Discover Your Trail

Proprietary Information for viewing use only Two Things | Product Campaign | Strategy + Research  

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TL;DR

The Ask:

Connect with a broader, more diverse audience with their new line of hiking apparel. We wanted to transform perception and expression of hiking and trail running in a way that is authentic to The North Face, yet also reflects Next Gen and how they define hiking and trail running. 

Challenge

Changing perspective on the status quo of what hiking and trail mean to become more inclusive. Traditionally hiking and trail have been exclusively White, leaving out many other groups of people who should have access to the outdoors. 

Business Goal:

Define rich emotional themes around trail and the TNF brand that define narratives for creative exploration.

 

Drive a diverse, younger audience to consider The North Face as their year-round, go-to outdoor brand. We also wanted to invite and welcome new audiences to get on the trails and explore with The North Face. 

Opportunity:

Seize the opportunity to create inclusivity and make the outdoors accessible for everyone. 

Research Goal:

We wanted to surface insights that would help The North Face articulate a cohesive and compelling vision for trail, hiking, and trail running. We also wanted to surface key barriers to trail participation, especially those in underrepresented groups. 

Audience:

  • Age 25 - 32

  • Live an active lifestyle 

  • People from diverse background and ethnicities

  • Broad sample across US cities and suburbs 

  • Are hikers and trail runners AND are occasional hikers and trail runners AND those new to trail and hiking 

Research Approach:

Talked to 12 (NextGen) current trail and trail-interested participants about hiking, trail running, and brands. Each interview was 90 minutes with one-on-one in-depth interviews.

 

The conversations were structured but not standardized. Our focus was surfacing raw emotional elements that could yield strong brand narratives.

 

We sought to dimensionalize the core insight that guided the VECTIV launch:
Everyone from elite trail athletes to beginner hikers loves the trail because it connects them to nature.

Insights:

  1. I feel more human

  2. I feel small, and it feels great

  3. Sense of achievement

  4. Deepening relationships

  5. Honesty with self, with each other, and with nature itself

  6. Disconnect for mental health

  7. Occasions for hitting the trail

My Role: 

  • Helped to gather participants for the study

  • Helped craft the discussion guide 

  • Conducted some of the interviews

  • Took notes during the interviews 

  • Worked on crafting the research narrative and insights 

Research Findings:

Next Gen respondents described being on the trail as transformative, a refreshing antidote to the rigors of life of daily life. There were unique stressors and benefits to hiking that we heard repeatedly. 

Stressor

1. Always on 

2. COVID captivity 

3. Fear of failure

Benefit of Trail 

1. Freedom 

2. Excitement 

3. Growth 

Overarching Learnings

Trail Attraction

Trail is attractive to a wide variety of NextGen demographics, and their motivations surfaced several shared practical and emotional themes. The benefits of trail address many of the challenges presented by modern life.

Hiking More

Most respondents wish they could go out on trail more than they actually get to go, especially those new to trail. A variety of practical and emotional barriers stand in the way. 

Aspirational Goals

While a vision for the future of trail for everyone proved elusive, most respondents had distinct aspirations for their own future on the trail—many made a direct connection to future trail gear buys as part of the journey (shoes, apparel, and equipment). This was more prevalent among the New To Trail. 

Insight #1

I Feel More Human

People crave a connection to nature, and in it, they recognize something essential about themselves. There is the sense that modern life is incongruous with our natural state, and the trail provides a way for us to tap into a deeper, truer self. Perhaps an idealized self, but certainly one that is more open, present, and alive than that which inhabits daily urban life. There was often a pause before people said the word “human”, as if they were searching to articulate an elusive and nuanced state of being. 

Many respondents used the word “human” to sum up what they feel when they hit the trail

  • Closer to who I really am and what I’m meant to be

  • A more pure version of me 

  • A better version of me

  • Wholeness and integration

  • Self-fulfilled contentment 

  • Connected to my senses

  • A sense of true freedom – to roam, to shout, to be still – a birthright

  • Connected to an ancestral legacy of being free on the land

​"It feels like a sense of belonging and just like you're on the right path. It just feels like you're where you should be.”

"I feel like Earth is like hey, you could do no wrong here because you're home you know? ”

"You're provided the opportunity to be more human when you’re on the trail.”

"I'll leave it how you found it. If you found it, it's kind of like that's like, also the high like, the interaction with humans is like, I want to leave you better than I found you. I want you to feel better.”

"So the thing that appeals to me about like hiking trails is like the tranquility of it all. Not necessarily the physical aspect of it. ”

"Wow, they [Twain, Throreau] really like they had it right. And I had it wrong. I was like no Creek. Creeks do crackle and Brooks do babble so and stuff like that.”

Insight #2

I Feel Small, and It Feels Great

There are few other places in life where being made to feel “small” is viewed as a positive experience. Nature gives us permission to get outside ourselves, imparting simultaneous feelings of insignificance and majesty. Elements of self-absorption and self consciousness are removed, and replaced by a sense of connection to a vast and elegant presence. A bullseye antidote for many identity issues faced by NextGen, who face simultaneous pressures to self-promote and insecurity about status and approval.

Many respondents used the words “I feel small” to describe a positive experience on trail, and it had to do with:

  • Feeling liberated from the personal

  • Energized humility–small but “in power” 

  • Make the worries of life feel smaller, not as big of an issue 

  • The stressors in life are reduced

  • A physical space that allows one to experience grandeur

  • Connected, immersed in the beauty of the surroundings 

  • A sense of respect and gratitude 

  • Aware of a larger time-frame, possibly exceeding one’s lifespan 

  • An inversion of typical identity ideation (from feeling big outside/small inside TO small outside/big inside) 

"It's this very awesome feeling of feeling so small, but like so in power. Because it's just like ascending.”

 

"…it’s like you are emotionally and mentally humbled. And it's this like, very awesome feeling of feeling so small, but like so in power…That type of humility on the trail is really hard to get from other things, or it's, I don't want to say it's the easiest to get. But it is the most tangible.”

"It makes you feel smarter, because like, okay, in the scheme of things, my life doesn't really matter from just a blip. And that's the type of those are the types of experiences and moments you get when you're confronted by something of a big, big scale. ”

"I'll leave it how you found it. If you found it, it's kind of like that's like, also the high like, the interaction with humans is like, I want to leave you better than I found you. I want you to feel better.”

"So I look at nature. I'm like, Oh, my God, like, that's my hair. And this is my skin. This is. So I feel like more a part of it than like a small thing in it.”

"It really puts like, your problems, or whatever you got going on. It really puts it into perspective. And it makes you think, again, at least for me, it makes me think that it's not as big of a problem as I thought, and it's definitely something that you can tackle. You know, I tend to think more positively about things like that, in general, when I'm out in nature for sure.”

Insight #3

Sense of Achievement

Many people expressed that going on the trail imparts an authentic sense of achievement, one that has a lasting effect, and does not depend on the approval of others. It activates what feels like an augmentation: a surefire way to get reset, cleansed, and become more open-minded and self-sufficient. People also reported the feeling continues upon returning home, and the rewards of the trail inform and enhance other aspects in ‘day-to-day’ life. Trail participation could be positioned as a way to boost self-esteem, agency and resilience in all of life.

There is something uniquely and intrinsically rewarding about hiking

  • Rewarding in all phases—the trip out of the city, beauty on the trail, wildlife, reaching the top, sitting still, a mid-hike picnic, completing the loop, and the feeling after all is done

  • Many cited “a challenge” in how they selected trails which increased the sense of achievement in completion

  • A sense of pride: enjoying the outcome and reward—it’s worth it and feels good

  • More intrinsically rewarding than a gym workout

  • It feels like an accomplishment to get there and all the steps that it took to get there

  • Finishing a trail feels earned and everything you do after feels earned as well

  • Feel better than everyone else, when getting back from a hike 

  • Discovering you are more capable than you thought – feeling carries over into life

What I really enjoyed is that, the outcome of it, or the reward of it, like, you get to do this thing, and it's hard, but like the outcome is worth it.”

"I gravitate towards the hikes where I know that I'll be challenged in some way. Whether that's the duration of the hike, or that's the type of terrain involved. I definitely enjoy the feeling of like, I don't know, I think it's probably just that sense of accomplishment. ”

"It makes me feel definitely makes me feel good. has me reflect on life, you know, say, when you're staring at a computer screen, for most of your days, it's, it's rewarding to see something else.”

"I think it's just again, like knowing you're doing something hard. And like that hard is temporary. I think we forget that things like everything we face is temporary.”

"I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being active outside , but not in a punishing way.”

"I think it's just again, like knowing you're doing something hard. And like that hard is temporary. I think we forget that things like everything we face is temporary.”

Insight #4

Deepening Relationships

There is something about going out on trail that encourages deep friendship connections through experiencing beauty together, overcoming challenges together, and even enduring hardship together. There’s a generosity of spirit that emerges as people truly enjoy showing the wonders of trail to friends who are new to it, or just new to a particular trail. There’s also a sense that you can learn new things about your friends on trail, that a truer version of them is revealed. Responses imply that modern life creates barriers to close friendships.

Respondents felt like trails changed how they relate to other people, particularly close friends

  • More often grow even closer to close friends—lifelong friendships

  • Occasionally a way to get to know new friends better

  • Conversations can be more revealing on trail

  • Feels like a safe space to be vulnerable get deep, and discuss life, relationships, philosophy, emotions, etc.

  • Silence is good too, it does not feel awkward on the trail, the sounds of nature replace chatter

  • One may have emotional relationship with certain familiar trails, with the surroundings, etc. 

  • There’s a particular joy in taking NTTs out on a hike

  • There’s a sense of gratitude to experienced hikers from NTTs 

  • There was one instance where a Trail Vet took out a NTT who didn’t get it, didn’t enjoy it, and it changed their relationship for the worse 

"Feel like on a hike, and like at the top and all these things like those conversations just are always like very deep rooted, very intentional. Very intimate, with, like, the words you're choosing and the things you're able to bring up.”

"Good opportunity to have unfiltered, uninterrupted, genuine deep conversations. The substance and pacing of a conversation is different on a trail, with a lot of room to talk about anything and everything in a good way. ”

"like nothing is that big of a deal right now everything is fine, because we're just having this like, great, beautiful moment. No one can take that away. It's there. And it's like solidified, even if you tried to, like say that didn't happen, or like I saw it. And it's done, it happened."

"I've had like a lot of like, really deep talks with my friends. Out in the open. I like outing and going on walks and stuff in terms of, you know, talking about, like, our feelings and stuff. About insecurities, careers, relationships, and more.” 

"There's nothing but this real conversation and copious amounts. I mean, vast parts of land, like two miles out, there's no other stranger or a person around yourself. ” 

"I do think it does put our friendships in an opportunity for conversations to be more vulnerable. I do think from time to time topics come up, where we are able to have like, a more like, philosophical detailed in depth discussion about things like your own feelings, emotions, ideas, situations.”

Insight #5

Honesty with self, with each other, and with nature itself

Related to themes of being “More Human” and “Deepening Relationships”, as people feel more in touch with who they are, and more connected to who they are with, it grants them permission to be their realest self. A freedom to speak and act with honesty, even when the truth is difficult. It implies that modern, urban life demands artifice, by its definition is artificial, and that the act of going into nature brings one into closer alignment with universal truths.

Several respondents said that going on trail lets them be more honest—it reduces or removes artifice

  • Nature doesn’t lie 

  • Nature takes down a filter that you feel in the city 

  • The trail will let you know how fit you are 

  • The surroundings, inhabitants, and elements are uncontrived—the trail follows the landscape and was made in part by nature; the animals follow their instincts; plants grow where they find their native conditions

  • Nature has the ultimate integrity and conveys it to you—a rare experience of unconditional love

  • One can be more honest with oneself when out in nature 

  • Conversations are more honest with friends—possibly due to less people being around, less distractions, sense of safety

  • Hiking on trail is an equalizer, you can’t cheat your way to the top of a hill 

  • Lends a more complete/holistic point of view of other parts of one’s life—clarity and truth

"I think maybe just for a little bit afterwards. I'd like to think that my mind is a little bit open. Just thinking about things from a little bit higher, higher level."


"If you're able to kind of get to your Zen place, you know, and just calm yourself and kind of do like some meditation and stuff like that. Then you're able to understand nature and hear nature because you're out there, you know, and you get to kind of feel, I would say, it makes you feel awake, calmer.”

"For me, the feeling of getting away is like removing myself from that, like social and emotional responsibility.”

"I think the exploration of nature allows me to, like, make more than connections.”

 

"It is hard to be sarcastic when you're on the trail.”

"There's this trust you have to have on a hike in your conversations and your vulnerability. It is about trusting yourself, trusting other people to like, again, be there with you, in my opinion, physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

Insight #6

Disconnect for mental health

When getting on trail, people seize the opportunity to disconnect: from work, digital media, constant digital contact and communication for what many cited as mental wellness benefits. People expressed the idea of physical distance, disconnecting was often described as a “getaway.” “Disconnection” and “getting away” imply escape; inversely, it implies day-to-day life is a form of captivity. The trail therefore is a reliable source of mental and physical freedom.

Many respondents value time on trail for the mental and psychological benefits it confers

  • A way to feeling grounded, which equates to calm

  • A way to combat anxiety, both social and existential

  • Prevent mental burnout

  • Trail can be part of a self-care regimen 

  • Many cited time on trail as “personal time” or a gift you give yourself

  • Notably, most respondents report not using social media while on trail, although many take pictures, and post later

  • A number of respondents reported not posting trail photos later, saying “that time is just for me”

  • Some respondents reported getting a greater degree of disconnection from trails located greater distances away from where they live

"We have so much overstimulation when we're in, you know, just this tech world where we're just surrounded by screens all the time. And so it's kind of nice to kind of have that silence.”

 

"There's so much that happens like mentally and physically on a hike. That's like it is a constant push.”

"It’s the mental health aspect when I go out, spend time on a hike it’s rejuvenating and re-energizing as well as the physical and exercise aspect of it.”

"I like, the feeling of it. I like the mental aspect of it. It's very freeing on the mind, especially I think, I think hiking is especially good way. We're kind of stuck in a rut, like mentally, oh, because then it's just like you're thrust into a different situation.”

"Helps me not get burnout so quickly, especially working from home and not removing myself from my home and work, and I have an emotionally taxing job.”

"The space kind of like, calls for call in a way that like a city doesn't call for calm because again, you hear like sirens, you hear cars, doorbells, like, all of them and things play out in nature, like it's just so quiet.”

Insight #8

Disconnect for mental health

Many of the day-to-day occasions that made respondents think about getting on the trail were closely aligned with the internal states detailed in previous drivers and values insights. Media featuring images of nature, friends’ social media posts, long duration since last hike, and long weekends stood out as additional drivers, possible cues for targeted and/or timed messaging. 

Our respondents reported several occasions that sparked a desire to get out on the trail

  • Nature imagery in photos, movies, TV (ex. LOTR)

  • A new activity to do with friends—instead of a bar, brunch

  • Too much work—excel spreadsheets

  • Stressed out / need a recharge 

  • Over stimulation or social burnout

  • Long weekends 

  • Family rituals

  • Wanting to reach goals

  • Long time since last hike

  • Seeing social media posts about trails

"So when I see pictures or when I see you know, or think about nature that's untouched by man i think that that's like the most pure that that life can be, where everything's more or less in sync you know, because like everything from like the food webs to the weather patterns to the geology of a trail or a nature preserve anything everything in it basically is like in perfect harmony.” 

"I think people share some pretty neat looking hiking photos. And so there's just always that like, Oh, my gosh, what? Where is this?” 

"I was watching Lord of the Rings the other day. And I was like, while I was ready to go hiking this weekend, because I haven't been hiking in like, five weeks. So I was like, Damn, like this, look at them. Like, I know it's like fantasy or whatever but like it just you know when when when I see image something like I wish I could like be out there too. Or like, I want to go see that place like I want to go to New Zealand and like see like, where like they were able to like scale this rock and stuff like that.“


"If I want to go hiking, it's because I like want to get out of I want to get out of like the hustle and bustle, even though it's not even that fast paced, like relative to like New York or something like, but it's because I want to get out. Like literally.”

"Family is one thing, because that's one trip, my favorite trail is near where my parents live. Whenever I'm planning a trip to see my parents, it's like, I know, I'm gonna wake up early on a weekend and go to the trail.”

"I would say, my work day, sometimes sitting at this desk, I do a lot of work in Excel. And it can, it can just be daunting at times.”  

Team: 

Cat Marsh: Strategist

Tunde Whitten: Strategist