For years, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) was a brand for experienced outdoorsmen. Customers came to its stores looking for the best-of-the best in hiking, rock climbing, and back-woods skiing gear. But as Canada increasingly urbanized, the company risked losing relevance.
After David Labistour became CEO in 2008, he engineered a dramatic shift in the company’s strategy. To succeed, MEC needed to expand its reach—and fast. “What we were seeing was this heavily urbanized community, and one that was no longer predominantly white and male,” he explains. “Any company that is not constantly trying to understand the changes in their consumer base is not going to be around that long.” Under his leadership the company has secured a place for itself among Canada’s most recognizable brands.
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The first and most important change was to refashion MEC’s purpose—to shift from being a company that promoted “self-propelled wilderness exploration” to one that aimed “to inspire everyone to get off the couch and out the door.” That meant embracing urban fitness practices like yoga, cycling, and running. “Our demographic has always been 25–35 years-old,” he explains, “So we constantly have to work to be relevant to that age group, but over the years what it’s wanted has been different.”
Part of creating what Labistour calls a “bigger tent” was making sure that MEC’s marketing campaigns were pitch-perfect. “If you look at our brand campaign that’s out now, our imagery is of people having fun, instead of those really gnarly moments when they’re struggling up a mountain,” he notes. He’s also quick to point out that the company has done away with images of single people, opting instead for groups of friends having fun together outside. “We know that young people are very social, and the old imagery of people by themselves, while very inspiring, it doesn’t really speak to how people live their lives,” he explains.
From where he works on the west coast, Labistour sees a group of Canadian companies targeting the same group of athletic young people. “Lululemon, Westcomb, Herschel—there are a lot of brands that are doing very well,” he says. “We actually speak to each other, and there’s a very exciting sort of gravity happening on the west coast.”
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It’s not quite collaboration over competition. “Certainly there’s a rivalry. But I’ve always believed in cooperation, and we certainly collaborate in some ways,” he says, adding that there’s a general interest among the brands in creating what he calls a “centre of excellence” along the west coast.
Moving forward, MEC is looking to continue to put resources into e-commerce—Labistour calls it the “real future” of retail. But the CEO maintains that focusing on the wants of a diverse group of young people will continue to sit at the top of the company’s priority list. “It’s about thinking about what Canada actually looks like today, and saying to those people, ‘Yes we see you, and can help you with what you’re looking for,’” he says.