It’s hardly controversial to say 2020 was a tumultuous year for everyone. Virtually every day heralded some new craziness for us to cope with from the sky-darkening Aussie bushfires to Trump’s dialogue. In amongst it all of course were the scenes of Covid-19 lockdowns and street protests inspired by Black Lives Matters and LGBTQ rights, amongst others. Whilst the latter actions were ostensibly in reaction to police brutality, in reality they had already been brewing for a long time. A new generation had climbed out of the foxhole of childhood, sniffed the breeze and didn’t really like the odour of status quo. They wanted change to how things get done around here and they wanted it now. That was why a regional protest against endemic American racism spread so easily across the world and in such numbers. Everyone was tired of just an untouchable, exclusive elite making all the important decisions for everybody – whether that be cops, Big Oil cartels, out-of-touch politicians or redneck talkback radio hosts. By turning out en masse, the public was telling the people in power they didn’t just want empty promises of change anymore; they wanted action. Immediately.
And their message was heard, at least by companies as, unlike governments, they are keenly attuned to what their customers want. They have to be or else they will quickly only have ex-customers as there has never been a generation more savvy to their mass buying power than the one maturing now. So many companies are scrambling around desperately now trying to catch their marketing philosophies up with where their potential markets already are.
But some companies had the foresight to get ahead of the curve, to genuinely care about inclusiveness within their entire offering rather than hurriedly tack it on as an afterthought – and one such company is American clothing and footwear brand Merrell.
As early as November 2018, Merrell were looking at how they could up their game in the equality stakes and at their global brand conference they came up with a concept they called; ‘JEDI’ which stands for: Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Lofty ideals for a clothing and footwear company perhaps, but they weren’t necessarily talking about changing the entire world – just their little corner of it. They figured it was better to do what they actually could do and leave all the grandiose promises to everyone else.
But ironically the action Merrell decided on in 2018 has turned out to be an apt precursor to what everyone was demanding in 2020 – a chance at equality. With JEDI, Merrell were making actual change by helping to reframe the perception of public activities completed within their wheelhouse, e.g.; hiking, trail running, camping, skiing and biking – basically anything that you can do in the great outdoors. They felt this was necessary because over recent years a certain perspective has developed toward these activities; that they are the domain of only elite athletes and committed enthusiasts. And while this wasn’t a deliberate exclusion, this unfortunate situation has arisen because the bulk of us have forgone the earned pleasures of outdoor adventures for those instant gratifications gained from technology or urban based lifestyles. And because of this, so many of us have forgotten the benefits a bush track would give us and our eager overconsumption of convenience foods while inside or on screens has made us less excited about learning it again.
How Merrell reasoned they could do their bit to change this was via partnering up with an organisation who were already taking on this unwanted perception – so their efforts would affect real change, not just serve as a flash-in-the-pan campaign. The organisation they chose to collaborate with was Unlikely Hikers. This is an Instagram-based community dedicated to encouraging the kinds of people you don’t normally see in outdoor equipment advertising; black, ethnic minorities, queer, trans, the disabled and people of size to take up hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Unlikely Hikers founder, Jenny Bruso, had noticed these people were grossly under-represented in the category and so wanted to create a community where they would feel welcome if they wanted to go hiking on the weekend. That’s all, Unlikely Hikers has no secret mandate to overthrow capitalism or the patriarchy – they just want a piece of the outdoors. Recognising this, Merrell recently worked with Unlikely Hikers to redesign and update their Zion walking shoe to make it even more versatile to suit the wider range of people wanting to use them out on the trail.
The tumult of 2020 may have been painful for a lot of us but change rarely happens easily. But if the positive impact instigated by Merrell and Unlikely Partners here is in any way symptomatic of the kinds of change we’re likely to see out of the ashes of last year, then it will all have been worth it.