Please Don’t Buy This: Patagonia’s Un-Marketing on Cyber Monday

From Black Friday to Small Business Saturday to Cyber Monday, business communication over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is all about buy, buy, buy.

In this hypersaturated message environment, this email missive from the outdoor-clothing supplier Patagonia on Cyber Monday definitely stood out, starting with the large headline "Don't Buy This Jacket" and a large photo of one of its signature fleece jackets.

Rather than promoting the jacket as a must-get gift for holiday shoppers, Patagonia used the email to talk about the environmental impact of its products and to encourage readers to take the Common Threads Initiative pledge: reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, and reimagine.

Here's how the company explained its unusual message:

Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.

The message wasn't entirely un-promotional. It did point out that the high durability of the jacket meant that wearers wouldn't need to replace it for a long time. However, this was done within the context of the "reduce" message, and it clearly stands in opposition to the planned obsolescence that drives so many product categories today—how many weeks until the next generation of smartphones replaces the perfectly functional current generation?

Was Patagonia's message a cynical ploy to gain favor with its environmentally conscious target consumer? One might jump to that conclusion, but we've been following the company for a long time and respect its managerial ethos. While the message clearly resonates with the target audience, we believe it definitely fits the criteria of ethical communication, regardless of one's personal stance on sustainable commerce: It includes the information readers need in order to make an informed response, it is true in both word and spirit, and it is not deceptive in any way. 

This is a great example of communication ethics to discuss with your students, as well as an intriguing case study in promotional communication. For example, can a company benefit in the long run by discouraging customers to buy less in the short run?

Please let us know what you and your students think about this unusual message.