Story of a brand: Canada Goose

The label has been linked to animal cruelty as much as any other brand out there today – but it became a status symbol anyway.
Canada Goose 16x9 hero
Brand history

It would be a pretty big understatement to say that Canada Goose has come a long way. Founded in Toronto more than six decades ago, the brand originally produced woolen vests, raincoats and snowmobile suits that were solely popular with forest rangers, dog sledders and those who braved the frigid far north. Its new, much more urban customer base is a whole world away from these origins.

In the seventies, a big reason cold-weather professionals loved Canada Goose parkas so much was because they were stuffed with ultra-warm goose-down feathers – thanks to a volume-based down-filling machine that was invented by founder Sam Tick's son-in-law, David Reiss – and had North American-sourced coyote fur around the hood to block out the wind. Jackets were emblazoned with a patch on the arm depicting a map of the North Pole; the message, seemingly, that this brand would keep people warm, no matter the weather. And so it proved: Laurie Skreslet wore a Canada Goose parka on his ascent of Mount Everest in 1982; as the first Canadian to do so, it led to headlines all around the world. 

Despite such credentials, Canada Goose was still primarily operating in the background as a wholesaler, manufacturing private label jackets for other brands, with limited retail presence. Dani Reiss, David's son, saw a bigger business-to-consumer opportunity in the late nineties. Maybe luxury customers used to shelling out four figures for a Moncler jacket would be willing to spend a similar amount on a jacket popular with geeky researchers in Antarctica? 

While he touted $1,000 Canada Goose jackets at fashion trade shows in Europe, Dani didn't chase any trends. Instead, he doubled down on the brand's technical performance and rugged authenticity as a selling point. Dani even kept production in Canada, despite the cheaper costs of moving overseas, maintaining a sense of exclusivity and strengthening the company's ‘Made in Canada’ brand. 

Lanita Layton, a luxury retail and brand consultant based in Toronto, says: ‘There was this “Oh, Canada” kind of moment that's gotten even stronger; [it's] about the trustworthiness of a Canadian brand and the authenticity of this brand. Canada Goose wasn't trying to be anything other than what it already was, which was this great, technical outerwear piece.’

Around this time, Dani also started gifting Canada Goose gear to film crews working in freezing temperatures, and even sponsored cold-weather film festivals in Toronto and Park City. While these weren't deliberate celebrity endorsement deals as we know them today, the jackets made their way into films and did a good job of keeping celebrities warm. Stars began wearing the jackets off set, too, where paparazzi captured the signature Arctic Program patch on the arms. This elevated the parkas to a status symbol that other outdoor gear brands, such as The North Face and Patagonia, hadn't yet achieved.

Demand skyrocketed: Canada Goose's sales grew 3,500% between 2003 and 2013. Private equity firm Bain Capital stepped in, buying a majority share in 2013 and eventually helping to take Canada Goose public in 2017. The company was valued at CA$1.8 billion –  not bad for a brand designed for geeky cold-weather pros.

Ruffling feathers

One aspect of the brand's heritage also became one of its biggest sore spots: its use of coyote fur. PETA and other animal rights groups began protesting against the brand in 2006, decrying the killing of animals for fur as inhumane and claiming that the leg-hold traps used caused the animals undue harm. 

PETA went big, taking out ads on billboards, bus shelters and anywhere prominent it could get its hands on, in an attempt to make the brand become synonymous with animal cruelty. Protesters frequently gathered at the entrance to Canada Goose retail stores, spilling fake blood. 

While anti-fur protests were already a staple at global fashion weeks, little has matched the particular intensity leveled at Canada Goose – even today. After the company opened its flagship store on London's Regent Street in 2017, for example, an animal rights group continued protesting three times a week outside the store for more than two years, giving out leaflets with images of animals skinned alive and yelling ‘shame on you’ at those entering the store. PETA even bought $4,000 worth of shares when Canada Goose launched its initial public offering (IPO) in 2017, so that it could submit a shareholder proposal to end the use of fur. 

The protests intensified. Canada Goose stayed resolute, defending its use of the fur. It also noted that coyote fur is a technically superior material for protection from cold weather (it doesn't hold water and never freezes; it also provides a natural buffer from wind, reducing exposure and heat loss from the face). And, while the ethics surrounding trapping are, at best, murky, Canada Goose states its fur is sourced from a company in western North America that's always required suppliers to confirm that they don't tolerate any willful mistreatment, neglect or malicious harm of animals. The brand insists that it doesn't use fur farms or source from trappers who are unregulated by government standards. 

Consumers seemed to side with Canada Goose; revenues more than doubled from CA$200 million in 2015 to CA$403 million in 2017. The company also built a strong online business and pulled back from wholesale, focusing on direct-to-consumer sales. Revenue was CA$958 million in 2020, with gross margins around 62%. This rise was particularly driven by the lucrative Chinese market – Asia makes up nearly 30% of current revenues – where the jackets have become a symbol of wealth and consumers aren't put off by the use of animal products.

The fur flies 

Canada Goose released its first-ever sustainability report in the spring of 2020, announcing it would use only reclaimed fur from 2022. A year later, Canada Goose went a step further, announcing it would stop buying fur by the end of 2021 and phase out the use of fur in all of its products by the end of 2022. The company says the decision wasn't based on outside pressure, but on its focus on sustainability, innovation and lifestyle products. 

By the beginning of 2020, protests were reaching a fever pitch, but Canada Goose was seeing its best financial performance yet, with potential for growth on the horizon. So, why did the company suddenly change tack? 

Even as Canada Goose's business was booming, consumer tastes were changing. Ethics and sustainability were becoming key drivers of purchasing decisions: a 2016 survey by Yoox Net-a-Porter of 24,000 people found 72% made decisions based on social and environmental considerations, while more than half said information about the ethics and sustainability of a product would impact their shopping. Social media gave animal rights groups a direct line to younger consumers – one that brands couldn't respond to as they might in the press.

Other fashion brands were already taking notice: Gucci, Burberry and Michael Kors, among others, decided to stop using fur in recent years; Selfridges, the UK department chain that has stores in London, Manchester and Birmingham, hasn't stocked fur products since 2005. Increasingly, celebrities were using the red carpets that brought Canada Goose fame in the 2000s to make a stand against animal cruelty. Alden Wicker, a journalist who reports on sustainability and fashion, points out that musician Billie Eilish wore Oscar de la Renta at the most recent Met Gala with the stipulation that the brand stops using fur. ‘The vegan market has changed from being more on the hippie side to the young and celebrity LA market,’ she says.

As purchasing has become political and consumers increasingly want to buy from brands that reflect their values, companies have needed to shift the way they respond to change, says Susan Fournier, dean of Boston University's Questrom School of Business. ‘Around 30 years ago, it used to be: stick to your guns, you know better, you're in charge and this is your brand – manage for consistency and control. But those days are gone,’ she says. ‘Brands are these co-creations now. You have to be open and listening all the time, so that the brand can evolve with the culture and have that longevity.’

Two birds, one stone

Public backlash seems like something to avoid at all costs – ‘cancellation’ can be a straight arrow to business failure. But Canada Goose managed to thrive for years, even as protesters spilled fake blood in front of its stores. On the outside, it might seem like Canada Goose eventually bowed to this pressure but, really, the shift was about recognizing that the same luxury consumers who were originally drawn to the brand's materials were changing their buying habits, demanding not only quality gear but a brand they could wear with conviction. Doubling down on purpose and sustainability not only appealed to shifting consumer tastes; it also aligned with Canada Goose's original ‘Made in Canada’ marketing and branding. Sometimes the best way to stay true to your brand values is, counter-intuitively, to make some changes.

This article was first published in Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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