The lifespan of large companies today is less than 20 years, and experts predict that it will drop to 14 years by 2026. Fledgling brands would do well to take a lesson from established brands that have proven their staying power, like The Orvis Company.

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Founded in 1856, Orvis is the oldest mail-order outfitter and longest continually operating fly-fishing business in the United States. Today, the company is thriving, with more than $340 million in annual sales and product lines as diverse as men's and women's sportswear, fine gifts and home furnishings, luggage and travel accessories, dog beds and shotguns, and more.

Simon Perkins is director of brand marketing at The Orvis Company, and he knows a thing or two about his company's target audience. Simon worked as a fly-fishing guide in Montana for 10 years before joining the family business, so he's racked up thousands of hours in one-on-one time with fly fishing enthusiasts (and he's a fly-fisherman himself).

I invited Simon to Marketing Smarts to talk about The Orvis Company's recent rebrand, and I asked him how an outdoor brand that's been around more than 150 years managed to evolve its business model and thrive in the digital era.

Here are just a few highlights from my conversation with Simon:

Spend as much time as possible getting to know your core customer (14:58): "Before I joined Orvis, I actually worked as a fly-fishing guide out in Montana for 10 years.... It was an amazing opportunity—I mean you're stuck all day long in a 12-foot-long boat. No one can escape, and you're with your core customer all day long, listening to them. It was pretty fun coming in with that kind of qualitative insight."

To build a brand that stands the test of time, you have to move beyond your comfort zone (08:00): "We've been around for a long time, and one of the reasons why we've been successful for so long is because we really made a science out of this catalog marketing where you can measure and analyze to a pretty amazing degree. You can reduce risk, you can pinpoint customers, you can measure contribution to the square inches of every catalog spread. That's where our sweet spot was. That's where our comfort level was.... But things evolve.

"Things have changed. In the past, companies like us used to have more control over the interaction with the customer. You could mail them specific catalogs and you could measure how they reacted to specific pages in specific catalogs. Now...the customer really holds a lot of that control as far as how they choose to engage with brands or with companies, how they choose to decide who they're going to spend their money with, or who they're going to spend their emotional time with: Facebook, online, mobile, catalog, retail stores.

"You really, truly have to be omnichannel and...all of the sudden, you have to figure out how one plus one equals three.... Before you could look at these direct response marketing channels. Even when we were just getting into digital—just digital, just catalog, just retail stores, and you could figure out how one plus one equals three and look at them in their own silos. Now we're really forced to be omnichannel and figure out how we, first-off, create a seamless experience for the customer, but secondly, how we invest in the brand and the reasons why customers really care about us and want to spend time with us, want to spend money with us.

"Look at that brand marketing, that halo it creates, the longer and more complicated pathways to purchase that customers might take, through different channels, through different categories. Really commit yourself to understanding the customer, understanding what moves them, and then invest in some things that are actually harder to measure. There are more and more creative ways to measure them, which is really exciting, but there is more risk involved."

To overcome fear and risk about rebranding, let your audience guide you (22:52): "[Rebranding] can be a little intimidating. With that said, what was helpful was really listening to [core customers]. They were the ones that told us to evolve in these new compelling ways, to go after content marketing, to tell our stories, to engage with them in the ways that they were starting to engage with life and people around them. Grassroots social media, telling stories, videos, other types of brand marketing. Stopping and listening to them and really dialing into how they chose to spend their time and money on a daily basis today compared to five years ago helped us to venture forth and get over that fear of offending the customer that had helped us grow into the company we were." 

To learn more, visit or follow the company on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You could also enroll in one of The Orvis Company's free fly-fishing classes!

Simon and I talked about much more, including the research process Orvis used to determine their brand image before the rebrand, and which new audiences they decided to pursue based on their research, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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