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LISBON - It's 6 am. I'm writing this from our apartment building's rooftop - don't you feel getting outdoors does you a world of good? If you've read THE GOODS from the beginning, you'll know that we live in the centre of Lisbon. It's so early by southern Europe standards that even the birds are sleeping. Not even the lights are on opposite our home insid Havas Village on Avenida da Liberdade. Dormant Apple Macs and Cannes Lions awards are sitting still, waiting for the creatives to arrive.
I suddenly feel a million miles away from where I first came across Berghaus as a young northerner. Wherever you're reading this from in the world, outdoor life in the north of England is synonymous with the brand. It was founded in Newcastle upon Tyne, North East England, in 1966 - a genuine British legacy brand.
Dan Cunningham has a ruminative presence. We reminisce about life up north before getting into the interview about his relatively new role as Global Head of Brand. Memories come flooding back. My Granddad and I walking over Werneth Low, him swearing by his Gore-tex Berghaus jacket and rucksack. Granddad's hikes were no saunter. A hike was full-on - through long grass over stiles and shirting along miles of ancient rock walls carving up the fields. At seven years old, Berghaus meant nothing to me then, but it's incredible how good, profound memories of a brand can influence your purchases as an adult.
Hearing about my trusty dark powder blue Berghaus rucksack surviving hiking trips at the height of summer in Gerês and bringing back ceramics from Antigua, Cunningham is beaming. "I love that you said that," he says. "We were the first brand to develop a rucksack with an internal frame. At the time, most load-carrying packs had bulky and uncomfortable external metal frames and minimal padding - we changed that."
When Berghaus began in 1966, it would be a further seven years until Yvon Chouinard would establish Patagonia. Cunningham asserts, "Berghaus is everywhere up north; it's just taking a while to knit into life in the south." We're four minutes into the interview, and it's already beyond obvious; Berghaus' newest Global Head of Brand is grounded, sharp and ready to steer this British legacy brand into a new era.
The iconic outdoor giant was changing course as the pandemic drove us all outdoors rather than abroad. And I'm curious. What inspires Cunningham? "Fitness plays a big part in my life, and I love being outside. I like watching good content and going in-depth. Documentaries - interesting stories." Cunningham is also a big fan of American sports, "I went to New York and LA a couple of times last year with my wife. I attended a few games with 30 friends, and you feel connected to what's happening."
He identifies the differentiators to UK spectatorship: "It's time well spent, and they do it so well...they try to give you your money back for what you've paid on the seat before the game starts." From The Michael Jordan documentary to Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy - Cunningham is mesmerised by "looking at the parallels of how culture and how society used to exist but through a modern lens."
Before being appointed to his previous role as head of new business at DarkHorses, Cunningham enjoyed a career in account management. When pinpointing his biggest champagne moment to date, he says, "Working with really good people on projects with with a real purpose. Projects that can help the world, done in the right way. These are closest to my heart." A recent project was to create a programme to tackle homelessness for the charity, Shelter.He sets the scene, "Lobbying football clubs and encouraging fans to not wear their home kits was the whole idea. It was football taking a stand to support those who don't have a home. It was simple but symbolic - not wearing your home colours as a football club and the huge spectacle of it happening on the Boxing Day fixtures. Over two hundred and fifty clubs participated up and down the country. It was a fantastic moment." Before the launch of Heads Up [another project], Cunningham explains, "Mental health was not as widely understood across the country like it is now." He says, "We used football as a shortcut to take the message to the mainstream, but there was no shortcut to tackling it. We worked closely with The FA, studying how we could get into the vernacular of football to put mental health on the map. And obviously it helped having Prince William heavily involved." Of Berghaus, Cunningham expresses, "There are many worthy, good things that we're doing, and that's what I'm excited about telling."
Having worked both agency and client-side, Cunningham feels that client want to be challenged more by their agencies. He says, "The best client-agency relationship is built on Trust, Honesty, Candour and Openness. If you have that in place, I think it gives you the base to present scary, provocative, and genuinely creative work." He continues, "If trust exists, it's a symbiotic relationship. If you trust someone, you want to listen to them when you're getting challenged. It's an unspoken truth in advertising - there isn't just one answer; there is just a better answer. The challenge and joy are in the back and forth debate to get to that place." Cunningham isn't advising to rush in and present a Cadbury's gorilla and expect to get a Cadbury's gorilla bought without trust. "You can be the most creative agency in the world, but if that fundamental facet of the relationship isn't there, I don't think you get that great work."
The complexity of agency new business doesn't stop at trust and challenge. Beyond this, agencies need to keep up with the intent of the brands they wish to work with. For Cunningham, "Creativity is still the biggest unlock; it's the most superior differentiator." He hones in on the creative genius of Oatly's in-house team, commenting, "I see it every time I'm in a coffee shop. People ask the barista, "What brand of oat milk have you got?" Creativity is what elevated Oatly. The best agencies will always be able to provide incredible ideas, and any business worth their salt would want those ideas."
Much like a Patek Philippe, agencies never truly own a brand account; they merely take care of it for the next generation of creative minds and captivated consumers. Still, the mark they can make is powerful. "I believe in agencies," says Cunningham. "At Berghaus, we work with incredible ones. We are always going to work with storytellers. And as we evolve and start telling more and more stories, we will work with more creative people and storytellers." But similar to the decision-making that goes into purchasing a timepiece from the world's last family-owned Genevan luxury watch manufacturer, the journey to choosing an agency to entrust with a budget is, in Cunningham's words, "an industry in its
He explains how new business worked at Dark Horses, articulating "The 4 Ps. Proposition, Profiling, Prospecting and then Promotion." He says, "Our Proposition at the agency was incisive, bringing the best creativity to the world of sport." Dark Horses could "compete against the best agencies in the world in a sports space." He says, "We knew where we played." And they were not alone. "So did the brands we were talking with," states Cunningham. "Our strategy was like an infinity loop. Not linear but constant." Dark Horses had a Proposition that hinged on "breaking away from the field", meaning when they discussed Profiling at Dark Horses, they "knew how to communicate that in a sporting sense." He proudly confirms, "We knew the types of businesses we were going after, and I think that's key. Whenever we reached out, we would know when we were right, and had a filter for knowing what sort of client was right for us."
Collaboration was at the centre of Dark Horses' approach to agency new business. "There is that adage that agencies get the clients they deserve." Cunningham asserts, "So it's not just about opening the door and asking for new business and seeing what you get; it's about ensuring the right client will chime with how you want to grow." "Prospecting is fundamental." He expands, "It's how you talk to them and what you give them." Cunningham's loyalty to quality over quantity is relentless, something any agency working with Berghaus ought to mirror.
When asking the golden question of how an agency can catch his attention, his answer is fiercely simple: "Add value." We discuss what this could look like by taking the exploding space of the metaverse as an example, "Nobody understands the trajectory. As a client, there are many views out there that we'll be trying to figure out. And we'll do one of two things: Turn to our agency or someone with a point of view on it." Recalling an event some years back with Vodafone's head of marketing, a key speaker, Cunningham recalls, "She said that the way to get to her is through webinars or pieces of IP or research that you can share. She said that it might not get her time, but it will get her attention, and it'll be something she would send to her team." He's grinning at the memory of a value-based new business strategy getting centre stage.
"Develop a piece of thinking," he says with a free heart. "This strategy is tried and tested. At Dark Horses, we did a piece - The Future of Fitness, exploring how the world of fitness was evolving through the pandemic. We put that thinking into the world to broadcast a point of view, have a conversation and ultimately attract clients. It's this prospecting area that he knows can help agencies "create a lot of unlocks." He advises that if your agency's Proposition is spot on, you have your Profiling set right, and you know what sort of client is for you; then you can Prospect them properly. Then the new business you have in your pipeline is qualified. Cunningham appreciates
new business "requires a lot of emotional intelligence" and is "not a linear process."
He reminisces deeper about his time at Dark Horses alongside CEO Melissa Robertson. He shares that Robertson was "incredible at new business" and expressed his gratitude to be "able to learn from someone." Whilst agencies measure success in different ways, Cunningham thinks "new business can be tricky if based only on a figure." He says, "It [new business] needs to be properly embedded into the culture." It was with Robertson that he found his new business feet as she was not only "good at it" but, he continues, "she taught me a lot. It's important. You choose a career to work with people; in the same way you choose an agency for the people you will work with." Advocacy for finding a mentor is
something Cunningham isn't shy about voicing. He shares, "I 100% agree with finding a mentor, someone you trust - I still do it now." He shares, "Charlie, my boss here at Berghaus and I worked together at Saatchi & Saatchi - he's the reason I came." We talk about the aspects of finding a mentor, and four things come up: "Do you trust them? Are they determined and smart? What's their sense of humour? Do they not take themselves too seriously? All these things are super key."
Commenting on life at the iconic outdoors brand, Cunningham says, "It's exciting. Getting the brand back to who it is. It's a great business." A history he knows all too well, saying, "I grew up with Berghaus, so I have thatconnection. And coming into the business, every day I stumble across an amazing story. Like how we essentially created the modern day incarnation of the backpack, we were the first European brand to use Gore-Tex, and we pioneered Hydrodown™, the world's first hydrophobic down jacket which changed the way the whole industry used down and approached insulation."
In an era of relentless competition and an ever-changing list of challenger brands, Cunningham came to Berghaus because they are, in his words, "on a change agenda." From working with Rhiane Fatinikun, who heads up Black Girls Hike, to partnering with Community Action Nepal, change is afoot for the outdoors legacy brand. Cunningham comments, "The outdoors is right there, it's free and amazing, but it's not always easy to access. We're working with communities, athletes, and ambassadors to change this and scrutinising the sustainability of it."
Independent creative agency Mother worked with Berghaus to "author what their brand line is". The London agency told Cunningham, "Brand lines are important but they are start lines, not end lines." These lines form the foundation of how you tell a brand story. He says, "This is the highest value asset an agency can deliver. Something that holds all the strings of a brand together. We will use ours as a directive to challenge things we don't think are right and be the change we want to happen." While a brand line might be the thing that sits next to a logo, Cunningham admits, "The questions at hand are, how does it bring a brand to life? What's the purpose?" He is determined. He needs everything "to come back to opening up the outdoors. For Cunningham, it's more than 'wear a great product, and you can climb a mountain' or 'wear a great product and stay dry walking your dog.' He says, "We want to help open up the outdoors, and we will help people from all different communities access it that might not have been able to."
Betwixt our conversations about topics of tackling tradition between sips of tea and tales of northern childhoods Cunningham opens up his vision. It's no secret that Berghaus have a "lucid history" and a remarkable team of people, and his wish is that they can now "bring it back." He knows it's punchy and confirms, "We are trying to recapture that tone of voice. He tells me, "Just this morning, we went into the archives and dug out some old Berghaus ads. It was amazing. In the 90s, a press ad for our ski jacket said, You haven't been this protected since you were in your mother's womb. It's proper northern wit and proud."
As we saw, over the pandemic, outdoor hobbies saw a remarkable revival, and I'm curious how Berghaus plans to excite a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts. Cunningham opens up about the future, saying, "It's a big question and one we're tackling." He shares, "Charting a Berghaus consumer from a mountaineer investing in a kit that will keep them alive to someone committed to hiking. Down to the everyday part of the category, which can be, I love taking my dog for a walk and staying warm and dry doing it. We have this map of our consumers, which we call from the Peaks to the Streets." Cunningham unfolds the segments again. "Or even, I've moved out from the city to a new area, and now the outdoors is right on my doorstep and I want to explore it."
With no consumer unturned, he breaks down the Streets part of the map, explaining, "Then there is the growing 'lifestyle' segment that we're looking at through a lens of - less traditional outdoors and more generally just being outside, and thinking about how that mindset translates into communications and activations that add value and speak to that community."
During those early days of lockdown, many of us were confined to our homes, only allowed to spend one hour per day outside. Cunningham relays, "All of a sudden, it became one of those things, a hygiene factor like drinking water. Getting outside became how people lived, and we have seen a huge rise around that. People are getting out and wanting to experience more." Discussing inner-city communities, Cunningham shares, "We're looking at programmes and platforms that will open up this meaning of the outdoors. So people are able to access it more unrestrictedly."
The topic of treating the earth and each other more kindly is no stranger to any brand leader in 2023, and Cunningham is no exception. He says, "We are trying to protect the world, whether that's just through the clothes and apparel we are making in a better way, all the way through to doing things with communities in a more sustainable way." I ask for his thoughts on being penned the 'British Patagonia' and hear about their sustainability plans. "First things first, we talk about it at a business level.
Being a part of Pentland Brands Group, which includes the likes of Speedo, Ellesse, Kickers and Mitre, we view it from a parent company level as Positive Business. [Asking] how do we behave positively?" He says, "We're currently in the process of putting a wrapper around all of the many things we do in this space, but right now we do have something called 'Repairhaus'." He explains, "When you buy outdoor gear, you go outside, get dirty and muddy, and there's also a chance that it might rip and get damaged - which it's doing to protect you. And if that happens, send it back to us and we will fix it for free." Fixing it will make it new. It could be exactly like it was or slightly tweaked, which Cunningham describes as "new in a different sense." He explains, "Repairhaus existed from the day we started selling gear in 1966. We've never shouted about it; we've never run around telling those stories, so we've just gone through a process of putting an identity around this service and put it on the map without overly commercialising it.
We will push Repairhaus but in a considered way. Elevating this story to be more a part of the purchase journey rather than necessarily driving it with big external media." Cunningham explains the context behind an initiative they have called "MadeKindTM." He says, "MadeKindTM is about how we do things that are kinder for the world. Everything from how and what materials we pick that are better for the planet to ensuring working conditions meet our standards." He continues saying, "We still ship products, and we have logistics, so at a carbon level, we do have targets. By 2025 we will have a 25% carbon reduction across our business, and by 2030, it will be net zero."
Right now, Berghaus is going through a process to put a piece of language around everything they do that talks about Repairhaus and MadeKindTM. "It will talk about how we behave broadly from community and what we do around
sustainability. It will help articulate our intentions for the future. Being able to see a product's provenance, what is going into it, and the fabric and having radical transparency around that is an important obligation. And they are all stories with the ability to add depth to why a consumer is buying something." But what about the agencies making shifts to align themselves with kinder practices? With the B Corp movement gaining more and more momentum by the day, I'm curious about Cunningham's perspective. "100%, an agency's attitude toward sustainability, kinder ways of working and their commitments - is a top priority consideration. But this can take different forms. B Corp is a fantastic example, but there are always other ways you can talk about it to show your commitment too."
Our conversation evolves, exploring Cunningham's tips for people thrust into new business roles without prior experience. Cunningham advises, "Be open-minded. Be willing to try and do new things. Have strong morals. And be curious. Curiosity has the power to elevate above everything."
What would you do with an unlimited amount of travel budget for one week? Some might be torn at flying to a chain of picture-perfect islands in the north-central Indian Ocean or taking the 15:04 train from London Paddington to Cornwall. For Cunningham he'd choose from two options - "The first is Los Angeles. It's one of those places where different modalities co-exist. The beach, the city, the hikes - everyone is leading an outdoor lifestyle. The culture rises from the floor - it's palpable. And the other place I'd visit is in the heart of Scotland -Aviemore. It's breathtaking. A gem of our country that's just hidden." You'll find yourself in Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands if you head just west of due north inside the Cairngorms National Park. Much like Berghaus, it's a living story of provenance.
As coxswain of the Berghaus brand, Cunningham, observant and intentional is navigating the brand in a new post-pandemic world. And treating people and the planet in a kinder way, working with those who do likewise, will always be his most significant priority.