Patagonia.com's Bill Boland: Keep it Simple; Tell a Story
When Bill Boland joined the outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia in 1990, the company was just moving from paper to pixels-from mechanical paste up to desktop publishing. Boland was ready. At the suggestion of a college professor, Boland had already bought one of the first Apple Macs and learned a new software package called Photoshop. Beginning his career at the Patagonia art department, he moved to Web design before most people had heard of the term.
I spoke with Boland by phone from Patagonia's headquarters in Ventura, California.
- The Patagonia paper catalog does a good job of communicating the Patagonia brand. How have you gone about that with the Web site?
- We've been making catalogs for about 30 years, so we've had years of experience on that part of the equation. But in translating the brand into the newer medium, we are still constantly asking ourselves-what works best? It all revolves around storytelling, which goes to the heart of Patagonia as an outdoors company. The tradition is that you sit around a campfire and tell stories about the day's events. We have a lot of employees out there who are in fact doing these activities, whether they are surfing or kayaking or climbing or fishing. The way this plays out is that we dedicate a substantial amount of space, both online and in the catalog to field reports-people's experiences outdoors-and environmental essays.
- So the employees have become some of your content creators for both the text and the photography.
- In some ways, yes. But it's broader than that. We have an extended family of long-time contributors. You mentioned the photography. When we started, many of these photographers were friends of the company, but weren't well known. Now, many of them have built their business and become well known beyond the pages of the Patagonia catalog. In general, we are fortunate to have a lot of content generated from people who have either worked at Patagonia, or are part of this extended family, including long term customers, sport ambassadors, and the environmental groups that we support.
- Who did the original design for the site?
- We launched our first Web site in 1994, and for that, I collaborated with a very talented Patagonia graphic designer, Lisa Quon,
- 1994? Wow!
- We were early adaptors. The site came about because an outside design "group"- a couple of young kids working in their parents' basement in Dayton, Ohio-kept bugging us to get a Web site up. They caught the ear of our CEO at the time, and he asked me to give these guys a call and build a Web site with them. So we did, and in 1998 they took us into the ecommerce arena. They eventually moved out to San Francisco and were eventually bought by a larger web development firm, Sapient. In 1999, I organized a team to bring the Web site design and development effort back in-house. It has been in-house ever since.
- Our team maintains the site's ongoing content and product refreshes, and develops new projects and features. We organize both the product and non-product content of the site. We flip the product content twice a year, fall and spring, completely updating the site with new products and related information. We also do smaller product updates in between. We put new non-product content on the site every Wednesday. The blog is updated every day.
- Does storytelling for the catalog affect how you describe your products?
Absolutely. The catalog copy for our products often gives you a sense of place for where that product is best suited, instead of just the straight feature/
benefit bulleted list. Our writers do a great job of putting products in the context of place and activities.
- How to you coordinate the Web site with the retail stores and dealers-and with the catalog?
- These days, most people who receive the catalog and previously phoned in their order now do the actual transaction over the website. They are still receiving the catalog, but ordering online. I think that's pretty standard these days. Part of what I'd like to do with the Web site is to complete that circle and drive people into our retail stores.
- You already have a store locater.
- Yes-we've tried to make it easy for people to find our stores. The next step is to use the site to inform people about what is going on there. Our stores do a lot of community-based events-slide shows and other presentations, including book authors and our sport ambassadors. We also put these presentations online. And in the future, we would like to do more in terms of breaking down barriers further. Today, if you buy something online, you can return or exchange it in one of our stores, or you can return or exchange it through the mail. We'd like to go beyond that, for example, offering customers the opportunity to pick up their online order in one of our stores.[ The question is always the same: how is each channel best equipped to serve our customers.
- Do the store managers tell you what they think about the site?
- We communicate with them regularly. And if we're doing a promotion, or if there's a sale in our stores or online, we collaborate with them directly.
- Do they see the site as competition or as a help?
- They see it as a help, as synergistic. We realize that in the customers' minds, Patagonia is all one company, whether it is accessed online, in the catalog or in person. We are one brand to the customer, and we want to interact with the customer as the customer sees fit. If they order a product online and want to pick it up or return it to a store, they should be able to do that.
- Initially there was a little more hesitancy with our dealers, but they too have come around and seen the benefit of the site. There's more brand presence and people come into the dealer with more information about our products. So everyone wins. In Christmas 2007 on the U.
S. site, we launched an "Online Partners" feature with five of our key dealers. It's a great service to the customer: if we are out of stock on a certain item on our Web site, yet we know that one of our key dealers has that product available in the requested size and color, we provide the opportunity to purchase that product from our dealer's Web site.
- How do you do that? XML?
- Right--XML feeds every day.
- Where does the blog fit in?
- We started it in February 2007 and it has been a wonderful thing-allowing us to be more immediate with our communications. It is overseen by a very talented managing editor: Kasey Kersnowski. It's open to our customers and employees alike, and we're starting to see some regular contributors. Generally we'll do a post every weekday, which is usually generated from an employee, ambassador or environmental group.
- You allow comments on both the blog and in The Footprint Chronicles, and not all of them are friendly. Customers complain about the use of goose down, the sourcing of raw materials, even the naming of products. How much do you try to control what is said?
- When we introduced the blog, we made the decision that users' comments would not be edited. That policy is in the spirit of both our brand and this medium: keep the communication as open as possible. Keep the dialog flowing. We welcome the conversation and the different points of view.
- That's true for comments in The Footprint Chronicles, too, which came later. This is a way for us is a way to increase our transparency by showing how we develop products and where the components come from-but also to recognize that there are a lot of smart people out there who might have ideas that could improve our ways of working. We forward Footprint comments to our Customer Service group for a response. If the customer gives permission, the service representative also uploads the comment to the blog.
- Do you moderate the comments in any way?
- We make it a policy to remove anything really offensive, but that's only happened a couple of times.
- Where did the idea for The Footprint Chronicles come from?
- The idea was to do a corporate social responsibility report. We looked at what other companies were doing in this area, but their efforts seemed sterile and dry: a lot of words and technical talk. So we turned back to our own principles, with their emphasis on people and places. For the people we said: let's videotape the people involved with the process so that they can talk directly to customers. The places are expressed as a world map-which shows the path taken from the design of the product to the raw materials, to the processing and shipping for some products to be produced. The map is done in Flash. We put in coordinates and it works.
- Where did "My Gear" shopping cart come from? I've never seen a shopping cart that you can click open from any place on the site-complete with a description and an image.
- It came out of some serious brainstorming sessions while we were designing the site. That's indeed the idea: that your shopping cart should be with you at all times, no matter where you are on the site.
- The site is very clean looking. Has that evolved?
- That's been pretty much consistent from 1999 onward. There's a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness." That thought, probably more than anything, is a guiding design principle for Patagonia, whether it's for our website, our catalog, our products, or our stores. When looking at the website, we are always asking ourselves: are there things that don't need to be here? That exercise has brought us to a very clean Web site.
- But we did make some big changes to the Web site infrastructure in 2006 when we expanded into Europe with an e-commerce site. We realized we had outgrown the old hard-coded platform, and it was time for a major Web site upgrade with a more database-driven solution, in which a single Web site is published in different locations, for different locales, in different languages. We also added our first content management system, a product called Collage from Serena Software. This fundamentally changed how we maintain our site. The site you see today is the direct result of this effort.
- Have you noticed any difference between Japan and the U.
- Japan is far ahead of us in their use of handheld devices. So in Japan, our satellite group designed a site that is optimized for handheld devices. The mobile site started small, and the team has expanded it. We saw it grow in popularity a lot last year, and we're watching it closely.
- For us, Japan is an indicator of what might be coming here. I don't precisely know when that will happen, but having a presence in Japan definitely gives us the ability to look ahead.
- How do you work with the Japanese satellite group?
- It's a close collaboration. There are weekly phone calls-every day if need be. They are on a similar cycle for refreshing their content for both the big releases and the smaller releases that happen every week. Some of the coordination between sites is automatic. When we redesigned the site, we rebuilt it around a single template, so the same material gets published across every region. We can then go in and customize it further as needed for the different customer bases.
- Comparing the Japanese and U.
S. sites, they seem very similar: the biggest difference seems to be the language.
- Right, though there are some smaller differences, as well. For instance, the blog is not in Europe or Japan yet. And the mobile component is, so far, unique to Japan.
- What other tips can you give to Web designers who, like you, are designing Web sites for companies with "brick and mortar" retail stores?
- Put your customer first. Don't worry about cannibalizing each other's sales. Don't think only about your particular channel or your department, but about serving the customer. If you do that, you will stay on the right path.
- You should communicate with everyone involved internally, including the head of each channel - your retail channel, your online business channel. Those conversations should be candid and open. Everyone should voice their concerns and discuss them. But the conversation should not be adversarial. You are all working for the same company. Doing this should result in a win for everyone involved.