loader image
Skip to content

Monica Rigali, VP of Global Brand Management at JanSport

Did you know, long before JanSport was on the backs of every middle schooler in America it had once been a handmade pack for a group of Mt. Rainer hiking hippies? We didn’t either until this week’s guest revealed the origins of JanSport, a pop culture icon and America’s essential backpack for more than five decades.

In our first episode of 2023, host Gabriella Bock is joined by Monica Rigali, JanSport Vice President Global Brand Management, to discuss how the brand has evolved and remained relevant to decades of young people, as well as her take on the big Gen Z trends that will define the new year.

If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know by subscribing to our channel and giving us a 5 star rating us on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Post Transcript

Gabriella Bock: Hello and welcome to the Rethink Retail Podcast and to the first episode of 2023. I’m Gabriella Bock and here to ring in the new year with me today is my guest, Monica Rigali. She’s the vice president of Global Brand Management at JanSport, which is an American brand of backpacks and collegiate apparel owned by VF Corporation. Welcome to the show, Monica.   Monica Rigali: I am really happy to be here Gabriella. Thank you so much for having me.   Gabriella Bock: Absolutely. And it’s great to have you here today with us. JanSport is a brand that many of us, especially those of us growing up in the nineties, have grown to know and love over the years. We’ve carried you with us throughout all of our kind of academic careers, so it’s great to have you on the show. But I know JanSport, you guys originated well before the nineties when I was first introduced to the brand. And I think you guys have a pretty interesting kind of backstory. So I would love to hear a little bit more if you could tell our audience about JanSport and how the brand got started and where it stands today.   Monica Rigali: Yeah, so when we talk about heritage, brand heritage, there’s actually two zones of heritage that are relatable to most audiences. And one is the one you just talked about, which is during the nineties and early two thousands when JanSport was huge and everywhere and we were kind of like a pop culture icon in that time, but our roots come from the sixties. So when we talk about heritage internally, we talk about our founders who were backpackers and also kind of side entrepreneurs, innovation, curious dudes. And they wanted to make a backpack to climb up Mount Rainier, and so they built this limited frame to carry all their stuff, but they didn’t really know how to sew.

So one of the guys, Murray, conned his girlfriend into making the body materials for this backpack and they entered it into a contest and her name is Jan. And so they said, Jan, if you sew the fabrics for this backpack, then we’re going to enter it into a contest. Like, we’ll name the company after you, I promise. And so they won the contest with their aluminum framed backpack and they called the company. So that’s like the original heritage of the brand. But you made a really good point, JanSport goes everywhere with everyone and our tagline, “Our brand story is always with you,” and there’s a reason for that because we’re kind of always with the young people.

  Gabriella Bock: Yeah. You mentioned that the backpack was originally used for hikers who were trying to hike Mountain Rainier. So how did that evolve then from a hikers backpack into a backpack that you see on 10 year olds walking to school or the freshman entering their college year? How did that transpire?   Monica Rigali: Yeah, it’s been a 50 year journey, so it didn’t happen overnight, but JanSport started in the outdoor industry and so we were alongside brands like Patagonia and Eagle Creek back then so we were kind of outdoor brands. But those two guys I was talking about, their names are Skip Yowell and Murray, his cousin. They wanted to go a little bit broader and they were starting to take notes on what students were carrying their books in. They lived in Washington, they did a little research at University of Washington and they found that most students were carrying their books under their arm and there was no way to keep their stuff dry in a really rainy climate. So they started using materials from the automotive industry like seat belts and upholstery from cars and they started building these leather bottoms to their packs and started selling them at the University of Washington bookstore.

And that’s where JanSport really took off as a student brand. So when I think about JanSport, I kind of think of it as a brand that was born out of romance because of Jan and Murray, and innovation, because Skip and Murray started, really started innovating and thinking about how to serve students better with a backpack that carried their stuff and kept their stuff dry. So we’ve kind of continued that spirit. There’s still a lot of romance in our brand in the way that we talk to consumers and the way that we innovate, but we’re always looking at how to better serve our consumers, not just students but all people.

  Gabriella Bock: I just think it’s such a fascinating story. And JanSport isn’t just a brand of backpack, you guys kind of created the backpack, you created this tool that almost every child has used at some point in their lives. So I think that’s just kind of such a fascinating story really setting trends for a brand that is more than half a century year old. It’s really amazing to see how you guys have been able to evolve and remain relevant among several generations now. Taking it to present day, so today’s consumers, I would imagine your core consumer group is now probably the Gen Z, maybe leaning into a little bit Gen Alpha as well now. So I kind of want to start there and take it to present day and hear from you what are some of the big trends, some of the big expectations you’re seeing with your core consumers.   Monica Rigali: So this is a complicated audience we are attempting to make an emotional connection with. So it’s not easy to… It’s also not easy from our consumers’ lens because that Gen Z audience, we define it as a 14 to 22 year-old. And our core target zone in terms of our communication and our outreach is right in that 16 to 18 age group. They are exposed to so much. This generation is the most evolved generation in terms of technology, in terms of how many messages are coming at them, in terms of what they have access to than any generation since the history of time. So how does a 50 year old brand ours actually have any meaning to this generation? We think about that all the time and what we keep going back to is: how can we build something that helps them simplify their day or has some meaning to them beyond just, this is a thing to put my books in, or this is a thing that they put shoes in?

So we’ve played around with that quite a lot. And where we landed is we talk about a lot of topics, issues, subjects that really have nothing to do with backpacks. So we kind of cheat into this 14 to 20 year-old, this Gen Z generation on other platforms outside of just like we sell great product. So in our consumer research we started listening and understanding that mental health and teen mental health in particular is a big, big concern for this generation. They’re worried about it. They’re worried about their friends. They’re worried about teen suicide. They’re worried about their own ability to cope with a really fast changing world and with huge global things that are coming at them like the pandemic. And so we as a brand considered: how do we help? How do we provide a platform for a young person to have this conversation? And maybe even offer some resources or some shared experiences that they can relate to just demonstrate that we get them. And really that’s half the battle. At the end of the day, we are a business and we want you to buy JanSport because we do think that they’re the best backpacks on the market and I do believe that. But in between that endpoint, we do have a lot of shared values with this generation. And I think demonstrating that and letting them know that, “Hey, yeah, we do get you. We do understand what you’re going through. We do understand this is a very complicated time in your youth.” That goes a long way toward making that connection. So we focus on that, we focus a lot on product, but we focus on the consumer and let that consumer lead us.

  Gabriella Bock: Yeah, we’re definitely seeing the conversation happening now more and people being more comfortable talking about mental health issues. But you’re right, there’s a lot going on in teens today. They have some of the highest suicide rates and self-harm rates. It is definitely, as a parent myself, it’s very concerning.   Monica Rigali: I do want to put something to that. We had this generation thanks to them, they really advanced the conversation. When I was growing up, if you had anxiety or depression or if you had a parent who was experiencing those symptoms, you did not talk about it. It was a taboo subject. So just back to de-stigmatizing the conversation and being able to advance and share those experiences, I think has really gone a long way toward advancing the help and the resources and the tools that we can use to make things better.   Gabriella Bock: Absolutely. I did want to kind of expand on that a little bit. And so what then, as a brand, what do those conversations and look like with consumers? You mentioned mental health and kind of driving conversations, but what does that actually look like when it comes to communication with consumers?   Monica Rigali: Right, because we’re not a healthcare agency. It’s all backpacks and we’re very aware of that. We’re not going to heal anyone necessarily, but we really try to meet the moment and we try to meet consumers where they are. So our mental health campaign began in 2020 when most students in America’s region were told not to come back to school and that they would have to set up remote learning stations in their house. And there was no end date to that. Well there were a few end dates, but they kept changing. And this had huge effects on the student population in the States. So what part do we play? Well, we can’t affect policies around when kids are going to reenter school, but we did acknowledge that it was a hard time. We held live sessions with an amazing therapist named Nedra Tawa and a couple of other therapists that we partnered with. And we invited our consumer, we invited whoever wanted to come, into our live sessions to ask questions, to listen, to just sometimes acknowledging it’s okay to not feel okay.

That has become a bit of a cliche now, but at the time it was something that we really wanted to share with young people. It is okay to not feel okay about the fact that for the last 15 years or 10 years you’ve been going back to school in August and September this year you have to stay home because there’s a germ going around that is lethal. And that was a lot for young people to deal with. What part do we play? Sometimes sharing it actually lightens that load for a young person. And our campaign was called Lighten the Load and it was a series of conversations, sharing experiences. We set cameras out to homes of young people who were willing to share their mental health journey with us, and used those videos in our campaign. And we kind of just opened up the conversation and handed our platform over to young people to continue that conversation. And that was a lot at the time, and it’s evolved from there.

  Gabriella Bock: Wow. That’s really, very touching. And I think it definitely kind of also touches upon that authenticity trend, the call for authenticity and meaningful conversations and connections between brands and consumers and making sure that you align with each other’s identities. And so I think that’s really cool that you guys really focused in on that during the pandemic, really just making sure that your customers are good, that the people who shop from you are good. And while so many people were focusing on, “Okay, well what can we sell during this time?” Yeah. It’s like, “How can we connect during this time?”   Monica Rigali:

We accepted during that time that when kids don’t go back to school, they don’t buy backpacks.

  Gabriella Bock: Exactly.   Monica Rigali: And we’re like, “We need to factor this into our business and shift to understand what these kids are going through and stay there for a bit.” And we did. And as the recovery began sort of post-COVID and young people were going back to school and starting to figure out what post-COVID learning would look like, we came back with kind of a tongue in cheek comedy series talking about how ridiculous a new normal is. There is no new normal and this is a new territory now.

School is hybrid and I’m still going to be remote sometimes when the pandemic surges. And I didn’t see my friends for a year. And, oh, by the way, I need to catch up academically. So we actually connected with a drag artist named Jan Sport. We did a comedy series just kind of trying to add a little bit of levity to the conversation because again, that kind of humor really relates with Gen Z. And they like it, and they’re real, this generation is very, very real and they lean into the authentic conversations about what’s really going on. So we talked to them about that in the next back to school.

  Gabriella Bock: Absolutely. I love it. Switching gears a little bit, now that we are somewhat past the pandemic. Although those of us who have been sick with flus and COVIDs and colds this fall would probably say otherwise. But kids are back in school, kids are shopping for backpacks again. So let’s talk about some of the big product trends that you’re seeing right now. I’d love to get your take on that nostalgia trend that we’re seeing and kind of hear from you on: what do you think is driving that trend?   Monica Rigali: I think that’s a great question and it’s something that we are trying to figure out and also we’re happily riding. I think that if you are a 15, 16, 17, 18 today, you may be looking back at the late nineties, mid to late nineties, maybe the eighties, early two thousands, as a time when things are maybe simpler. There weren’t as many distractions. Climate change didn’t feel like quite the catastrophe that we know it is today. There’s less noise. Social media hadn’t quite ramped up to the stage that it’s at right now. And I think that there’s an affinity for that kind of simpler, more real time. And there’s a nostalgia about that. We’re seeing trends in DIY and banking and up-cycling, so taking a product and making it yours and making it new again, thrifting.

And I think that just speaks to just how chaotic, uncertain and busy and noisy their lives are right now. So how do we lean into that? Well, we were a pretty popular brand back then and as we are today, but that, I think they look at JanSport where they’re like, “Hey, JanSport’s been around for a long time, they must be pretty good.” And I like the feeling that a tried and true and trusted brand gives me when I wear it. And that works out. We have done something very well for 50 years. So I think that’s sort of our calling card to this generation. We are also one of the most, if not the most sustainable backpack brand on the market right now. Not only do we make products that are going to last for 50 years and they do, if it breaks or fails, you can send it back to us and we’ll fix it or repair it or give you a new one for free. And that’s a guarantee that we make to every consumer. And also, JanSport is real. We’ve never really tried to… We’re not fussy. We’ve never tried to be something we’re not. And I do think that in this era of nostalgia and hearkening back to a simpler time, that authenticity really resonates.

  Gabriella Bock: Fantastic. Yeah, I was going to ask too, how do you guys find the balance between being a sustainable brand and promoting sustainability while also trying to remain cool and trendy and relevant? So how do you find that balance?   Monica Rigali: By taking materials that are already on this planet and finding a way to make thread out of them and putting that thread back into our backpacks? So it is my goal eventually, and I don’t know when we can make this happen, but my dream is to make JanSport backpacks out of old JanSport backpacks so that we are entirely circular right now. We’re sourcing plastics. We have a factory and a material supplier that takes those plastic materials, melts them down, spins them into thread, and that thread is woven into our very, very durable backpacks. And now 8 out of 10 of our backpacks are made out of that post-consumer recycled plastic. That has been a process that didn’t happen overnight.

We started down that road of how can we take more junk out of the environment and put less junk into the environment. We started down that path years ago and we’re there. We have a long way to go, but we’re on the journey toward, again, my dream of being entirely circular. So for us at JanSport, and luckily I have this amazing team here who believes in being more sustainable and in sourcing every material can that comes from the earth that is maybe regenerative so that we are a healthier company and so that overall we are a healthier planet. And we all believe that. So that’s how we go at it. It’s super important to us, but we know it’s also really important to the people who buy us. So it works out in that way. We share that value.

  Gabriella Bock: Fantastic. And I’m curious, how do you envision that? Would consumers probably send their backpacks back in and then receive some type of credit or voucher for a new backpack percentage off?   Monica Rigali: I can hire you right now. That’s exactly how it would work. If you send your backpack back to us, we’ll even pay shipping. This is eventually, this is not happening right now.   Gabriella Bock: Yes, yes. Down the road   Monica Rigali: Or drop it into a barrel that’s staged at Tilly’s or Kohl’s or Target. Drop your old backpack off, we’ll pick it up, we’ll take it, we’ll give you a 25% off or something for your next JanSport. And we’ll take that and we’ll recycle those materials. Now we have some hurdles there. Our backpack still have some coatings on them. This coatings, we need to figure out how to stabilize those coatings or break them apart and dilute them so that we’re not passing coatings or chemicals into new products. We’ve found some things we have to figure out, but it’s absolutely possible someday in the future.   Gabriella Bock: I love it. I love that it’s top of mind for you and I have full faith, you guys will figure that out and I’m really excited to see it happen. Always love hearing about heritage and legacy brands, really kind of focusing and trying to double down on sustainability. You guys have been around for a long time so you don’t have to do it, but you want to do it and yeah, I definitely really value that about you guys.   Monica Rigali: Well, thank you. I think it’s imperative, I really do. I think we do have to do it. I think all brands have to do it, but again, that’s me on my soapbox.   Gabriella Bock: Well yes, that is the hope that all brands will do it, and that consumers will continue to make those purchases. But already you guys have so much brand equity among consumers, so I think just are having that as a service and an offering will just make for a better path forward. Very cool. So I did want to hear, are there any other big trends that you’re keeping your eye on? Are you starting to think about maybe Gen Alpha and how they, the incoming class is going to impact the way that you brand your products or your design or anything like that? What backpacks will look like for them? Will they be the same?   Monica Rigali: Well, so they will not be the same. At the time Gen Alpha is begging their mom and dad to buy a JanSport, our backpacks will probably look and feel a little bit different than they do today. And most of that has to do with the materials that are available to us, the materials that we’re attempting to source that are more earth friendly. We’re even looking at some buckles and things that are made out of methane. So taking methane out of the environment and making our plastic buckles. We’re looking at, instead of using synthetic foams using things like algae and some other regenerative materials. So no, I think our backpacks will look different for Gen A.

For Gen Z right now though, the trends that we’re seeing are toward some of the basic expectations of a backpack. It’s got to have water bottle pockets. The planet is cleaning up, and every student now, every person carries a water bottle and sometimes two, so making sure that we got those pockets. Making sure that we have a laptop sleeve. Everyone carries a laptop or an iPad around now. So how do we make sure that that’s comfortable and that equipment, that technology for each student is protected. So that’s a big part of our product mix. And just from a more of the trend, high level trend standpoint, Gen Z wants things that are a little bit softer, a little bit cozier, that add comfort to their lives, that don’t feel stiff and rough. And so we’ve got some products out right now in corduroy, which is again, kind of a throwback material from the eighties and nineties, but it’s soft and it feels good on their backs and it lends a feeling of sort of luxury and it’s comforting. We’re looking toward building some products that are so soft and cozy, maybe they could act as your pillow if you have got to take a 20 minute nap at a bench. So we’re leaning into some of those simpler, more tactile, more comforting and cozy trends that we’re seeing in fashion and in some other areas of their lives. But again, being real to who we are and using some of those very kind of basic materializations that actually can change your mood, be mood inducing. Those are some of the things we’re looking at in Gen Z trend and culture right now.

  Gabriella Bock: Very cool. And I will say you can’t see my pants right now, but I am wearing corduroy pants and they are indeed very cozy, very soft. And the point about the water bottle, yeah, I think this is probably the most hydrated generation there’s probably ever been. When I was in school there was a water fountain and we would go twice a day and then go home and drink water nine hours later.   Monica Rigali: I used to go to practice without a water bottle, we just didn’t think about it. But we’re also an average of what, four degrees hotter now.   Gabriella Bock: This is true. But I love that you guys are adapting to these new trends. Kids are drinking more water, which is great, so they need to have a pocket for their water bottle. They need to have fabrics that are softer and cozier like you said. And so how do you go about identifying these trends then? Do you have a team? Do you look at data to tell you these trends? Can you elaborate a little bit on that?   Monica Rigali: We absolutely do have a team. It’s our CGMT team and CGMT means color, graphics, materialization and trend. And they actually publish an internal e-zine is what they call it. It’s called Genzine.   Gabriella Bock: Nice. Love it.   Monica Rigali: Yeah. Well, we need that internally. I’m not a member of this generation, but I need to know what Gen Z’s on right now and what they’re going to be gravitating toward, what their behaviors might be two years from now too. So this team pulls together those trends for us. They look out two years and sometimes more and look at how macro trends, global macro trends might inform how consumers at every age. And we focus on Gen Z, but we talk about millennials, we talk about Gen A as well, what they’re going to be gravitating toward. They’re going to be loving what colors, prints, patterns are going to be cool 18 months from now. And they bring all of that in.

And then we have a go-to market process that it starts with, we call it zero zero, where everyone comes together, we talk about sales trends, talk about macro trends, we talk about fashion trends, we talk about the economy, we talk about new innovations and that’s kind of where it starts. And we build from there. We work about 18 months out each season. So far that team has kept us honest. And so one thing we do, Gen Z is our internal education and it comes from a really talented group of people, but also we have daily feedback, mostly from our website and from some of our wholesale data as well, like NPD that tells us what consumers are gravitating toward, what they love, what they’re not loving. We’ve got some prints and patterns that don’t land with our consumer too. We have to go, “Okay, they’re not into house tooth right now or they’re really loving deep juniper corduroy,” which is what’s happening right now. Our CGMT team said Deep Juniper, which is like a dark green corduroy, it’s going to be huge in 2022, and it is sold out on our website right now so they nailed that one. But we have daily data feeds and sales reports that we can take a look at and understand what consumers are doing, what’s really working with them and what’s not. I, for one pay, a lot attention, a lot of attention to those data sets.

  Gabriella Bock: Fantastic. Deep Juniper corduroy 2023. You heard it here first.   Monica Rigali: Well, so Spider-Man, No Way Home is also lasting. It’s actually one year ago, but that trend is still… A lot of folks were still watching Spider-Man on Netflix and Peter Parker wore a deep juniper right pack, JanSport right pack in that movie. So it was one of our most searched words on jansport.com was ‘green JanSport backpack’.   Gabriella Bock: Wow. Very cool. Well I definitely think you guys are doing something right. You’ve been able to stay relevant among today’s young people for well over 50 years and into the future as well. So I guess lastly I want to ask you Monica, before we wrap is: what are you looking forward to in the new year and is there anything we should keep our eye out on that JanSport is doing?   Monica Rigali: Probably the one story I’m the most excited about for the new year is a product that we’ve spent a couple years on now and we’re finally bringing it to market. So JanSport from day one, from those early days that we talked about, has been a brand for everyone and everyone’s invited. You’ll see a JanSport backpack on the quarterback at school and you’ll see a JanSport backpack on a theater kid or someone who’s into mega desk or whatever, different chilling types of music. Everyone, we are a brand for everyone. And we started talking to the adaptive community about how we can service young people or all people in wheelchairs better with a bag that truly adapts to their wheelchair and works for them and is easy to get into and is actually made specifically for their wheelchair. So we’ve been working on that with the adaptive community. We’ve done a ton of focus groups and product testing and we think we’ve gotten it right and we’re launching that product in January. So we are making our first wheelchair backpack.   Gabriella Bock: That’s amazing.   Monica Rigali: Yeah, we’re super excited to share that with the adaptive community and also to that we truly are kind of standing behind what we believe is that there is a bag for everybody. And yeah, can’t wait to get it on the shelves.   Gabriella Bock: Wow, that’s really cool and I love that. I think we’re seeing more retailers kind of start to create adaptive products, which I just absolutely love to see. And then also normalizing it, and making it so that people who have disabilities or disabled or have different support needs, that they can find the same products in the same spaces. They don’t have to custom order things, can look just like their peers. That’s really cool and I’m excited to see it. So thank you for sharing that with us.   Monica Rigali: Well you actually just pointed out the most important tenant to this whole project. When we worked with models who are in wheelchairs, that’s what we heard from them over and over. We did a really great video shoot that we’ll be releasing in a few weeks, and our models told us like, “Hey, we go beyond the wheelchair. Let’s normalize this conversation.” And hopefully by making something that actually is something that every other kid wears and just happens to be fitted to a wheelchair, we can help normalize that conversation.   Gabriella Bock: I love it. If your team could share that with us once the campaign goes live, we’d love it to share it with our audience. I think they would really appreciate learning about that more.   Monica Rigali: We will absolutely share that with you.   Gabriella Bock: Fantastic. Well Monica, I want to thank you again for hopping on this show today. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you and learning more about JanSport and some of the truly incredible campaigns that you’ve launched and will be launching in the future. So thank you again for joining.   Monica Rigali: Well the pleasure has been all mine. And thank you so much.