"Will you go out with me?" #OptOutside

That’s one of the slogans from this year’s edition of REI’s absolutely BRILLIANT #OptOutside marketing campaign that is returning for its 2nd year and is on course to become its own Thanksgiving holiday tradition … right up there with turkey, pumpkin pie, and a good ol’ fashioned turkey bowl.

If you somehow missed all the buzz around this award-winning campaign (literally, won nearly every marketing award this year), here are the details of the original 2015 REI #OptOutside campaign that shocked the marketing and retail world:

  • REI closed all off their retail locations on Black Friday, the unofficial national holiday for retail stores (approximately 143 locations)
  • Gives a paid day off to all of their employees (approximately 12,000 employees)
  • The REI.com site featured a takeover screen encouraging visitors to #OptOutside, rather than big online sales
  • Goal: Instead of waiting in line and fighting with other shoppers over the last sleeping bag, #OptOutside – camp, hike, whatever it is you want to do … do it in the great outdoors.

This year, it’s bigger and better.  Approximately 275 local and national partners are participating this year.  Partners range from nonprofits and national parks to big corporations.  For example, Subaru will be donating a fleet of cars for New Yorkers to take their dogs and/or shelter dogs out into nature, Google is working with REI to support outdoor activity-focused nonprofits in Seattle and Austin, and numerous outdoor apparel and equipment brands will also promote the #OptOutside mission to reclaim Black Friday.  In addition, REI launched an outdoor activity finder to find nearby hiking trails, share pictures with fellow “outsiders”, and connect with nonprofits for continued interest in supporting the outdoors and outdoor recreation. 

The campaign is beautiful and genius for so many reasons, but as marketers there are a few takeaways we all can be reminded of from time to time.

1.       Know thy consumer – And empathize.

REI CEO, Jerry Stritzke, was quoted, "As a nation we're still spending over 90 percent of our lives indoors and it's a trend we need to tackle.”

OMG.  90% can’t be right (as I sit here realizing I was outside for a grand total of 1 hour today for a run)?!?  Just another reason we should all #OptOutside.

But it isn’t just about dropping mind-boggling stats like the above, it’s about understanding your consumer and their behavior.  REI is not known for huge discounts or blowout sales, but they have a very niche consumer that spends big dollars on apparel and equipment to enjoy the great outdoors.  While a sale here and there is appreciated by any customer, theirs isn’t planning on using that tent to camp outside waiting for their doors to open at 12am after a Thanksgiving feast.  They would much rather spend their Black Friday camping, hiking, rock climbing, or whatever it may be to explore while also working off that 2nd slice of pie.  It’s a passion, but also an activity that requires time to enjoy … and perhaps some high-quality gear from a retailer who shares your passion.

At the end of the day, consumers are people – and so are marketers!  Act like it.  Think, feel, and be human.  This campaign focuses on the values of their customer and employees, proves that REI “gets it” and is willing to sacrifice sales for the betterment of their community (albeit they are receiving positive and free press, but still!).  Brands that demonstrate that they share the same values and feelings as their customers will also have the most loyal customers.

Want to know what REI customers and employees are thankful for this Thanksgiving? Another day they can spend outdoors.

2.       Remember, and stay true to, the brand’s mission.

Fun Fact: REI was founded by a group of mountaineers.  REI’s overview is essentially a mission statement and commitment to their consumer, as well as the great outdoors.  “REI is a national outdoor retail co-op dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship…We are passionate about the outdoors and committed to promoting environmental stewardship and increasing access to outdoor recreation through volunteerism, gear donations and financial contributions.”

It’s one thing to provide a service, it’s another to declare a passion.  All mission statements include a core purpose.  REI’s mission is to live and breathe the outdoors through their actions and service, and while they are a business that has a “bottom line” like any other, this campaign shows they understand their consumer and share the same passions. 

Because this campaign is so “on brand” for REI, it doesn’t feel like a PR stunt.  While they are getting a ton of free press, it’s been received as genuine and inspirational.  Customers know when they are being marketed to so it’s imperative brands understand how their voice comes across to the consumer so their campaigns are heard as friendly invitations to indulge in a passion.

3.       Communicate

Marketing is really a conversation between the brand and the consumer.  You have to listen to the audience to know what they like, feel, want, need, etc.  REI’s campaign includes a social component and allows participants to share their #OptOutside plans and pictures with others.  Not only are they servicing their customers’ needs, but they are also collecting data and consumer insights through this engagement.

The more you communicate, share, and have an open dialogue with your audience, the more you will learn about their needs so you can better service them now and in the future. 

4.       Timing

Black Friday is a great opportunity for REI to set itself apart from major retail chains and make an impact with their customers, but that campaign wouldn’t make sense for all brands.  Black Friday may not be a day your customers purchase your product or visit your store and you don’t need to close your doors to appeal to your consumers’ inner desires. 

Try to identify opportunities where you can make the most impact and create a campaign that resonates with your target audience, tap into what they really want when they purchase your product, and evoke emotion.  These can be small or large campaigns targeting niche or broad groups, but if they are speaking to the heart of the consumer they will prove effective and impactful.

Many brands carry the same messaging throughout the year with few seasonal themes and sales spikes.  Brands that are present, aware, and listening to what’s currently on the customers’ minds can mobilize and leverage social media for quick activations. 

There are a few brands doing this really well in the Seattle area, but one that comes to mind is Cupcake Royale – If you follow them on Instagram (which I highly recommend), whether it’s Pride, football season, or #NationalIceCreamDay, they are constantly monitoring their consumers conversation to see “what’s hot” or “trending” and deliver seemingly-impromptu social media specials that lead to long lines of eager costumers.  While cupcakes, ice cream, and donuts aren’t always the answer, Cupcake Royale is developing a relationship with their consumers by showing their understanding and support whether celebrating or mourning.  They also share images of their fans living the experience of their campaigns – from waiting in line, to when they finally get that luscious cupcake in their hands, to that first heavenly bite.  They have tapped into the emotions of their consumer and it pays off “Royaley” (Sorry, I had to.).

Using the above as an example, there is likely an untapped special time or event for every brand’s audience.  How does the brand build and demonstrate empathy while fueling the passion during those special times?  Dive in, engage and communicate with consumers.  Once you identify the opportunity, the next steps of planning and activation will become more clear.

#OptOutside is reminding us of the basics.  It doesn’t have to be a big nation-wide campaign to strike a chord and have a positive impact with a consumer base.  “The basics” can be implemented on all social media platforms for quick and cost-effective activations.  Whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or another social media platform, your brand can leverage those platforms to demonstrate and build empathy by being present and listening to the consumer voice.

Back to the basics.

Happy Thanksgiving, be thankful.  And #OptOutside this Black Friday - Cyber Monday is way better anyway :)