreciate the fact that brand acolytes include Madonna, Tom Cruise and Ian Wright? Is this really something to shout about?
\"Well, you’re not going to see any of our ads with just some random celebrity wearing our products. That’s not going to work for us,\" is Byrne’s response. \"In the past we haven’t actively targeted the lifestyle market. The celebrities have worn the products simply because they’ve found out how good they are and, yes, that has helped the brand explosion.\"
He concludes by noting: \"I think you have to say that from a marketing perspective it’s fantastic to have a brand that has that lifestyle following, but is still built on our technical pedigree and integrity.\" Although his admission \"we’re just trying to persuade our specialist retailers of that too\" demonstrates that the brand-balancing act will be an on-going concern.
And with that Byrne cheerily ends the call and heads off to follow his brand’s recent trajectory: straight up into the firmament.
Owner: VF Corp. USA.
UK base: Kendal.
UK agencies: Brazen and mediaedge:cia.
Above the line: Handled from the US.
Random fact: The ‘Nuptse’ jacket has been to Everest more times than any other jacket.