It’s no secret that pushing ultralight technique and gear to its limits requires a significant amount of consumer education. Few people simply drop their fifty-pound packs mid-way through a PCT thru-hike and exchange their kit at wholesale for a pocho-tarp and beanie hat when the monsoon season looms in the Oregon Cascades.
It’s also no secret that there is a perception among core enthusiasts in the lightweight community that manufacturers are unwilling to promote the more technical education that is often required to push ultralight to its fringe limits, or at least to understand how and why it works.
Cascade Designs sees technical consumer education as a higher priority in the future. Jon Almquist, MSR Brand Manager, believes that a public relations pendulum needs to swing towards pro-sumer technical education of customers that can ultimately become the industry’s biggest champions not only of their products, but of pushing those products to their limits with a fast-and-light ethic. “Part of reaching the consumer in this way is empowering sales reps – who have historically lacked the technical expertise to train core users,” says Almquist. Cascade Designs, the brand parent of MSR, intends to empower their sales force with innovative, incentive-based training programs that make their reps the most knowledgeable in the industry.
GoLite has a different approach, claims CEO and co-founder Kim Coupounas. “We have every intention of participating in rational dialogue directly with our end users.” Kevin Volz, GoLite’s Customer Service Manager, interacts directly with GoLite customers via email and phone daily. “The fun inquiries fall into two categories: those who are curious and want to know what this lightweight stuff is all about,” says Volz, “and passionate enthusiasts who want to know the minutia of product design attributes such as fabric weights.” Both scenarios provide terrific opportunities to offer technical consumer education at a level that is not commonly found in the outdoor industry.
“Cottage manufacturers rely primarily on one-on-one connection with their customers for education,” says Brian Frankle of ULA-Equipment. “And, the unusual nature of more innovative and cutting edge cottage products demands (that type of) customer service.”
Unlike bigger manufacturers, cottage companies are unique in their ability to rapidly respond to customer feedback, making changes to products on the fly. Because of rapidly evolving products and sometimes quirky and unusual features, cottage industry products often demand a higher consumer education burden than mass-market products. The extra education is required because their gear initially flies in the face of established protocol and consumers aren’t always sure how to respond to the concepts.
Larger companies, however, tend to build what they can sell – creating products that have a minimal customer service overhead that can scale to the mass market. Large companies take fewer product concept gambles, have longer product development cycles, and can’t respond quickly to product goof-ups when they are sitting on hundreds, and often thousands, of unsold units. Thus, their products tend to be further from the ultralight fringe: that market space occupied by companies like Six Moon Designs, ULA-Equipment, and Gossamer Gear.
Large and small manufacturers alike agree that educating consumers – and creating a passionate and technically competent pro-sumer customer base that can offer more than simply recite marketing materials is necessary for the growth of the industry. Ron Moak of Six Moon Designs aptly told us this afternoon, “lightweight backpacking is an oxymoron because backpacking is recreation, but going lightweight is work” – mind work, that is.
If you are going to gain competence as a lightweight backpacker (more so if you want to tap at the fringe of the ultralight dance floor), you can’t do it successfully, safely, or comfortable without putting some thought muscle into it.