2019 Brand of the Year: MEC climbs to new heights

The retailer is modernizing by celebrating diversity, expanding its offerings and upping its experiential game.

MEC All Out

This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2019 Brands of the Year. To read about the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, click here.

This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of strategy.

A recent video on MEC’s Instagram page opens with a child smiling and pans over to other kids making silly faces. “With gear this good they might even get excited for back to school,” the copy reads. All of a sudden the gentle background music screeches to a halt, and the camera zooms in on a kid looking less than impressed that the end of summer is nigh, paired with the punchline: “We said might.” The screen cuts to MEC’s sleek logo.

The post features kids of various ethnicities, all decked out in fall outfits from the outdoor and recreation clothing and gear company. Thankfully, there is no backslapping or high-fiving for showing the multicultural reality of Canada in an ad, as this isn’t some sort of one-and-done annual campaign celebrating diversity that many brands do, say, for Black History Month or Pride Month.

No, this is part of a larger ongoing effort for the Vancouver-based retailer to right a wrong. In late 2018, then-CEO David Labistour wrote an open letter acknowledging that for decades the quintessentially Canadian company failed to reflect the cultural mosaic of Canada in its mass marketing. Since then MEC has made efforts to show that everyone, not just straight white guys, go camping and hiking and back-to-school, as it looks to further modernize the 48-year-old brand.

**. Photo by Greg Locke © 2018.
MEC’s long-time CEO stepped down after 11 years earlier this year (as planned) and Philippe Arrata officially stepped in as its new CEO on July 2. Under Labistour’s leadership, MEC grew from 2.7 million to 5.1 million members and opened 11 new stores by late 2018. Arrata, who arrived from Best Buy Canada where he held several exec roles, has been busy visiting MEC’s stores and evaluating next steps, says Anne Donohoe, who has been the brand’s CMO since early 2013 and works with a team of about 80, mainly based in Vancouver. While the specifics under a new leader remain to be seen, she says the commitment to communicating MEC’s purpose to all Canadians, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or ability, will be a top priority as the retailer looks toward its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Donohoe acknowledges MEC is “not perfect,” adding “it’s a learning process [and] an evolution.” To that end, on top of having more diverse representation in its consumer-facing ads, the brand now does a territorial acknowledgement for every store that it opens. It’s also made an effort to have diverse brand ambassadors and has given queer competency, unconscious bias and cultural appropriation training to staff, she says.

“We’re very values driven… our purpose is to inspire and enable everyone, and all Canadians, [but] we recognized that we weren’t doing a good job,” says Donohoe. “It can be a polarizing discussion, but what we wanted to do was encourage dialogue to shift some perceptions… We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the community that they [now] feel they’re being represented, that they feel included, from members, as well as from staff.”

Modernizing its approach to identity politics is just one of the many ways the company is changing to reach the kids and grandkids of its original Baby Boomer customer base.

Since launching as a single co-op store in Vancouver with just six members and $65 of operating capital in 1971, MEC has slowly, but steadily, grown in sales and members. According to its 2019 annual report, sales were $462 million. It now operates 22 stores across the country and boasts 5.42 million members.

18_CM_86_MiniDocs_Poster_Freedom_RGBWhile sales only grew 1.7% year-over-year in fiscal 2018 (e-comm grew 12.6%), there has been steady sales growth every year since 2013, when Donohoe led a massive rebranding effort for the retailer. That year, the company changed its name from Mountain Equipment Co-op to simply MEC, as well as expanded its expertise beyond hiking, canoeing and cycling. It has also broadened its offerings beyond what’s on shelves, hosting running and yoga clinics and even giving lessons to young urbanites on how to fix bike tires.

This year, the company unveiled a new flagship store in Toronto that acts as a “community hub” for members, says Donohoe. The store features a kids playhouse, bike repair, ski shop, bouldering wall and lounge area, and it serves as a model for the Vancouver flagship, which is set to open early next year. These locations are meant to be “an extension of the outdoor experience,” says Donohoe, likening it to “a candy store for outdoor adventurers.”

While the new look and offerings help MEC reach an audience beyond back-country adventurers, it’s also using marketing as a way to give the brand mainstream appeal.

The retailer funded three mini-docs, created by Canadian filmmakers that focus on diverse people living MEC’s main purpose: inspiring everyone to get outside and be active. The three documentaries, Escape (featuring a Montreal-based DJ), Facing Sunrise (starring a young Muslim woman) and Ziyou (featuring a woman of Asian descent) were screened at film fests and also inside MEC stores. Facing Sunrise was awarded the Best Short Mountain Film title at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2018, as well as a Gold “M” for Multicultural Online Film at strategy’s Marketing Awards. Showing diverse faces in front of, and behind, the camera is just one way MEC is showing how its connecting with Canadians, regardless of their identity, notes Donohoe.

Part of MEC’s ongoing evolution has included bringing outdoorsy people together and giving back to adventure communities.

MECLabel_MerchTable_Signage_4This year it launched the MEC All Out program, which brought all of its long-term community events and investments under one revamped program that focuses on “connecting people to the places to go, the people to go with, and the skills they need to get there.” Since 1987 MEC has contributed more than $44 million to Canadian outdoor recreation and conservative initiatives, according to its website, and the new MEC All Out program will continue to build community connections via a range of initiatives from film screenings to speaker events to Parks Canada Learn to Camp sessions.

“MEC has always been an iconic and much-loved brand in Canada,” says Donohoe. “While we were loved, we weren’t [always] as relevant as we could be with the Canadian population. We have a very diverse population in Canada, so I think in the last five years it’s been about reconnecting with people again and being a loved brand, but also being the retailer of choice for them.”

And as the kids in MEC’s recent back-to-school Instagram post come of age, Donohoe says the retailer is committed to speaking to the next gen by celebrating Canada’s diversity, giving back to the community and ultimately linking it all back to the retailer’s unwavering “purpose of inspiring and enabling Canadians to get outside.”