How Values And Purpose Made REI’s #OptOutside A Big Winner At Cannes

REI chief creative officer Ben Steele on what the campaign’s success says about the power of a purpose-driven strategy over marketing spin.

How Values And Purpose Made REI’s #OptOutside A Big Winner At Cannes

One of the biggest themes across the presentations and conversations among the brands, marketers, and agencies at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity was the increasing influence and effectiveness of purpose and progressive thinking. Now, these are often tossed around as buzzwords to make a brief or executive quote look nice. But here, whether it was Deutsch president Kim Getty showing the effect of brands using positive gender images, or Unilever CMO Keith Weed outlining the ways sustainability and progressive imagery are having a direct effect on the bottom line, more and more, these principles are being touted as a business requirement.


Perhaps most reflective of this has been the award-winning juggernaut of REI’s #OptOutside campaign, which won the Titanium Grand Prix on Saturday. If for some reason you weren’t one of its 6.7 billion media impressions, essentially the company closed its doors on Black Friday, encouraging its employees and everyone else to get out into the outdoors. Beyond the ad, starring REI chief exec Jerry Stritzke introducing the idea from a wide-open office, the brand also created a helpful online guide to hiking trails and other outdoor activities around the U.S.

The company said the brand’s social media impressions went up 7,000%, with 2.7 billion media impressions in 24 hours, while overall the campaign attracted 6.7 billion media impressions, 1.2 billion social impressions, and got more than 1.4 million people to spend the day outdoors. Meanwhile, more than 150 other companies joined REI to close their doors on Black Friday, and hundreds of state parks opened up for free.

If Cannes is the ad and marketing industry’s Oscars, than this is arguably Best Picture. The Titanium category is meant to honor work that breaks new ground, crosses boundaries, and pushes the industry forward. The win adds to the campaign’s Media and Promotions Grand Prix, picked up earlier in the week, and its run of wins at other industry awards like the D&ADs, and Best of Show at the One Show awards in May.

It all started with a pretty simple question every retailer in the world asks itself every year: How do we want to be represented during the holidays? REI chief creative officer Ben Steele says the answer came from a rather unexpected place but very quickly caught fire.

“Honestly, it started with a person inside the company, our head merchant actually asking us a question, ‘I know we could never do this, but what would happen if we closed on Black Friday?’ And we very quickly said, ‘Well, why couldn’t we do that?'” says Steele. “We talked about it, got excited, then started building a creative partnership with agency partners to bring the idea to life.”

Built together with its ad agency Venables Bell & Partners, as well as Edelman and Spark, Steele says the campaign’s biggest strength is how it was a good idea forged through the company’s core values–founded in 1938 by 23 climbers around their love of the outdoors, and how together they could live more of their lives outdoors.


“Almost eight decades later, when we really act as a brand as truly as we can to those core instincts of who we were from day one, I think it resonates,” says Steele. “We’ve been blown away from the response, and we’ve been thrilled with the way in which it did resonate, and it certainly exceeded our expectations in how it would. But at the same time–those questions of ‘How do you want to spend your time? What matters to you? What do you need to feel fulfilled in your life?’–I think a lot of people are feeling the same thing, that it’s not just about stuff. That it is about where you want to be, who you want to be with, and how do you want to live a life well lived. By inviting people to pause and think about that, we gave them a moment to ask and answer that same question.”

In terms of impact, Steele says the co-op’s membership and sales have seen big increases over the last year but is quick to say that the award-winning campaign is simply a piece of that. And there have been other benefits as well.

“One of my favorite anecdotes is, we saw a 90% increase in retail applications in the fourth quarter,” says Steele. “It was a moment that resonated, and some people said, ‘I want to be a part of this, that’s the kind of organization that I want to work for.’ Something that’s a bit bigger and purpose-led is really important to people.”

The impact of awards like the Cannes Lions allows Steele and the brand to be more self-assured in taking a bold stand. “It’s really validating and exciting for people to see that when you lead with your values and act on the core purpose of your brand, it works,” says Steele. “That gives you confidence to figure out how you continue to lead with those values, how you continue to lead with that purpose.”

For many, the Cannes Lions is an opportunity to see the best representation of the advertising and marketing business, and find lessons in strategic and creative process to apply to their own work. If there’s one lesson Steele says Opt Outside may offer others, it’s to make the tough decision to find meaningful ways to make work that not only sells a product but actually connects with people.

“I think every organization and brand has their truth and their purpose,” says Steele. “It can be hard to find, it takes courage to find it, but I think you have to be willing to take that journey. At the same time, do the thing that’s especially hard for us as organizations, to say not what I want from people, but what’s a truly relevant way of connecting with people. Where do you as an individual and a community, and us as a brand or community, find a point of intersection? It’s hard work, but it’s important work we have to do as an organization, as storytellers, as people who want to help brands connect with people.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.