The North Face Speaker Series is aimed at putting the biggest names in adventure sport in the same room as their fans – each event is based around the experiences of a North Face sponsored athlete. The 2012 London event that Speak Media attended (titled ‘Return to Meru’) was based on legendary alpinist Conrad Anker’s second (failed) and third (successful) attempts to scale the Sharks Fin, a particularly difficult route to the summit of Mount Meru in the Himalayas. The successful attempt happened in 2011 and Anker was joined by Renan Ozturk and climbing-hero-in-his-own-right Jimmy Chin.
It’s hard if you’re not a climbing fan to fully appreciate the stature of a man like Conrad Anker. There are no celebrity climbers. There aren’t many who even climb as a full-time occupation. As Anker puts it “it’s a pastime for people who like to endure pain”. But while there may be very few who make a living from climbing there are still huge numbers of enthusiastic amateurs. These are people who live and breathe climbing and for them at least, Conrad Anker is as big as they come.
From the moment we arrived at the venue we were impressed by the way North Face had stamped its identity on proceedings. The Union Chapel (a dramatic venue anyway) was floodlit from ground-level and adorned with a portaledge – the one actually used by Anker and his team on their ascent of the Shark’s Fin – hanging from one side of the chapel spire. Inside, the consistent North Face branding continued with the gothic interior transformed into a Santa’s grotto for outdoor enthusiasts.
Despite not being familiar with the world of climbing it only took a few minutes of the expedition film – specially produced for the event – before we started to grasp the literally enormous achievements Anker has to his name. He has scaled Everest three times and is described by fellow expedition-member Renan Ozturk as a hero, somebody he grew up reading about. Later, as they near the summit of the climb there is a section of mountain that both Ozturk and Chin say they would be unable to climb. Anker, the silverback, duly shoulders the responsibility and leads the way up the sheer face. The story the film tells is a powerfully emotive one with the team experiencing both peaks and troughs before emerging successful. By the end of the film and the following Q&A with Anker and fellow alpinist Simone Moro we’re in no doubt as to Anker’s status as a superman of modern mountaineering.
The ultimate success of the Meru expedition is a great moment that comes as the culmination of a near-obsessive quest by Anker to conquer the mountain that twenty men including his mentor, legendary climber Mugs Stump failed to climb. It’s a fitting narrative to reinforce the North Face brand message; products that won’t give up while you still have goals to achieve.
Throughout the event, both on-film and off the athletes use an idiolect that is equal parts technical and spiritual. When Jimmy Chin describes the routes the team didn’t take to the summit he calls them “part of the mountain but not the defining lines” – a telling insight into the way a modern mountaineer thinks about the technical aspects of a climb. Equally though climber-speak is full of phrases like “soulful climb”, “mystique of the climb”, “the mountain is gonna deny you”. And this is what is so powerful about North Face’s Speaker Series, they enlist the help of the very biggest as authentic mouthpieces for the brand. People like Conrad Anker can discuss these subjects with a level of knowledge and passion that is hard for a brand to convey credibly through other, conventional channels. The ‘Return to Meru’ event is actually part of a wider multi-channel campaign around the Meru range which also has its own microsite, video content and even a nifty infographic. The European leg (they also run a series in North America) of the speaker series involves five events in as many countries about a variety of topics that North Face knows its community is passionate about.
What struck us most about the evening was the restraint exercised by North Face in not pushing their Meru range of products at every opportunity. There were different pieces of North Face kit dotted around the chapel in specially constructed display cases, but there was a notable absence of direct mentions of North Face products by the speakers and in the film. At some points we weren’t sure if this was a missed opportunity on the part of the brand or a conscious decision to keep the brand presence implicit rather than overt. There were some exceptions of course – the shot of Conrad Anker’s son going to bed wearing a North Face t-shirt sticks in our mind – but generally the brand relied on the overall feel of the event to deliver their message – that North Face is the brand that will help you achieve your goals, whether they are molehills or Merus. It was a bold step not to capitalise on what is clearly a great opportunity to boost sales of the Meru range but the benefits to North Face in not doing this outweigh those short-term gains. We left the Unity Chapel without feeling like we’d spent our Tuesday evening getting the hard sell at a trade expo and more importantly we left with a better understanding of what North Face do of the herculean tasks achievable with their gear.