The North Face: “Transformation isn’t easy”

For a 53-year-old active-wear brand transforming legacy retail operations to digital is going to be a challenge. Or as The North Face’s eCommerce and digital marketing director for EMEA, Federico Manno, appropriately describes it: “a climb”.

“There’s a lot of talk about digital transformation and innovation, but little appreciate how hard and difficult it is to digitalise 50 years of a brand.”

Speaking at the FUTR event in London this week, the former eBay director highlighted that at that very moment his European online operations were in the midst of a 10-hour downtime, after the retailer’s parent company was at the crucial point of a long and expensive ERP and replatforming project. Back in its 2017 financial report, VF Corporation – which owns brands including The North Face, Timberland, Vans and Wrangler – described the company’s digital transformation efforts, while noting it expects its direct-to-consumer digital operations to increase from 7% of total revenue to 13% in 2021, contributing to more than $1 billion of growth.

“Today we’re doing the switchover, and we’ll be down for at least 10 hours, which coming from a company like eBay is a bit shocking – even a minute downtime [at eBay] was a big deal.”

Manno used this downtime to highlight how digitalising a 50-year-old business is not easy.

“Where do you start? Invest in technology? But personally I discovered the best way to drive change is with people and talent.”

Since joining The North Face 18 months ago, Manno has doubled the size of his eCommerce team, claiming to create a start-up culture within the business which is now driving change within the company.

“We are really focused on elevating the digital experience – our website sucked,” he admitted, pointing to a number of ways the retailer has since improved its eCommerce experience, including SEO, usability and digital marketing, but also content through enhanced product photography and storytelling using sports ambassadors.

Going forward Manno’s European arm of the business is looking to replicate some initiatives already successfully rolled-out in the US. The first is The North Face’s VIPeak loyalty programme, which Manno believes will allow him to gather rich customer data to continue improving “every single piece of the business, from product to how we go to market”.

Meanwhile, Manno highlighted another US offering which he is particularly passionate about rolling out in EMEA – The North Face Renewed, which is a circular economy initiative to enable customers to buy second-hand garments from The North Face online. “It’s aligned with our purpose and values,” explained Manno. “This is possible because of digital, because it would be challenging to trial this through a traditional distribution model. We’re seeing good results in the US and we’ll be launching in Europe as well.”