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REI’s #OptOutside Campaign: A Breath of Fresh Air!

There are few things I like better than a good hike or a challenging yet rewarding backpacking trip. So it’s no big surprise that I’ve been an REI member for many years. In fact, I remember going to REI to pick out backpacking gear with my Dad when I was a little kid. It was like a big toy store. I also learned at a very early age that those Clif bars that said brownie did not, in fact, taste like brownies. They’ve improved a lot in the last few decades.

Even as a long-time member I was surprised to see the launch of REI’s #OptOutside campaign. I was initially excited and then somewhat shocked at the audacity of it. My business school friends thought it was crazy (who wants to miss out on that revenue?). I expected other friends to be worried about the workers, but it turns out they’re getting paid to take the day off and go outside (so no need to complain there). And I knew the outdoor enthusiasts would be rejoicing (except those few who maybe don’t want more visitors on their trails, but they’re not really the rejoicing sort anyway).

So if we want to take a business approach, we can question how much attention this campaign gets, and if it’s “worth it”, i.e., is there a positive sales benefit, and how much earned media is the campaign producing (that would otherwise need to be paid for). After all, a lot of people are talking about it! Forbes, CNN, FastCo and a number of other networks have covered it.

From a marketing perspective we can definitely start to measure reach and engagement on their #OptOutside hashtag (given our business, I had to bring this angle in, right?!).  As of this post, they already have about 780,000 people choosing to #OptOutside on their gallery page. Their branded images are picking up steam on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and there’s still plenty of time to build more momentum.

But there’s another approach, the one of what kind of world do we want to live in. One where families hurry through Thanksgiving dinner so they can make it to stores on Thursday? Or one where we use a day off to breathe fresh air, relax, and enjoy nature? In this realm we can look at REI as the co-op it is, and compare it to companies like Patagonia that take making the world a better place as part of their mission and brand persona. Thankfully we continue to see that being socially and environmentally responsible can also be good for business.

Patagonia launched a Worn Wear campaign in 2013 around Black Friday encouraging people to mend clothing rather than replace it. Sounds counter-intuitive for a company that sells clothing, right? Certainly many business magazines argued that. But the company, long known for its environmental focus and values, chooses a long-term strategy of building customer loyalty, and the campaign greatly appealed to their eco-conscious consumer base.

REI is in a similar position, and this move is right in line with who they are as a brand and as a business. As REI CEO Jerry Stritzke puts it:

“For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.”

The juxtaposition of the audio and serene video released by REI help paint this picture:

We continue to be in a time of purpose-driven marketing, when real stories and a holistic brand experience create stronger customer relationships and ultimately drive more sales. REI says 80% of sales come from members, so I imagine nurturing that long-term loyalty is a much better strategy than pushing one-off holiday sales. Personally, if that helps them and encourages people to get outside and enjoy life, I’m all for it!

But what do you think, is it a brilliant a move to get back to their roots, connect with their core audience, and set their values? Or do you cringe at lost sales opportunities? Or even both?

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