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JanSport Isn’t Afraid to Tackle Hot Button Issues to Stay Relevant with Gen Z

This 50-year-old backpack brand is staying relevant with young consumers by addressing the urgent issues that matter to them head-on…

Legacy brands that want to last need to stay relevant with young customers. Some do so by reinventing and rebranding themselves, others stay constantly on top of the platforms and tech that the next generations are spending their time on—and others stay in tune with Gen Z by speaking directly to the issues that matter to them. 

YPulse research shows that two of those hot-button issues are sustainability and mental health. Climate change is a source of anxiety for young consumers, and our sustainability research found that they hold brands and corporations to high standards when it comes to combating it. Meanwhile, YPulse’s State of Mind trend report found that 54% of 13-39-year-olds say their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemicwith 78% saying they like it when brands make mental health a part of their marketing and messaging.  

JanSport has not been afraid to address these issues head-on in unexpected ways, especially in the last year. In honor of Earth Day last month, the brand launched two sustainable collections; one with upcycle artist and designer Nicole Mclaughlin that included a raffle and give back portion benefitting The Slow Foundation as well as a Ski n’ Hike collection that utilized old scraps and repurposing them into new products. Meanwhile, at the start of the pandemic last spring, they launched #LightenTheLoada campaign targeting Gen Z that provided them with resources as they faced “unprecedented challenges” during COVID through partnerships with mental health experts and Instagram Live sessions centered on the topics of isolation, compassion fatigue, uncertainty, and family. They’re taking the initiative even further this month by teaming up with teen-run podcast Teenage Therapy in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week. 

YPulse spoke with JanSport President Roger Spatz about how addressing issues important to their consumers has to start internally within the company, how they’re integrating the issues that matter to Gen Z into major campaigns, and more: 

YPulse: Are you seeing that sustainability is an issue that young consumers are prioritizing when it comes to shopping? 

Roger Spatz: Absolutely. I would say that if you turn the clock back 10-15 years, you would see that people were concerned about it. Let’s use the “tree hugger” analogy. What’s happened over time is that [sustainability] became more mainstream. I think the big question becomes not only do they look for it, but there’s always that question of whether they’ll pay for it. From a commercial standpoint, that’s not the focus of why we’re doing this. We’re doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do. But the clear connection back to our consumer and what they care about really is the core of all of this. Whether you’re talking about sustainability or our stories of mental wellness, they’re all about the same thing, and it is that JanSport is always with you. If you think about it from that standpoint, we ought to look for opportunities to connect with our consumers through the elements and items they care about. 

Sustainability has often been attacked by businesses, and there’s not necessarily a playing field where it is accessible to all people. There’s that underlying premise that to be more sustainable, you have to charge moreand that it costs more in the supply chain to put things together and formulate. But one of the things that is very unique to JanSport is that a majority of our product line is heavily based on icons. If you know our product line—SuperBreak, Big Student, Right Packthey all fall into a range of materials that we get to use as a basis. That’s a big deal. The big deal part of it is that I can go back to our supply chain people, and say that we do want to go 100% recycled, 600D Poly—and that’s going to enable us to tell a much broader story because 86% of our line is using that product, and we can use our economy as a scale. Last year, we had a campaign when we were at 50% recycled materials, and that was equivalent to 13 million water bottles. We wanted to articulate that, because, what does 13 million water bottles really mean? We thought that was better than telling a story of just saying we use 50% recycled materials. We’re at a point where we’re not going to charge more for our recycled products. Access to recycled products is a big deal, and people don’t talk about it. But we have a moderately priced product in the scheme of things, and we’re really proud of that.

YPulse: Ahead of Earth Day, JanSport launched two upcycled collectionsone with Nicole Mclaughlin as well as the Ski n’ Hike collection. How did the collections come about, and what does each consist of? 

RS: If you look at our heritage, we’ve been around since 1967, and we started in the outdoor space. Our love and respect for the outdoors translates very much into how we think about how our products have to meet the consumers’ needs. What I would say on the sustainability side, we take a multi-view point-of-view with it. It’s not just one thing. Certainly, these [upcycled] projects are part of it. We’re always approaching sustainability as a journey. My expectation is every year we get better, every year we learn, every year we progress to the next level of how to be better. When it comes to capitalism, how do we become less impactful? At least from a departmental standpoint.

With the upcycling capabilities, we looked internally at what we could do from our own waste. You’re probably aware that the process of manufacturingdoesn’t matter if it’s a pack, apparel, or footwearit creates a lot of waste. You have materials you typically cut out of those materials, then you have waste. Basically, that 85% of waste that goes to landfill, we wanted to take a portion of it and just elevate the story—and we said, let’s talk about the opportunity. That’s how the Ski n Hike collection came about. Basically, just taking scraps from the floor and repurposing them. Our product team did an excellent job of resurrecting an old style we had years and years ago, so it’s super cool from that standpoint.

From Nicole’s standpoint, she’s a well-known designer and upcycle artist. For the mediums we participate in, she obviously has a following. It is about making sure we connect, and we just launched with a give back portion of thingsand it was fantastic. Our organic page views were way upand it wasn’t more about creating the commerciality of it. We weren’t necessarily selling anything [with this collection], but sold the opportunity to get into a raffle. So, it was all about creating that awareness that most people don’t think about doing in their day-to-day.

YPulse: Last year, JanSport launched the Lighten the Load campaign in the midst of the pandemic as a way to address young people’s mental health. Between that and the recent sustainable collections, why is it so important for you all to reach today’s generation of consumers? 

RS: Consumers want to associate with brands, and others, that share their values. So, one of the things I would say is we have the same concern from an internal standpoint. If you look at it from our purpose as a brand, which we did a lot of work on a couple years ago and really solidified the conservation about what the consumer cares about. The opportunity to talk about our long heritage, and then the journey we have with a kid that gets his backpack and takes it throughout schooland beyond that. We wanted to be able to articulate those particular items that our consumers care about, and these are things that marry it back to our brand internally, and what our people care about as well. I’ve always had a strong opinion that if you have a purpose that you share and believe in internally, that shines bright externally. That’s what we’re trying to do.

YPulse: What are other ways JanSport is staying relevant with Gen Z? 

RS: We’re participating this month with Mental Health Awareness Month, and again, this goes along with our broader campaignthe #LightentheLoad campaignwhich has been very successful. By the way, we didn’t know [the campaign] was going to be a pandemic issue. It was one of those things where we knew [mental health] was a top issue that our consumers cared about. But if you think about what’s happened in the last year and the impact especially kids going to school or haven’t been able, and the lack of relationshipsit is a very difficult thing. What our team didinformed by work that YPulse and others have done looking at young consumers—we said we need to make sure that A) People don’t have a stigma talking about mental wellness and B) Give them tools to figure out how to deal with some of these things. (Editor’s Note: JanSport is a YPulse Business user.) That’s why we had some partnerships with Teenage Therapy. So our next step is “What do we want to talk about?” One thing we want to be careful about is not touting the gloom and doom of the issue, but rather how to deal with it and how to move onand the moving on will be really interesting especially during the back-to-school season. What we’ll try to do is tell people to take this a little lighter and focus in on the next level of saying what’s important is us having fun and being happy.

Roger Spatz is President of JanSport® and Eagle Creek®. He is responsible for driving the growth of both brands and setting their strategies across all aspects of the business. With over 30 years of experience, Spatz has demonstrated leadership in several industries, including apparel and manufacturing. He joined VF Corporation in 2004 as the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for the VF Outlet where he was responsible for financial management and strategic planning and analysis for 76 stores.