Best Brands

How MEC scaled the heights to become Canada’s Best Brand

The transformation of MEC from niche retailer to a national hub for outdoor lifestyles was a tricky exercise. Here’s why it worked

MEC CEO David Labistour in the retailer’s Toronto location

MEC CEO David Labistour. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/CP)

What do you do when the granola-powered, anti-consumerist community you built in the ’70s needs to serve the aspirational lifestyle of the new millennium? If you’re smart, the answer looks very much like the note-perfect rebranding of MEC. Founded for the sole purpose of selling affordable climbing gear to card-holding members, Mountain Equipment Co-op spent five years steering a gutsy course between the encumbrances of its past and the lure of fashion. The result is that MEC—minus the mountain—has become Canada’s most respected brand, and it couldn’t feel more natural.

The transformation of MEC from a crunchy clearing-house of mountaineer equipment to a national hub for outdoor lifestyle enthusiasts was a tricky exercise. Here, in CEO David Labistour’s own words, is why it worked:

They targeted the customer they needed, not the one they had

“When I took over as CEO in 2008, we took a look into the future and we looked at it through the lens of the consumer. We’re a purpose-led organization and our purpose was always to help people realize the benefits of wilderness self-propelled recreation, like hiking, climbing and kayaking.

“But we realized that category wasn’t sustainable, given that 80% of Canadians live in urban environments. And then you look at the fact that most of our customers are university educated, and enrolment on campus is more female and more culturally diverse than ever. When we considered the recreation preferences of that changing consumer base, we realized the wilderness self-propelled category was not sustainable.

They changed the company before they changed the brand

“We got the go-ahead from the board to change the co-op’s purpose in 2011. That’s when we introduced all the hurdle activities [into the stores]. What I mean by hurdle activities is the easiest steps to get people into the outdoors, which would be walking, running and cycling. We also brought in things like yoga, training, fitness. We realized that because women were one of the biggest drivers of growth in our membership, we had to bring out lines of product that were appropriate and attractive to women.

“We broke our product teams into three different groups: one that’s focused on backcountry technical product; one that is focused on active lifestyles and fitness; and another that is focused on the kind of lifestyle stuff that is after-activity and travel.

“The rebrand was one of the last pieces we put in place. We had to do a lot of work on product, on how we were serving members through all channels and the categories that we worked in.”

They moved a mountain

“Here is one thing about the company’s rebrand that is not common knowledge: Almost every iteration of the brand opportunity that was shown to us by the agency [Concrete of Toronto] had a mountain on it. Only one did not. We had never perceived a logo without a mountain on it.

“When we put all the final logos onto products, storefronts and new forms of communications—whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or our own app—it became evident that the more complicated the logo was, the less power it had. The simpler and more utilitarian your logo is, the more it shows up on the screen of a mobile phone.

“It goes back to innovation. Looking ahead at the way people consume information and communicate, it was a no-brainer.”

They realized change is a good thing

“We took blowback from our staff and from our membership. Every time we changed something, we took blowback from somebody. But I think you always do. There’s a minority that are always very critical of what you do and a majority that don’t say anything. And I think that it’s dollar transactions that really defines success or not.

“We changed the things we believed were important to the consumer, but we did not change any of the things that were the essence of the organization. People would talk about the founders of the organization, how they were stuck on the side of Mt. Baker in a storm and there was nowhere to buy their gear, so they came up with the idea of opening MEC.

“Critics say that the founders were mountaineers and so we have to be true to the idea of what they did. My argument is that they were all young; they were all at university. They were active, they were adventurous and they were entrepreneurial, and if we got a group of young, adventurous, entrepreneurial people together today, what would they do?”

They doubled down on their community

“The other thing that we’ve done is make our stores activity hubs in their communities. We run a lot of events from our stores and around our stores. Our running events and our in-store events have a lot of people doing things with us. They don’t necessarily buy from us, but they are recreating with us.

“It’s trying not just to sell product but tying the community, the supply-chain pieces and the service into one cohesive brand statement. In the past we were known as a cheap company that copied others. Now there is a movement away from just stuff, towards experiences. So how do we fit into that space? What do we do to grow our experiential contact with our members and customers—to provide them with more than just stuff?

“The fine line is to never lose the things that are really important to your customer—those key things like quality, functionality, the active culture of a considered, intelligent organization. You want to keep those things. But the more aesthetic things, you’ve got to keep refreshing them.”