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What retailers can learn from REI’s marketing success

What retailers can learn from REI’s marketing success

Two years after the launch of its celebrated Opt Outside campaign, the outdoor retailer is engaging customers with a new brand message.


Two years ago, REI made a bold decision to close its doors on Black Friday, instead urging employees to enjoy the great outdoors on one of the biggest retail days of the year — one that combined with Thanksgiving Day generates a whopping $12 billion in sales for the industry. REI took the gamble that what would be lost in store sales would be made up for in brand loyalty — and it won.

“It was a high risk scenario,” Laura Swapp, director of public affairs and marketing at REI, told Retail Dive of the Opt Outside campaign. But it was ultimately a decision, she said, that was good for its employees and one they hoped would resonate with the co-op’s customers.

The campaign earned the retailer enormous kudos for creativity from industry insiders, sparked an anti-Black Friday movement among retailers and, most importantly for REI, rallied brand loyalty among its environmentally-conscious consumers. The campaign, which urged the sharing of personal stories tagged with the campaign hashtag, performed particularly well on social media, helping earn the retailer a “genius” ranking in 2015 and 2016 on the social media dimension of L2’s Digital IQ Index: Activewear.

Once the initial shock value wore off in 2015, the campaign faded into an annual day off for employees as well as a year-round brand sentiment that fits snuggly with the retailer’s penchant to support the outdoors. As the campaign becomes engrained in the nature of REI, a new effort has emerged — this time to take on advancing gender equity in the outdoor retail space.

In April, REI launched Force of Nature, a multi-pronged effort that included a $1 million investment in 26 nonprofits that support women in the outdoors, the development of 1,000 new events for women and a stepped-up effort to expand its offerings of high-tech gear for women.

“There’s a big gap with how women are represented in the outdoor industry,” Swapp said. “There’s a gear gap, there’s a gap around who the heroes are, what stories get told, and we felt we had done enough work internally to take on that conversation.”

Although the campaign, which Swapp describes as the company’s most comprehensive marketing endeavor, was executed purely as a brand effort, the company’s full-price women’s business was up 20% during the height of its run. “Our sales went way up, which said there’s this real interesting connection when you do something worth talking about, that people will come and shop with you. That was not the KPI for this campaign, but we definitely saw it deliver,” she said.

Matt Sargent, senior vice president of retail for Frank N. Magid Associates, considers the campaign to be on the cutting-edge of marketing, and it needs to be, he told Retail Dive. For specialty retailers like REI, the campaign’s success hits on three key takeaways for smaller retailers: differentiation, a focused brand identity and engagement.


Read more from RetailDive here. 

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