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How REI Is Keeping #OptOutside A Black Friday Tradition

“What started as a moment has kind of become a movement.” Chief Creative Officer Ben Steele talks about keeping the campaign inspiring.

How REI Is Keeping #OptOutside A Black Friday Tradition
[Photo: courtesy of sduncanvideo/REI]

When it launched in 2015, many of the bajillions of media impressions REI racked up with its #OptOutside campaign were a result of the sheer counter-intuitiveness of it all. A major retailer closing its doors on one of the biggest shopping days of the year is news worth talking about. For the co-op to make good on its commitment to the outdoors by closing down to give employees a paid day off that they could enjoy in the fresh air was cool in and of itself. But what took #OptOutside to a higher level was how the brand also created content and tools for people to use in their pursuit of fun outside: trail guides, expert advice, and more. What could have been an admirable stunt became an entire platform.

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This year, REI is keeping #OptOutside going with what it calls an “experiential search engine,” essentially a hashtagged library of pictures, videos, and more from people all over the world who are offering up their favorite places and activities in the outdoors for others to discover. The images are pulled entirely from #OptOutside user-generated content on Instagram, augmented with real-time information about locations and experiences. For example, if you click on an image of a hiker, you’ll also see the name of the specific trail featured, the trail’s difficulty rating, directions to the trailhead, recent user reviews of the experience, and related expert advice from REI. Leading up to Black Friday, the brand is also releasing 20 films featuring this type of community-created content.

In its first year, #OptOutside got tons of attention and won almost every major advertising award. For REI’s chief creative officer Ben Steele, the strategy behind keeping its momentum going starts by focusing on its original purpose.

“Why did we make this decision? Why did we take this action? It is about closing our doors, paying our employees, and inviting the world to join us, but it’s really about enabling more people to get outdoors, in more ways, more often,” says Steele.

While the first year of the blockbuster campaign got most of its attention for closing the stores and giving employees a paid day off, last year the brand brought more partner companies into the fold, including Google and Subaru, and launched an outdoor activity finder on the campaign’s website, where people could find nearby trails and parks, upload photos, and find nonprofits that help protect the outdoors. This year the goal was to find a creative way to bring all of it even closer together.

“What started as a moment has kind of become a movement,” Steele says. “It’s about behavior change and giving people tools to do something different with their time. The experiential search engine idea is really about: if we’ve invested in helping people get out, enabling them to get out there, how can we connect those dots even more? Inspiring them with the stories of people living the life outdoors, enabling them with awesome trail content that gives them the functionality to get out there, augmenting that with classes and events and the best expert advice, and connecting the co-op into one place and one experience.”

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Given the success it’s seen over the last two years, you’d think keeping #OptOutside going would be a cakewalk for REI marketers. But Steele says the challenge lies in making it even better and more useful without sacrificing simplicity.

“There are challenges in continuing this work on a couple of fronts, and the first is really being laser-focused on the purpose, the reason we’re doing it, ” he says. “We’re really lucky that we’ve got an 80-year-old co-op. It’s not like we have to invent what it stands for and what it’s all about. When we need to be reminded, we have generations of members and visionary leaders to look to. So the number one focus is to keep it simple. Why did we do what we did in 2015? Why are we adding to it? Does it help enable that? Does it make it brighter? Does it make it better? Or does it just make it more complicated?”

Trail guides and expert advice are great, but perhaps#OptOutside’s biggest draw, even among people who measure hikes in city blocks, is how it represented a brand putting its people and overall mission above short-term sales. Make no mistake, shutting down all retail and online sales on Black Friday is no small sacrifice. In the past, it was a Top 5 sales day for REI. But the payoff in putting action behind words has been invaluable.

“We talk a lot about the power of authenticity and the power of truth, and it’s got to be there in your stories, but it’s got to be there in your actions, too,” says Steele.

And that philosophy resonates just as strongly within the co-op itself.

“When we first announced this at the co-op internally, there were people who worked retail, with us and elsewhere, who had never had that day off,” says Steele. “The emotional power it had for them to know that on Thanksgiving they’re focused on their family and doing something awesome with the people [they] love the next day, versus having to go into work? That power hasn’t faded.”

About the author

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

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