Inside a peak moment for Mountain Equipment Company

“First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” British folk singer Donovan Leitch wrote those seemingly nonsensical words in 1967, inspired by a Buddhist text about the oneness of things. Or something. Who knows? There were a lot of psychedelics around at the time.

The Calypso-flavoured “There is a Mountain” was a modest hit for Donovan, climbing to number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100. More than half a century later, it could be the unofficial theme song for the newly rechristened Mountain Equipment Company.

The outdoor retailer this week announced that it is returning the image of a mountain peak to its logo more than eight years after its removal. That forest-green peak was a core element of the company’s logo—some might even say a central part of its identity—for more than 40 years until 2013, when it was replaced with a simple green square as part of a name change from Mountain Equipment Co-Op to MEC that still rankles customers to this day.

At the time, the company said that name change—which led to customers pronouncing the company name as “M.E.C.” or “meck”—was intended to reflect the rise of its increasingly urban customer base. Others viewed it as an attempt to shed the “granola” image it had embodied since its earliest days catering to outdoor enthusiasts.

“The rebrand reflects the reality of the new MEC,” said Anne Donohoe, the company’s CMO at the time. “We’ve grown from six members to 3.5 million members over the last 40 years, many of whom live in urban centres.”

But in announcing the change this week, Mountain Equipment Company admitted that its attempt to update its image hadn’t gone quite as planned. “The decision was divisive, and over the past eight years, the message from the MEC community was clear: Bring back the peaks!” it said in a release.

The rebrand was carried out by Hulse & Durrell, a Vancouver design agency that has worked with brands including the International Olympic Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the CBC. “We specialize in making brands memorable and valuable, and we build them to last,” says the company’s mission statement.

“The original Mountain Equipment Co-Op logo was a classic,” says Hulse & Durell principal Greg Durrell in a nearly three-minute video promoting the rebrand (see it below). “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind we were going to return to the mountain. The only question was how would we evolve it for the future.”

Hulse & Durell also tweaked the logo’s colour slightly, adopting a “deeper, more natural green” that nods to the classic colour of its backpacks and fleece jackets. It’s accompanied by a new type alignment and the made-in-Canada “Mountain Sans” font.

The video also offers a candid assessment of the shift in brand direction eight years ago. Shot documentary style, it features interviews with customers and employees asking for their take on the green square logo. Their responses range from “boring,” “rudimentary” and “bland, uninspired” to an MEC employee who calls it “the beginning of MEC’s dark ages.” Adds another customer: “I fucking hate the green square.”

“It generated a lot of authentic responses,” says Mountain Equipment Company’s current vice-president of marketing, Michele Guimond. “What other brand has that kind of passion behind it? I don’t know if people would have had the same response to a Future Shop rebrand. I think it’s absolutely fascinating from a cultural perspective that there’s so much passion around it.

“Why would [we] not lean into that?”

Speaking with The Globe and Mail this week, Mountain Equipment Company chairman and CEO Eric Claus described the green square logo as nondescript and wholly unreflective of the company’s business. “I mean, we could be a pharmacy, we could be a software company, who knows?” he said. “Nobody’s ever liked it.”

So when exactly was the internal decision made to bring the mountain back to the logo?

“2013” says Guimond with a laugh. “No, just kidding. I don’t want to dismiss the square and the decision there. Everybody tries something on for size.”

Guimond, who joined Mountain Equipment Company in June after spending recent years in marketing roles with outdoor brands including VSSL and Arc’teryx Equipment, says the green square logo just never seemed to catch on, either internally or with customers.

An outdoor enthusiast herself, Guimond has been shopping at Mountain Equipment Company since the 1980s. “Like so many Canadians, I have always loved MEC and wore that [logo] like a badge when I was travelling, like it was a Canadian flag,” she says.

“I’m not going to lie, when [the logo change was announced] I was one of the people who was upset and disgruntled. Being able to come here and do something towards resolving that, [it’s] a dream come true.”

But removing the mountain from the logo wasn’t just about the visual identity—it was part of an internal shift at the very heart of the company’s business itself, says Guimond.

Following the brand update, those back country enthusiasts who had been coming to MEC for staples like tents and other outdoor gear for years suddenly saw aisles filled with pet supplies and general merchandise catering mostly to urbanites whose view of the great outdoors was markedly different from that of those core customers.

“It didn’t provide enough direction and focus culturally, or as a business,” says Guidmond of the 2013 changes. “We tried to be all things to all people, and then ended up [being] nothing to anyone.”

The new logo represents a return of the familiar but with a modern and refocused outlook, says Guimond. She recalls a conversation with Claus shortly after joining the organization in which he said to her, “Michele, I just want to bring back MEC’s secret sauce.”

“We rallied around the core pillars of really authentic outdoor products,” she says. “This is not only about who we are as a retailer and a community, but it’s also about where we’re going with the MEC Label [the company’s in-house product line] and its products.”

The new branding also comes slightly more than a year since Mountain Equipment Company was acquired by the Los Angeles-based private equity firm Kingswood Capital Management. It was a move that provided much-needed financial security for the 50-year-old company, which lost a reported $80 million between 2017 and 2020. But it also brought an end to the co-operative structure that had been its hallmark.

Some diehard customers didn’t take the news well, creating a group called Save MEC with a stated goal of advocating for members to “save what is left of our co-op, defend the rights of members-owners, and ensure that no other co-op in Canada will suffer the same fate.” The group has amassed more than 10,600 members, many of whom offered some scathing comments around the rebrand announced this week.

Guidmond says that she’s heard the criticism, but points to MEC’s place in the top 10 on the annual Gustavson Brand Trust Index—and its top ranking in the Apparel & Footwear Retailers category—as a sign that there continues to be a lot of affinity for the brand.

A recent Instagram post announcing the new logo was the company’s most-liked post ever, she says, with more than 8,000 likes and 400 comments. “Sure there’s some [talk] around the co-op piece, but the proof is in the pudding,” she says.


Chris Powell