Pivot to purpose: How Icebreaker plans to become a world leading brand

Icebreaker, which just delivered another record year for both sales and profits, has a vision to be the world leader in natural performance apparel.

When I dug deeper to uncover what lies behind the words, world leader, I learned that they are based on a desire to create scale and to influence and educate brands and consumers from around the world, so that Icebreaker doesn’t become (in the words of general manager Scott McNab) just another niche brand with a great story.

This is the first article of a two-part feature on how Icebreaker is working to achieve its vision.

An increased focus on purpose

Based in Auckland, New Zealand, sold in more than 5000 stores in 50 countries, including 16 Touch Labs in New Zealand and Australia, Icebreaker has recorded double-digit growth with incredible outcomes. It is demonstrating that choosing natural and sustainable materials is complementary to successful business growth, rather than a conflict.

Beyond growth, McNab says he is most proud of the brand’s increased focus on purpose.

“We have always been a purpose-driven brand, although the wording has evolved with time, the sentiment has remained the same,” he toldInside Retail New Zealand.

“We started in 1995 as a natural merino brand to give consumers a choice that was lacking in the market, a choice that also brought with it some inherent benefits that are lacking in the synthetic alternatives available. Comfort, odour free, breathability and warmth were (and still are) incredibly important for performance but sustainability was also at the forefront before it became the buzzword it is now.

“The purpose isn’t just about natural product and ethical choices. The ‘healthier’ [offering] is also incredibly important. Health means different things to different people but in an age where most of us live in cities with an always on mentality and a cell phone glued to our hand there has never been a more important time to encourage people to get outside, decompress and share experiences with other people. We can play a role in inspiring and encouraging this to happen and that’s always been important for us.”

McNab says it’s important to note that Icebreaker isn’t perfect and doesn’t claim it be. Its transparency report is about clearly outlining goals for continuous improvement and demonstrating the choices that businesses can make to behave more ethically can sustainably.

“Some see it as a competitive risk publishing the degree of information we have in this report,” he said, “but the way we view it internally, if another clothing brand chooses to emulate then likely we are one step closer to fulfilling our purpose.”

Translating purpose to long-term success

Part of Icebreaker’s increased focus on purpose involves supporting initiatives like the 2019 World Oceans Day, which saw a group of passionate environmentalists setting sail on an epic mission to document plastics in the Pacific Ocean. Over three months, French swimmer Ben Lecomte will swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to raise awareness about microplastics and micro-fibres in the ocean.

This is just one example of how Icebreaker is ‘living’ its purpose. If done right, it believes such decisions will benefit all stakeholders and ultimately will enable its long-term success.

For instance, McNab notes that most people who work at Icebreaker are high performers who could choose other employers who, in many cases, offer better packages. They choose Icebreaker because it aligns with their values and often their own personal purpose.

“When your own purpose and values align with your place of work then everything changes. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows but it’s worth it to know your part of something bigger and something that provides you with a sense of pride and satisfaction,” McNab says.

The company’s suppliers and growers are also excited about the brand’s commitment to purpose.

“Many of them this year may have benefited financially from selling their merino on the open market but the certainty of our future together and where we are pushing merino to excites them,” he said.

“We incorporate them into the company and our direction and that is worth more to them in the long run. Our 10-year contracts give them a level of confidence that most businesses don’t have, and they can then plan their business for that.”

All of these elements are leading to better shareholder returns with financial performance improving Icebreaker’s ability to amplify purpose.

“It is a cyclical process that sees everyone benefit.”

A new owner

Last year, Icebreaker was officially acquired by VF Corporation, one of
the world’s largest apparel, footwear and accessories companies. Founded in 1899, VF Corporation has a diverse portfolio of iconic lifestyle brands, including Vans, The North Face, Timberland, Wrangler and Lee.

The company has socially and environmentally responsible operations spanning numerous geographies, product categories and distribution channels, and recently it has been undergoing a massive transformation to become more purpose-led and value creating.

VF Corporation’s new direction is based on the belief that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive and, in the long term, are actually very strongly aligned. Its acquisition of Icebreaker has been described as its first purpose-led acquisition and indicative of its future direction.

“It’s incredible exciting to think of the influence a small NZ brand can have on the world as part of the bigger VF,” McNab said.

Come back tomorrow for part two of this story about what Icebreaker has been doing lately, including its decision to bring back its design team to New Zealand.

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