Mountaineering, Communities, and Brand Strategy (sorta)

This coming mountaineering season, I have three trips planned: my second ascent up Mt. Shasta, a trip to summit Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood, and, if all goes well, a late summer climb up Mt. Rainier.  Rainier is home to 26 glaciers making it the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, and has more prominence—the vertical distance from the peak to the surrounding area—than K2, the second highest mountain in the world.  I am very excited.  At the same time, however, these sorts of trips are so out of character for me, I cannot believe my gear is already spread out over half my floorspace.

Mt. Shasta Summit
Me and my climbing team on the top of Mt. Shasta. May, 2012.

The outdoors has always been my reprieve from the demands of life.  I spend so much time in front of the computer, checking my phone, finishing projects, driving toward goals, that the outdoors was always an opportunity to focus on basics like finding water, following a never-ending path, and basking in the knowledge that the miles I cover are determined by my body’s conversation with the ground.  Mountaineering, on the other hand, is almost antithetical to these values: it is goal driven, success is defined within strict parameters, and stopping to smell the flowers might endanger the life not just me, but my entire team.  It is like work, but much less comfortable and much more life threatening.

When I moved to southern California, I had no local friends.  I signed up for a ten week course  that I thought was about basic outdoor survival skills, but ended up addressing climbing tall mountains in the middle of winter.  These people were mountaineers, not backpackers.  Instead of recoiling (and being very lonely), I decided to embrace this new perspective of the outdoors and become a mountaineer myself.  In doing so, I discovered a vibrant community of leaders eager to leave their lives at home and place themselves in difficult, exhilarating positions that involved, in addition to a mental challenge, precarious crampon placements, extreme temperatures, and some awfully awesome ice axes and ropes.

By embracing this new community, I freed myself to learn a new way of understanding the outdoors.  And, it taught me a valuable lesson about groups; how they carry their members along, teach them skills, and motivate them to work on things they might not normally put effort toward.  In short, my new community changed my behavior drastically.  I think this is an appropriate lesson for brands and companies who strive for prominence within culture.

Affiliation is an important factor in behavior, attitude, and action.  It behooves any brand to think about communities not simply as insular groups, but as agents of change in the minds of others.  People need to be introduced to the group in the right way and social psychology can do the rest.  Creating a real business strategy to develop the right opportunities and cultivate the types of tribes and communities that compel action is an essential aspect of brand strategy, be it on the tops of mountains or the deepest digital canyons.

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