Making A Movement: REI’s #OptOutside Turns Branding into Meaningful Action

In our exploration of successful, authentic brands, we’ve discovered a number of recurring themes. Brands that stand out in the minds of consumers aren’t shy about sharing their purpose. They’re aware of and intentional about the value they’re promising to their customers and how they deliver it. They know that a great customer experience really starts with taking care of their employees. They understand the power of words (especially taglines) in communicating their value, and they back those words up with action.

One enduringly successful brand, the outdoor lifestyle-focused REI (which is celebrating 80 years this year), has taken the concept of brand action to new heights in recent years. Their OptOutside movement boldly reshapes the status quo among retailers and provides a powerful model for brands that want to turn their brand image into a signifier of something greater.

Looking Inside OptOutside

Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, has exploded in recent years into the high holiday of consumerism. As Sarah Pruitt writes for History, “in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city…”. The term gained widespread use in the 1980’s and the phenomenon spread as retailers leveraged discounts and deals to entice holiday shoppers. In 2017, American Marketing Association reveals, “U.S. retailers earned a record $7.9 billion… an increase of nearly 18% from a year ago.”

In the midst of increasing retail gains and in-store chaos, REI decided to make a different, surprising choice. As Black Friday 2015 approached, the retailer introduced #OptOutside, “a campaign centered around (the brand’s) decision to close all of its stores on the biggest shopping day of the year and pay all of its employees to spend time outdoors with family and friends instead,” AdWeek explains. While other stores are requiring employees to work long, tumultuous hours the day after Thanksgiving, REI employees are encouraged to spend the day doing what they love.

While it may be an unorthodox choice, the campaign (which included a kickoff print ad in the New York Times, multiple TV spots, and an online “meme generator” allowing consumers to share their #OptOutside experiences) ultimately paid off in a variety of ways. For starters, it won a slew of advertising awards, including the coveted Titanium Grand Prix at The 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Ultimately, the campaign snowballed and “more than 150 additional retailers and the National Parks department announced their plans to participate in #OptOutside.”

But OptOutside is so much more than a brilliant marketing move; it’s an authentic outgrowth of REI’s brand identity, value system, and promise to customers.

Action Speaks Louder Than Words

Ben Steele, who became REI’s first Chief Creative Officer in 2014, was part of the meeting that started the OptOutside movement and has since become its public face. In a brief profile in the March 2017 issue of Southwest Magazine (which is not available online), Steele spoke to the importance of OptOutside and how he understands it as a pioneering example of REI’s commitment to action. “The power of #OptOutside lies in real action,” he said. “We led with our purpose and put employees first, and that made it easy to understand why it was the right choice for REI. We’re a different kind of company because we’re willing to take a different type of action.”

This commitment to exploring different actions is baked into the brand’s DNA. As an outdoors outfitter, REI is all about preparing its customers to find new pathways, take calculated risks, and explore uncharted territory. The company’s actions mirror the aspirations of their customer base, just as they hope their values inspire a different way of looking at what it means to make a purchase. REI enables adventure, activity, and exploration of the outdoors, and the OptOutside movement is a clear, unassailable expression of that brand.

In Adweek, Steele says “Obviously at face value it seems crazy, but it was all about giving our people the day off and inviting others to join us. Part of this job is about storytelling, but when you can take an action and show people rather than just telling them, it can be really powerful.” OptOutside has earned a rousing chorus of praise for its brand and life-affirming message. Eidson & Partners adds our voice to that chorus.

Brands that find success through taking a stand for what they believe in earn the respect not only of marketers and brand-makers but of legions of dedicated, empowered customers.

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