How the Pandemic Is Testing the Soul of One Outdoor Brand
What happens when an outdoor company stops making outdoor goods to focus solely on PPE? Flowfold sees the transition as a natural move
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Flowfold, a Maine-based maker of technical wallets, bags, and other outdoor gear, earned itself a spot in the headlines this March when it pivoted its entire operation to focus on building face shields for hospital workers. With astonishing speed, the company shut down production of its usual lines and poured most of its resources into designing, testing, and creating a single product that has nothing to do with the outdoors. For the last eight weeks, the brand has effectively operated as a medical device manufacturer.
This week, the shift intensified when Flowfold won a contract from the state of Maine to provide the Maine CDC with half a million face shields, a move that will require the business to double its current output from 50,000 to 100,000 units per week. What began as an effort to “deliver a little help to our local hospitals,” according to Flowfold CEO and co-founder Devin McNeill, has become “almost like having a whole new business. We’re going to be in this for as long as there’s a need,” McNeill said.
A Natural Shift
It’s a bold move from a business perspective. Flowfold hasn’t produced a single unit of its typical products for months, and the company is running out of stock to fulfill online orders, McNeill tells Outside Business Journal. “We’ve spent ten years building this company. The second you stop selling your product, it’s a risk,” he said.
But rather than fret over the current state of affairs (it was, after all, his decision to get into PPE production in the first place), McNeill views the move as perfectly aligned with his brand’s fundamental character.
“When you’re building a business, you have to focus on the strong points that set you apart. In many ways, that’s more important than what you sell; it’s about the ‘why,'” he said.
Flowfold’s ‘why’ is organized around movement, according to McNeill: allowing people to travel through the world—whether on adventure trips or day-to-day errands—smoothly and safely. In that sense, the shift to face shields isn’t a threat to the company’s identity, per se. The new product, though not “outdoor” in the traditional sense, answers the same ‘why’ as the brand’s backpacks, wallets, and other gear.
“In many ways, our face shield is the perfect symbol for what has allowed us to be successful since day one,” McNeill said.
A Change in Operations
Of course, that idea isn’t easy to communicate to consumers. In the past two months, it has taken Flowfold longer to ship core products ordered through the website, and there may come a day, McNeill said, when the company has to tell customers to come back later if they want to purchase any of the brand’s usual gear.
“So far, the response from [customers] has been positive when we say it will take a little longer to ship something,” McNeill pointed out. “Everyone understands what we’re trying to do.”
Customer perception aside, the situation does present some interesting opportunities for brand soul searching. In the coming months, Flowfold will be asking itself a lot of questions about what it represents and what it wants to become, McNeill says.
“For me, I would be doing the company a disservice if I wasn’t open to thinking about new ways to position the brand. As long as there’s a clear tie back to the ‘why,’ we’re open to asking ourselves how we can apply this approach to other new products, potentially within the medical space.”
Into the Future
All of this is not without precedent, and not necessarily permanent. McNeill points to other companies that made sharp turns during times of crisis and then eventually shifted back, like Maytag, which abandoned washing machines to produce military equipment during WWII.
The difference with face shields and other PPE is that they don’t require government contracts to turn a profit. Products to combat the spread of coronavirus can be sold directly to consumers—a reality other outdoor brands have begun to capitalize on. Flowfold could keep PPE in its offerings for months or even years if demand stays where it is.
“If it does go in that direction, I think we could even split into two companies,” McNeill said. “At a certain point, it’s hard to manage all under one roof.”