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Episode 122: Mountain Hardwear Marketing Dir. Matt Burbach on Authentic Brands & the Future of work

"How do you be real - and can you be real - to everyone at once?"

We're joined this week by Matt Burbach, Director of Marketing at Mountain Hardwear. Matt talks about shifting from a "making" role to a "managing" role in his career, how his team has transitioned to remote work, how he shoulders the responsibility of being in charge of a brand's image, and more. Matt and Lisa discuss the hybrid-work future, the importance of having the right people on your team, and how a brand can define community and show up authentically. This is a jam-packed episode with great takeaways for every marketer in the outdoor industry, so listen in!

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Hi, welcome to Outside by Design. This is Lisa, the owner and creative director of WHEELIE, which is a creative agency for people who thrive outside. And WHEELIE is why we're able to produce the podcast for free! I'm in my office in Whitefish, Montana. And it's pouring rain right now, maybe even hailing. So I hope that's not too loud, but here we are.

I really like today's podcast. I like all our podcasts, but especially like this one. This podcast is with Matt Burbach, the Director of Marketing for Mountain Hardwear. And Matt's an interesting guy. He's super smart. This is his first podcast, which surprised me because his words are very succinct and they pack a punch. And it gets super good toward the end, especially when he talks about going from being a maker to a manager, being integrated wholly into a community as a brand and as a human, and kind of a quest for balance as a brand and as a human. And Matt also talks about working from home versus working in an office, the hybrid model, and basically like the importance of being a leader that can still make. At least that's my takeaway. That was my big memory from the conversation because I fully agree that being a manager that still makes… especially in creative work, is awesome and important and sets the tone and quality standards. So, I enjoyed talking to Matt. He's a climber, he's an outdoorsman, and an all-around thoughtful guy.

So it's a good episode. I'll let you get right into it.

[intro music plays]

Lisa: Matt. Thank you so much for being here today. I'm excited to have you on the podcast.

Matt: Thank you.

Lisa: First question we ask every single person is to describe where you are and what you're looking at.

Matt: I am in Salt Lake City, Utah. And unfortunately I'm in my home studio and I'm looking at a computer screen, but if I look outside, I can see the weather and... it's kind of a gray day. So not, not a bad day to be inside and talking to you, Lisa.

Lisa: Awesome. So you're working from home?

Matt: I am working from home. I've been working from home for the last 14 months, since March 13th 2020.

Lisa: Hmm. Okay. Interesting. So you're the Director of Marketing at Mountain Hardwear. So how has your job shifted, but also kind of like your day to day… like, I don't know. Yeah. How, how have you maintained a company culture? I have like a million questions. How have you maintained leadership and like also like you as a human. So that's a lot of questions all at once.

Matt: [laughs] That's a lot to dig into. Yeah. I guess I can just give you some context, you know, I said, I guess it's, what, 14, 15 months since I've been in the office. And, you know, on March 13th of last year - Mountain Hardwear is based in the bay area, in Richmond, California, near San Francisco - and we made the decision, you know, we didn't know what was going to happen with this pandemic and we made the decision to go remote. And so I was actually life hacking it in the Bay Area, I lived in my van when I was in the Bay Area. I was splitting time between the Bay Area and Salt Lake City. And so March 13th, last year, I drove back to Salt Lake and haven't been back to the office since then.

And it was a pretty wild time. I actually had a different role then, I was the creative director for marketing. And I had just kind of taken on some different folks in my team. And so it was a wild time to kind of form a new team last March and also be completely remote and kind of bring new people on my team. And that was... it was just a wild ride to figure out how to do that.

And for myself, I felt really fortunate. I was no stranger to remote work. I, you know, probably about a third of my time at Mountain Hardwear we spent in the bay, a third of it was spent in Salt Lake and a third of that was spent traveling. So I kind of was able to navigate that for myself, but what was the real challenge is how do you navigate that not just for yourself, but for a team. And that was the piece that was really challenging through all that.

Lisa: Oh boy, do you and I have a lot in common. Okay. So. How did it go for you, especially working in creative, which is visual and collaborative. I don't know... what happened? What was your story there?

Matt: Yeah, what happened? I… one thing that happened is that I would say last year, there were a bunch of tools, a bunch of digital online tools that kind of came to life that really helped us as a creative team. I think one of those things was Miro, a software that we used. Miro is a digital whiteboard and that kind of came up to speed and got a lot of updates. And that, that was a game changer of how we worked. And we were able to work in a virtual whiteboard space. And so it's been super helpful from a creative point of view. But, you know, I think there are all these tools. I think what really helped is kind of a little bit of a mind shift. And the mind shift was how do we stay connected and how do we communicate. I think at first we probably over-communicated a little bit, but we were just all kind of just terrified, I think. How do we, how do we do this? And, you know, we were just thrown into this virtual world. But I think it was really about the mind shift and I think that's really what helped change us.

I think trust was really important, trusting your team and having trust in each other. I think that was paramount to getting really good work done. And also, you know, working with a fair amount of creatives, like, you know, when we weren't online, we were really getting work done and really doing the work. And so we were really clear about when it was time to critique and when it was time to create. And I think kind of balancing those two things was really helpful.

Lisa: Mmm. Okay. Million questions. I love the concept of being really clear on critique time versus creative time. How did you set that up or kind of like, what, what framework did you invent for that?

Matt: I think it was just… it was just being really clear when... like, I guess when you have a meeting - and we had so many meetings, we kind of went overboard with the meeting things - it's so important to be clear what the meeting is for. Is it an alignment meeting? Are we trying to get all on the same page? Are we trying to ideate, just throw a bunch of stuff at a dartboard? Or are we trying to make decisions about where do we go from here? And so I think that was super helpful, you know, when we got together to really clearly define what we were trying to achieve.

Lisa: Mhmm. And then, kind of, what did that trust look like? And was it a bumpy road or was it pretty seamless?

Matt: It was pretty seamless.

Lisa: Nice, nice.

Matt: [laughs] I would say it was pretty seamless, I think because of the team.

Lisa: Yeah.

Matt: I've got a really great team. I'm really fortunate that I've been able to surround myself with really motivated, passionate, creative, people. You know, if I've had any successes, I think I attribute it to the people that I work with. So I think that the team was, it was pretty smooth. I think it was about, you know, kind of leading this creative team then, and also now leading the entire marketing department now, I think my role is really about setting the intentions and kind of setting the goalposts and then setting the parameters and letting my team do what they need to do to get there.

And it's been an exciting time. I mean, I've gone, you know, kind of from a maker, in many aspects of my career, to now a little bit more of a manager and kind of helping coaching people. And for me, I've had to let go of a lot of things, which has been tough. But it's been incredibly rewarding to kind of let go of things and kind of set direction and intention and seeing where the team ends up and comes up with. Because 90% of the time they come up with things that are way better than I could've ever done by myself. So that's kind of one of the biggest changes, I guess, in my role over the last year.

Lisa: So how... I ask this from purely a selfish perspective because I am also a creative director. And I love making things. I love it. I'm obsessed with the creative process. Do you find that you miss the actual act of making now that you're doing more managing and how is your soul handling this?

Matt: I do miss it. I do miss it. I actually... I haven't been the Director of Marketing for Mountain Hardwear for that long. It's only been a few months. And it's really interesting, I, you know, when it comes to making I'm a writer. I started, you know, as founding editor of a magazine several years ago, and I've written two climate instructional books and so I'm a writer and also, you know, have my hand in photography as well and I shoot a lot of behind the scenes stuff when we're on shoots and expeditions.

So when I got this role, I actually had a project that I'd been wanting to do for a really long time, a Mountain Hardwear project. But it's, you know, Kyra Condie is one of our athletes and she's headed to the Olympics, representing the United States and USA climbing. And she's based here in Salt Lake. And so I had this idea to do a project with her, basically a photo essay project of, like, a day in the life of Kyra Condie, you know, this climber-turned-Olympian. And I suffer from incredible imposter syndrome when I pick up a camera because I've worked with so many talented people. And so when I got this role, this new role to be the director of marketing for Mountain Hardwear, I was like, “oh, I'm not going to have time to do this project.” I put it aside. And I said, “you know, we're going to have to pay someone else to do it. I can't do this, I don’t have time.” And what I realized really quickly is that that was the resistance kind of pushing back on me. And it was almost a bit of an excuse. And so I recognized that and with some advice with some industry mentors, they were like, “no, you should do this.” Like you should, like, I know that you're, you're stepping into this new role, but you should really, you know, be a leader that can still create and can still make.

And so I went along with the project and it's working out really well and I'm really excited. So, I think what I've learned is that, you know, I need to feel my own creativity, I need to still make, myself, in some way, shape or fashion. And I think it's been, it's been really powerful and it's been super rewarding. And so even though it's kind of a side project, it is related to, you know, the work that my team does. And so I think that's been really beneficial for me as well.

Lisa: I love that. Okay. That makes sense to me. So what's it like going from maker to manager on behalf of a really amazing brand, like Mountain Hardwear? How do you kind of like bring yourself to work and also balance that with the voice of the brand?

Matt: Yeah I just feel incredibly lucky, you know, you asked how do I, how do I bring myself to work? I just, I feel really lucky because I'm a climber. I've spent my entire life outdoors. My whole career has revolved around the climbing industry and the climbing community. So I feel really lucky that I basically just get to bring my own experiences and authenticity about what I'm passionate about. I get to bring that to work. And I think that the nice challenge is that, you know what I feel, you know, my personal feelings, aren't always in line with, like, who we are as a brand. And… and that's okay. And then, so that's the challenge for me is, how do I articulate, you know, what we value as a brand and how do we reflect that back to our community. So that's, that's kind of one of the most exciting things about what I do, is I just feel incredibly fortunate that I get to be my authentic self and show up in a way that makes sense for us.

Lisa: Very cool. How do you feel that Mountain Hardwear has kind of created an atmosphere that encourages that exact line of thinking?

Matt: Do you mean like internally, like with our people?

Lisa: Yeah.

Matt: Yeah. It's... as a brand, we've gone through a really interesting and exciting time in the time that I've been there. I've been there for a little bit less than four years now.

And our current VP of product, Peter Valles, who I work with closely and really respect, he started the same day I did. And so, you know, over the last few years, we've hit reset - or he and his team have hit reset - on our product line. So I would say 99% of our product right now is either new or it's been revised or updated, which has been really exciting.

And I don't think that that could happen without having the right people. We definitely have... are made up of a lot of people who are makers, you know, people that make things themselves, that are, you know, really playful and enjoy the work that they do and spend time outdoors. And I think all of that is just really super important.

So it doesn't, it doesn't mean that we're a brand of hardcore skiers and snowboarders and climbers and alpinists,. It just... I think really what it means is that we all share a passion for the outdoors. And we're pretty passionate about the work that we do and it feels like it adds value to our communities, you know, the people that we are are one with in our, in our customers. So I think that is what has made Mountain Hardwear a really special place to be.

I mean, you know, a year and a half ago, we had this amazing opportunity. As a company, we peer voted six of our peers to go to Everest base camp. And that was company-funded, sponsored expedition. And we had a couple of climbers that were attempting Everest in the fall, which hasn't been done in almost a decade. So that was just one of the small examples of, you know, by creating those opportunities, like we're, we simply just... the people that are there are really passionate about, you know, the product that we make and where it goes and what it supports. And it's just been a really great ride.

Lisa: What is your personal career arc, a little bit, to have gotten you into this awesome role?

Matt: That's a great question. And instead of going through all the dates and gates, I will say it's probably this: I have said yes to a lot of things. I've said yes to a lot of things that I had no idea how to do. And that's probably gotten me to where I am today. And, you know, to paint that picture a little bit, you know, I got into climbing by opening up a brand catalog in the mid nineties. And there was a picture of Yuji Hirayama, who was a Japanese climber, climbing in Yosemite, and I had never climbed before. And I saw that and I was like, that's what I want to do with my life. And I spent several years after that climbing as much as I could, you know, working in the climbing industry. And I just had a knack for instruction, for teaching. And so I was a climbing guide and coach, and somehow that morphed itself into teaching other climbers how to teach climbing and writing my first gym climbing instructional book, and then getting introduced to publishing. And in 2004, I started a magazine, founding editor of Urban Climber Magazine, which isn't around anymore, but maybe it was a bit ahead of its time. And so I kind of got into publishing.

And when I left the magazine, I thought about all the brands that I had worked with. And I was like, you know, I think there might be a place for me working for a brand. I kind of realized that my knack was sort of storytelling, through words and a little bit of photography.

And my first brand opportunity was with The North Face and I was actually working for their retail store in New York City. And this woman would come in every week and she'd move stuff around the store and then she'd leave. And I was like, man, like, what is she doing? And I talked to her one day and she was a visual merchandising coordinator. And she would basically, you know, create the consumer experience in the stores. And I had no idea that was a job. And I was like, well, this is pretty cool. And kind of helped her out for a little bit. And you know, one thing led to another and I basically left working for the store and I was actually working for the brand, you know, corporately. And I spent some time in New York and ended up in the head offices in the bay area for The North Face. And really... I spent almost 10 years at The North Face. All that time was in what I would call, you know, a retail brand experience, the experience that you have inside their brick and mortar stores. And it's this interesting intersection of brand storytelling and product and consumer experience and all of that kind of mixed, mixed together. And I actually spent the last two years at The North Face in Shanghai, in China, where I was there, kind of heading up the brand's authenticity in China during that growth period.

Lisa: Woah.

Matt: So that was pretty wild. That led me to Salt Lake City for the first time, a really great opportunity at Black Diamond for a few years. And that's when I started getting into more of the creative side of things at Black Diamond, really creating content and kind of intersecting the dots and kind of moving outside of just the brick and mortar brands, but the entire experience that a customer has with the brand via online or in store or in print or anything like that. And I ended up at Mountain Hardwear about three and a half years ago when they were going through this really unique transition that has been really fruitful in the last three years.

You know, and I think that arc a lot, as I said when I started, there's a lot of those things where saying yes to opportunities that came up that were really interesting and just kind of just being super present. I never had, like, a goal of like what I wanted to be in terms of like career role or salary or title or anything like that. It was really about just staying super present and kind of doing the best that I could, you know, in every moment that I had.

Lisa: Hmm. I love that. I think- I mean, your story is awesome. I think the thing I connect with on a really deep level is the very beginning of your story where you saw a photo as a kid and it changed your life. And the power of like, seeing yourself. And it's just as important who's in front of the lens as it is who's behind the lens. That's a big pillar here at WHEELIE and, like, literally being able to envision a lifestyle and go after it, I think is remarkably powerful.

Matt: You know, one thing that was really interesting about that experience is that - and it took me years, like maybe two decades to realize this, but - the person that I saw in that image was really important. Yuji Hirayama is a Japanese climber, and I guarantee that I'd seen photos of climbers before that. I, myself, am a Thai American. And I guarantee I'd seen, you know, photos of climbers before that. But I think that subliminally, that I probably saw myself in Yuji Hirayama, and that was a pivotal moment for me. And so as I go through this career arc, like I think that is important to me now, as I realized that. You know, when people see themselves reflected in media I think it's... it can be incredibly powerful. And obviously life-changing, as I've experienced.

Lisa: Absolutely. I have many friends who, just like me saw the movie Out Cold, and it's a terrible snowboard comedy. It's horrible. And I saw it when I was 14 and it was the first time Hollywood had given me a female role model where I could see myself and she was a snowboarder and she had all these fun friends and it immediately made me start saving money for a snowboard. And like, I have so many friends who have that same experience where we saw Out Cold and wanted to be just like that character. So, yeah. I mean, I think the trajectory and the power of, of characters we can relate to is remarkable and, and showing lots of different perspectives is important too, I believe.

Matt: Certainly.

Lisa: I love that. And so here you are on the other side of the lens, I guess, and also like kind of deciding what kind of marketing Mountain Hardwear is going to put out. And like, there's a lot of responsibility there, I think. And how, like, how do you handle that?

Matt: I think I handle that with authenticity. You know, I think climbing and the outdoor industry and the activities that Mountain Hardwear represents, they've... they've changed. The landscape has changed in the last 20 years or so. And I think now we're in a place - and I particularly am in a place - where we can open the aperture. You know, my personal experience that I described before I think was really powerful to me. And so we make a conscious effort to engage in our community in an authentic way. And when I say community, I mean, you know, everyone that climbs and spends time outdoors.

And I guess what I mean by that is that if representation... you know, we know that representation is important. And one way we could do that is we could just flip a switch as a brand and we could hire a casting agency and we could, you know, we can work with a bunch of different folks and do photo shoots and kind of really curate how we show our brand, in a, maybe a forced way. We can flip the switch and do that immediately.

But what we've chosen to do is, you know, when we do these expeditions and projects and capture our products, you know, being used in the right environment, the right place. We spend - have spent - a lot of time engaging with our community and developing relationships with the people that we work with, you know, when we bring our product to life and express it. And that just takes time and a little bit of effort. And so it just, it takes personal relationships, it takes getting to know people, and it takes being integrated wholly in our community. And I think that is the only way that I know how to do that. And my team has done a pretty remarkable job kind of, you know, taking that approach as well. So we try really hard to create balance in what we do and what we show and what we write about and what we create content for when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Lisa: Mhmm. That's a big topic. You've used the word authentic and authenticity a lot, which is a marketing buzz word, but also is tremendously important. Kind of, what does that mean to you as a climber, as well as a director-level guy?

Matt: I think it's interesting, you know, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, authenticity... well, I guess authenticity means the same thing over time, but I think it shows itself, it represents itself in different ways. Particularly with climbing. You know, a really good example is that, you know, climbing means something to me and spending time outdoors means something to me and that's unique to me. And for me, it's connecting with nature and it's being outside and it's, you know, for me, there's an aspect of personal growth and personal performance. And, you know, I tend to not- on my own time, tend to not go out and climb with very many people. And I think to other people, it means something different.

A good example is, I was in Red Rock... I don't know, a couple winters ago. And we pulled up to the parking lot and there were, I dunno, the parking lot was full. And my reaction is, you know, let's go someplace else and let's find a different place to climb. But I can see that there are other people that could pull up to the same parking lot and be like, “oh, this is awesome. This is the place to be. This is where everybody is.” So I think authenticity kind of means something different to everyone, kind of as, as they, you know, embrace climbing and figure out what it means to them. And for me, it's just being true to... being real, I think is probably what that really means.

And I don't really think that in my personal life, I think about authenticity all that often, I just do what feels right to me, and it makes sense and it kind of fuels my soul and my relationships and that kind of thing. I think when I start to think about it more is when it comes through a brand lens. Well, you know, for the companies that I work for and what is, what does authenticity mean as, as a company and as a brand. And I think it really just means, again, being real with your community.

I think where it gets tricky is how you define your community. You know, if we're going to talk about climbers, let's say, I mean, you've got gym climbers, you've got sport climbers, you've got comp climbers, you've got 8,000 meter climbers, you've got alpinists, you've got ice climbers, you've got this huge- all these different types of people. And so how do you maintain authenticity as a brand for a gym climber versus an alpinist? They're probably pretty different things. And I think that's where it gets tricky as a brand, is… how do you be real - and can you be real - to everyone at once? And that's where things start to get super complicated.

Lisa: Can you?

Matt: I think you have to be loved by someone before you can be liked.

And I think that it's really hard to be everything to everyone. And so I think, the middle of the road is not necessarily a lane. And so I think you need to be specific about what you're trying to achieve and who your audience is and, and who you're talking to and how you're immersed.

So… it's really difficult to be everything to everyone, and I think you need to start being specific, having a pretty sharp end of the spear, before, you know, you can appeal to the masses, I would say.

Lisa: Can we go back to the phrase that you have to be loved before you can be liked from a brand perspective? Like, whoa, okay. What... I've never heard that in advertising or branding, like what does that mean to you? That's amazing.

Matt: [laughs] Oh, now I'm like, now that you've said it, I'm like, “I said that?”

Lisa: Yeah, it's profound.

Matt: Okay. So you have to be loved before you can be liked. I think you just, I think that you have to be seen for what you really are, like, as a brand. And before other people can start to like you. I think it just means you have to be specific and targeted in what you believe in before you can be more broad. And I think for us as a brand, that's the exercise that we went through about three or four years ago, and that was, we kind of re-centered ourselves around climbing. Got really specific about that. And then now we are starting to kind of open the aperture a little bit more around that. Because, you know, climbing is an activity, but climbers are people. And people are multidimensional and have so many different facets and so many different interests. And I think that's where it gets exciting as a brand that is immersed in a culture.

Lisa: Mhmm. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think our audience needs to know?

Matt: I think it could be interesting to talk about like, you know, people are getting vaccinated and stuff and like what the new normal is going to look like. Because one thing that I thought about going to this podcast is that like, I've got an open role right now. It's a production designer role. And like, we're trying to figure out as a brand, like, how do we go… what's the new normal, like is remote- are remote roles, the new normal are they not?

Lisa: Absolutely. And as a leader, how are you embracing, managing and leading from a remote place physically?

Matt: Yeah, that's a really great question. And we're entering a really interesting time now. I mean, you know, for most of my career - I guess the last 15 years working for brands - I've had to show up at the same place every day. And then, you know, March 13th of last year that was turned on its head. Like, no one could show up at the same place every day. And all of a sudden we went completely remote. And it's been two pretty... you know, pretty significant extremes. And then when we all went remote last year, it actually was kind of easy because we didn't have any choices to make - we didn’t have too many choices to make. We were like, we can't see each other, we can't be with each other.

So now I really think with vaccinations and, you know, people starting to get together, I think we're going to enter a really interesting and complicated time in the workplace. And that is this hybrid remote idea. Because before, like I said, we didn't really have a choice, but now we're trying to figure out that balance between, you know, how do you hold on to the good things about all of this remote work and how do you hold onto the good things about being location-based and being in person and developing culture and all those types of things.

And, you know, I'm working with the leaders on our team to try and figure out how to do that. For instance, I have a bunch of people reaching out to me for this role. And they're like, the first question is then I have a question about the role. They have a question about whether or not it's remote. And so that's, that's a really interesting thing.

I will say, though, for myself, I plan to enter this kind of remote-hybrid situation where I really think that my team has developed the right processes and the right systems and the right communication. And we just executed a remote sales meeting two weeks ago. And it was incredibly successful from a creative perspective and from a business perspective. And so we're really excited about that. So I plan on seeing people, you know, as soon as I can, I don't plan on ever being back in the office 24-7 or full time. I just don't think it's needed. And so I think that's what we're looking at.

But one thing that I would say, that I think is really interesting, is that there will be a new normal, just for the workforce. And if you're, you know, in the outdoor space and you're looking for a new role or a new job, or, you know, a career in the industry and you really want to maintain your remoteness or you live in Bozeman or Whitefish and you want to stay there, I would say when you see roles available, especially moving forward, I would say, go for it. Even if they say it's not remote and it's location-based, I guarantee that if you're the right person for a role, any company and any brand will significantly consider letting you be remote. Especially after everything that we've experienced.

So, you know, my HR team might not be psyched that I'm saying that, but I encourage everyone to just go for it and what's out there, because I think that the landscape is changing, how we work is changing and, and it's actually... it's going to be a pretty exciting time.

Lisa: I agree. It's kind of fun.

Cool. Well, Matt, I'm going to be respectful of your time, but I thank you so much for being here and for your wisdom. And… that was beautiful. Thanks. Thanks for your interview.

Matt: I really appreciate it. I'm super humbled that you even asked me to come on and thanks a lot for inviting me.

Lisa: Where can our audience follow you or follow along or get in touch with you? What kind of links can we put in our show notes?

Matt: I would say, LinkedIn. [laughs] It sounds really corporate, but LinkedIn. And then, also Instagram as well. And I have a website, too, it's just my and same with my Instagram handle.

Lisa: Perfect. Well, we will include all that. And, yeah. Thank you so much for being here.

Matt: Thank you very much, Lisa.

[closing music]

Lisa: Thank you again, Matt, for being on our podcast, and as always thank you to our listeners for supporting the podcast. And if you have time, if you feel like it, in your podcast app, if you wouldn't mind leaving us a review, that would be awesome... with a written comment, that helps us get into the ears of more human beings. So thank you for your support throughout the years.

And if you want to be on the podcast or you know anyone who would be a good guest, please email and we'll get it into our queue. So thank you again.

Thanks for being here and have a great day.

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