Michael Horsch is vice president of product and marketing at The North Face, a VF Corporation brand, and spoke to FashionUnited about his role, the EMEA strategy for the outdoor lifestyle brand, and the innovations consumers can expect in the coming years.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you came to work at The North Face? I studied Business Engineering, and while most of my student colleagues ended up in various functions in the automotive and tech industry, I choose very early the sporting goods direction. Through an internship in the sales department at Saucony, I moved to their headquarters in the US to write my final thesis and stayed there for 2 years.
When I returned to Europe, I started at Reebok in a talent programme before moving into a merchandising role. As I wanted to learn product creation, I moved to Intersport International to manage its exclusive Outdoor FTW, meaning I was part of not only the design, development and product management but also RD&D, sourcing, and pricing negotiation with vendors.
After that, I wanted to return to a brand, so when I received the offer to join The North Face as FTW Category Manager, I was super excited as it was the cumulation of all experiences gained in previous roles.
What roles have you held at The North Face?
This is one of the brilliant things about VF and The North Face – there is such an opportunity to grow and develop. Looking back, my career path has been diverse and helped shape where I am today. I started handling the FTW Merchandising side, which extended to all hard goods. My next position was as Director of all Product Merchandising. This was a super interesting time, while I do use outdoor apparel, I had never worked professionally with apparel, so I had a lot to learn, but I was able to bring a very different perspective into that field with the hard goods background I had. My next role had added responsibility in the Design and Development Team, before moving into my role as VP for Marketing and Product.
As VP product and marketing for The North Face - what does your role entail?
We’ve moved away from a typical product category approach and have been applying a consumer-centric mindset, which requires that we stop looking at our organisation in boxes, where product creates product, marketing is creating a campaign and then the sales team sells it.
Our go-to-market process has become a fully integrated approach based on high collaborative work between teams and functions to provide the consumer with the best possible experience. It does not matter if this is through a product, an Instagram post, an advert or through point of sale. We believe it is key to give the consumer this end-to-end brand experience, bringing product and marketing together and providing this seamless end-to-end consumer experience is the main essence of my current role.
I’ve always been super curious about how consumers interacted with our brand, be it observing people in-store or watching reaction online, so this new approach gives me greater visibility than ever before.
What does your typical working day look like?
I would say I don’t have a typical working day. This is the beauty of my job, I never get bored and always have an exciting agenda to manage on a daily basis. We always have multiple seasons overlapping, so it is very dynamic. I'm simultaneously managing the execution of marketing campaigns for spring 2021, doing the creative and planning process for the autumn 2021 campaigns, spring 2022 go-to-market process and sales launch, autumn 2022 product proto-reviews and brand calendar planning, and the first work for spring 2023 product creation.
One typical thing - the day always starts with freshly brewed coffee.
What do you like most about your job?
I’m very passionate about outdoor sports, from trail running to ski-mountaineering, free-riding and climbing, so I spend a lot of time with the gear for these sports and within the culture of it. Combining personal interest with your work is a big plus.
I also love the work environment I am in, this starts with my colleagues in the office in Switzerland, our stores all over Europe and in the international offices. It is a multicultural and diverse environment, paired with passionate and talented people with interesting personalities from which I get inspired and learn every day.
How has your role adapted during the pandemic?
The adaptation has been from moving all physical interactions to virtual ones. To be honest this was a big challenge especially when you think about the product creation process. Reviewing a line on a screen is challenging and it takes away from the “romance” of the product, on the other side it boosted digital innovation, trust, empowerment and self-leadership of every single person.
With a brand as global as The North Face, why is it important for European specific product development?
The European outdoor market is the most dynamic in the world, there are different preferences in styles, fits, features compared to other regions. Our EU design and development allows us to cater to specific trends and subcultures and act very fast and nimble. 50 percent of the products that you see in the EMEA Market are designed and developed out of our Stabio Office, which shows the importance of the RD&D Team here, and the value they create for the brand.
That is true for other VF Brands that have their home here, so we rely on strong design and development talent.
What is the EMEA strategy for product and marketing for The North Face?
Our vision is to be the world’s leading premium outdoor brand. That is the umbrella for all strategies we apply. The number one strategy, not only for product and marketing but for every single function in the brand, is to be the undisputed outdoor leader. So, we need to ensure that our product strategy, consumer strategy and our channel strategy work towards that.
How is The North Face looking to strengthen product development, merchandising and marketing moving forward?
We have been strengthening our team through additional headcounts and we will continue to bolster the team with internal and external talent in the coming months. We see how much the consumer is appreciating our current approach through the success and tremendous growth we have had in the last six years. This is led by a global mindset, as well as a strong focus on the European market.
What sets The North Face apart from other apparel companies, in your opinion?
The North Face is used to serving different communities, with such diverse and different needs and that has allowed us to hold a unique position in the market. Skiers, runners, hikers, climbers all have different wants and goals – at different times of the year, so we’ve spent years working out who our communities are, what they want and what they need from us to ultimately help empower them.
Innovation is at the heart of The North Face - what can consumers expect from the brand in the coming years?
As the biggest outdoor brand in the world, we are lucky to have the resources and capabilities to constantly invest in product innovation, which is integral to make all the other points worthwhile.
Consumers today are asking for innovation, design and sustainability and a transparent dialogue with brands. On the sustainability side, we are reducing our ecological footprint with a clear roadmap to ensure that 100 percent of our materials are recycled, responsibly sourced, renewable or regenerative by 2025.
In May, we are launching in Europe our TNF RENEWED programme, which upcycles and refurbishes products to offer consumers a completely different way to connect with our brand and our circular design aspirations will continue to develop in the future.
We are also continuing to develop new concepts, material and products for elite outdoor athletes, such as Vectiv, our patented footwear technology that we launched this spring, 50/50 Down, a new disruptive way to create the best warmth to weight ratio on down insulation, Futurelight and Futurefleece. All these technologies are very young and give great platforms to expand and evolve going forward.
Last year The North Face launched the Explore Fund Council to address inequity - why is an initiative like this so important?
For more than 10 years, we’ve supported a wide range of charities and organisations through the Explore Fund, designed to create greater access, diversity and equality in the outdoors, helping young people across Europe realise their potential through exploration.
As the leader in our industry, we recognise the need for change, and through the Explore Fund Council, we aim to change the perception of exploration, opening up the outdoors to new communities and enabling access in new ways. The council will launch globally and then roll out in Europe later this year.
The North Face has had numerous collaborations over the years - is there a brand or designer you would love the company to work with? We’ve had the opportunity to work with so many brilliant brands and designers, including working with Alessandro Michele on the Gucci collaborations, which is difficult to beat!
However, we have just been working with an incredible artist Miramar Muhd on our International Women’s day collection. To see such a young artist translate her unique style, taking her larger-than-life city wall art and adapting it to clothing was an awesome process to be a part of.
Looking into the future, and this is my own personal view, I would love to work with Hiroki Nakamura from Visvim, as I’m just a big fan of the work that he creates.