Sixty years ago in the town of Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, a teenage boy named Åke Nordin was planning an ambitious hike—but he had a problem. Backpacks at the time were ill designed, bulky and unsuited to the long-distance trek up the Västerbotten mountains. The lad's solution was to make his own backpack with his mother's sewing machine. By the time Nordin reached his 20s, his designs had blossomed into a full-fledged outfitting company called Fjällräven (pronounced "Fall-Raven"), Swedish for "arctic fox."
Today, the brand—valued for its performance, rugged style and sustainable approach to manufacturing—is sold in 20 countries including the United States, where items like its Polar Guide Parka are favorites of the outdoor cognoscenti.
But with the U.S. market already clogged with lumbersexual brands (U.S.-based giants like North Face and Patagonia, plus foreign-flagged players like Canada Goose), it's a tough climb to the peak of consumer awareness.
Historically, the way to deal with this challenge (apart from spending major coin on direct marketing) is to sign a famous athlete as an endorser.
True to its roots, however, Fjällräven has elected to follow its own path. Last week, the company announced a long-term partnership with the Explorers Club, the walnut-paneled New York institution on East 70th Street that's counted pretty much every pioneer and adventurer of the past century—from Teddy Roosevelt to Charles Lindbergh—as a member.
The association between an old club and a young clothing company (Fjällräven has been in the U.S. only since 2012) represents a slightly more complex and thoughtful approach to branding—for both parties—and the hope is that the reputations and fans of each will gravitate to the other. What the partners have in common, according to Fjällräven vp of brand Joe Prebich, is an authentic story.
"Fjällräven is a brand new storyteller, and this is an area where storytelling is so important," Prebich said. "The Explorers' Club is built on stories. You could spend a week here and not go through half the stories that are here."
Very true, that. Ensconced in a Jacobean-revival townhouse built in 1910 for Singer sewing machine heir Stephen Clark, the Explorers Club boasts a membership roll, past and present, that includes the likes of Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary, astronaut Neil Armstrong and film director James Cameron, who piloted his own submarine to the Mariana Trench's lowest point, Challenger Deep, in 2012. The club's Persian-carpeted rooms burst with artifacts from countless expeditions, including the globe on which Thor Heyerdahl planned the Kon-Tiki voyage and the original account of Napoleon's campaign up the Nile in 1798.
For its part, Fjällräven has adventuresome roots, as well. It sponsored the Scandinavian Greenland Expedition in 1966, supplying the tents and backpacks, and using the trek to test a prototype of its Greenland jacket (which, at $240, remains a brisk seller to this day).
The partnership with Fjällräven arose from a recent polling of Explorers Club members who, asked about their preferred brands of outdoor clothing and gear, named Fjällräven as a favorite. For the Swedish brand, the chance to use the club's name and badge represents a prestigious seal of approval: With the possible exception of the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club is America's most storied exploration fellowship.
What's more, according to Fjällräven's American president Nathan Dopp, there's a cachet that comes from associating with a slightly mysterious organization. "We see them a little bit as a secret club—people know of it, but it's still a mystery," he said.
And while many mass-market consumers have probably never heard of the Explorers Club, that's OK with the Swedes: Fjällräven isn't aiming to be a mass-market brand. "At end of the day, we don't really want to have 300 million consumers," Dopp said. "We're not trying to be the biggest."
Fjällräven, in other words, has no desire to be like that other Swedish brand to plant its flag in America, Ikea—even though, just like Ikea, Fjällräven does affix its products with Swedish names that both confound and enchant the American ear, such as the Övik shoulder bag and Abisko trousers.
There's a certain amount of goodwill branding going on here, too. Fjällräven is making monetary donations to help support the Explorers Club's archives, and will work with the club to facilitate future expeditions to far-flung corners of the world. Dopp added that Fjällräven may also produce one or more special pieces of gear and route the proceeds back to the club. "This is really set up almost as an idealistic venture," he added. "It's not a purely commercial event."
The risk of exclusivity
It also carries a degree of risk, at least in theory. Affiliation with a hallowed Manhattan club (one that remains difficult and costly to join) may strike the average outdoorsman as a bit exclusionary. After all, most Fjällräven customers are probably not going to scale the Vinson Massif in Antarctica during their week off from the office.
Dopp and Prebich counter that both their brand and their new partners at the club share a love for the outdoors, for ecological stewardship and sustainability, and that the Explorers Club name is more likely to inspire consumers than make them feel excluded.
"There's a community within the Explorers Club that is just like our community outside," Prebich said. "And more than anything there's a group of people who want to be outdoors, and we represent a very positive brand."
"It's not about the guy who goes to the North Pole," Dopp added. "It's about someone who feels encouraged enough to just go on a walk in the snow—to track a squirrel for a day."
Harnessing the maker movement
And, increasingly, it's those casual squirrel trackers who are making up a key component of the customers for brands like Fjällräven. Popular Mechanics, the 114-year-old magazine for the active do-it-yourselfer, has featured Fjällräven's products in recent issues—not just because of the brand's high performance standards, but because it increasingly resonates with the sort of younger, planet-aware demographic that the magazine itself is courting.
"It's OK to wear Fjällräven even if you're not climbing a mountain, because you're [a person who's] interested in things of lasting value," said the magazine's editor in chief Ryan D'Agostino, who believes that Fjällräven's popularity is an outgrowth of the maker movement, an appreciation for quality goods with tradition and integrity, driven largely by millennials. (It's one reason why Fjällräven backpacks are more likely to be spotted in Brooklyn than Borneo.)
If shoppers for outdoor wear don't happen to know the Explorers Club by name, D'Agostino doesn't see that as much of a disadvantage. The club founded in 1904 and made famous by Theodore Roosevelt, he said, "has a great name, and it sounds cool. Maybe you don't know what it is, but you get it pretty quickly—'1904, Teddy Roosevelt, got it.' There's a lot of overlap there in terms of mission and history and authenticity, so I think [the partnership] is pretty smart."