Branding Brilliance in the Great Outdoors

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Brand culture is a concept that has been discussed rather extensively on this blog, and for good reason. Before a brand can determine where it wants to situate itself in its industry, it has to identify a few defining characteristics that will not only serve to determine how it will be perceived by the public, but also how it will stack up against its competitors.

As we’ve previously mentioned, it’s often advisable for a brand to stay true to its culture and values, even if that means making some sacrifice.

REI (officially Recreational Equipment, Inc.) is a retail chain that sells camping and outdoor equipment, as well as offers courses and education on climbing, hiking, camping and other recreational activities. Additionally, the company actively encourages its employees to engage in their favorite outdoor pursuits and maintain a healthy balance between work and recreation. It has created the type of culture that adventure seekers and outdoors enthusiasts resonate with, which has helped with its substantial growth.

It is for this reason that, prior to the 2015 holiday season, the company announced that it would be closing down all 144 of its retail outlets as well as its processing locations on Black Friday and giving its employees a paid day off to go and spend the day participating in their favorite outdoor activities. The award-winning #OptOutside campaign, as it was called, made huge waves throughout the retail business and brought the company an exceptional amount of positive media attention.

It has been noted that, like many major retailers, Black Friday is one of the most profitable days for REI. To shut down all operations on one of the busiest days of the year may not sound like the wisest decision. However, the profits that were lost were certainly made up. Even without all the free advertising brought on by the story, REI, in doing this, solidified their position as a company that is truly dedicated to the lifestyle that it sells. The REI brand has long been synonymous with a lifestyle of adventure, and that was reinforced with their decision to forego taking part in the infamous excesses Black Friday in favor of a day outdoors.

Now it must be noted that most outdoor retailers can’t afford the luxury of opting out of the busiest shopping day of the year, and that’s understandable. REI, as profitable as it is, understood the consequences of closing up shop that day. But what it gained as a brand — a confirmation of their identity as an organization dedicated above all else to the outdoor lifestyle — is priceless.

While the company sells good and gear to the more casual among us — the weekend warriors or hobbyists — many who shop at REI are passionate recreation enthusiasts. From those who wish to conquer a Himalayan peak to kayaking in some of the most dangerous rapids in the world, their customers are intensely committed to their beloved activities. When its likeminded customer base goes to shop for gear, they’ll have it in their minds that REI not only supplies them, but also lives the lifestyle. The folks there have a deep understanding of what their customers want. That is the brand. And in one effective marketing campaign, the brand has declared its commitment to that lifestyle and its customers.

Because of the success of last year’s #OptOutside campaign, it will be repeated in 2016. Yet again, the retailer choosing to give its employees Black Friday off and encourage them to share their experiences on social media.

Other companies have even gotten involved this year as well. Outdoor Research, whose myriad of products REI sells, is also joining in. While, from a branding standpoint this can be beneficial to the manufacturer, its name will not be synonymous with the campaign the way REI is.

So what can we learn from this? Knowing your customer is as crucial as knowing your brand’s values. When a brand can show that its values are totally in line with its customer base, and its actions reinforce its values, people take notice. Sure, those profits will be missed, but consistency, as they say, is priceless.


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