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The larger meaning behind the Backcountry.com backlashIn October 2018 the Utah-based online retailer Backcountry.com filed for trademarks protecting the word “backcountry,” then proceeded to file lawsuits against smaller companies with the word “backcountry” in them, such as Backcountry Denim (now known as BDCo), Backcountry eBikes (now known as Backcou eBikes), Backcountry Babes (a female avalanche education clinic), and Marquette Backcountry Skis, among others. This slew of lawsuits has caused huge controversy with outdoor enthusiasts around the world, leading to the current social media backlash and boycott. On November 6, the company dropped one of the lawsuits and apologized for starting the controversy.
For the fiscal health of Backcountry.com, this apology appears to be a case of too little too late. The Facebook group Boycott BackcountryDOTcom (full disclosure: I am a member of this group) has grown from just a few hundred angry people to almost fifteen thousand members in just a few days. While reading through the comments and articles posted to the group, I was struck by how strongly people feel about supporting small and micro businesses that compete for survival in the outdoor space. Many of these mom and pop businesses work long hours for little money and they have to make sure their employees get paid before they earn a single dime to put food on the table. Without the outdoor consumer-led tradition of supporting these small companies whenever possible (especially during the holidays), many small outdoor companies would simply wither and die.
With annual revenue of about $500 million, Backcountry.com is on the other end of the business spectrum. They have the resources to force just about any small company using the word “backcountry” into submission. Not because small outdoor companies agree that Backcountry.com should have near exclusive rights to the ubiquitous word, but because they simply don’t have the time or resources to fight Backcountry.com’s team of lawyers.
As consumers, we have the right to stand up to lawyer-led companies like Backcountry.com and we are right to do so. This boycott is sending a message loud and clear to other large outdoor companies like Patagonia, The North Face, REI and many others that bullying small companies will not be tolerated. In fact, I’m hoping that the boycott will remind everyone that supporting small, local companies should always be our first choice as shoppers. This includes outdoor companies like the ones who are being forced out of business by Backcountry.com, and also other small companies in every industry. Whether it’s a local brewery, restaurant, or clothing store, most small companies struggle to turn a profit in the modern game of internet capitalism where size is everything.
The Backcountry.com boycott is a reminder that smaller is better and face-to-face purchases at bricks and mortar stores is one way to dismantle the dystopian future that companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and now Backcountry.com are trying to force on us. In that future everyone either works for a giant soul-sucking corporation, or they become a civil servant like a cop, teacher, or firefighter, or they die a long slow death while trying to survive as a small business owner. As a result entrepreneurship is stifled and our society suffers.
The outdoor space needs to remain a haven for dreamers who want to make the world a better place through entrepreneurship. This won’t happen if large companies are allowed to trademark words like “backcountry” and “adventure.” Only a person with a colossal ego would ever think that owning Backcountry.com should preclude a female avalanche education company from calling itself “Backcountry Babes.” In yesterday’s pubic apology CEO Jonathan Nielsen announced that they are only dropping one lawsuit against a company named Marquette Backcountry Skis. The rest of the legal actions against the other outdoor brands using the word “backcountry” remain ongoing for now. You can read the full apology at the end of this article.
What’s clear from his tone-deaf apology is that Mr. Nielsen is still listening to his lawyers way too much. Basically he needs to fire these people. Listening to them is what is destroying his company and until he tells his greedy legal team to shut the hell up, he is at risk of leading Backcountry.com straight into bankruptcy.
Will Backcountry.com survive this boycott? I’d say they have about a 50% chance at this point. The first apology was weak; let’s see what happens when the next round of apologies are issued. For the sake of it’s nearly 1200 employees Backcountry.com needs to wake up and smell the coffee. For the rest of the large companies operating in the outdoor space it’s time to reevaluate how much power you give your legal team. Lawyers always want to sue people—it’s what they do. Just because it’s business as usual for the rest of the corporate world doesn’t mean it’s how we need to operate in the outdoor industry. Instead of spending all your money on lawyers, hire a local design company to help with a new clothing line, or buy an ad in a regional outdoor magazine like Adventure Sports Journal, or donate some money to a local non-profit. For God’s sake do something positive in this world instead of paying a bunch of corporate lawyers $600 per hour to crush the hopes and dreams of small business owners.
Apology letter written by Backcountry.com CEO Jonathan Nielsen on November 7th:
Dear Backcountry Community,
We have heard your feedback and concerns, and understand we fumbled in how we pursued trademark claims recently. We made a mistake.
In an attempt to protect the brand we have been building for nearly 25 years, we took certain actions that we now recognize were not consistent with our values, and we truly apologize.
It’s important to note that we tried to resolve these trademark situations amicably and respectfully, and we only took legal action as a last resort. That said, we know we mishandled this, and we are withdrawing the Marquette Backcountry action. We will also reexamine our broader approach to trademarks to ensure we are treating others in a way that is consistent with the culture and values envisioned by our founders and embraced by our community.
We only want what’s best for the whole community and we want every person and business in it to thrive. Backcountry has never been interested in owning the word “backcountry” or completely preventing anyone else from using it. But we clearly misjudged the impact of our actions.
We understand that this step we’ve taken may not be enough for some of you. The hope is that we can ultimately win back your trust, even if it takes time. We are grateful to be a part of your lives, providing you with great gear for your outdoor adventures, and all we want is to go back to doing what we do best. We intend to learn from this and become a better company.
Jonathan Nielsen, CEO Backcountry