For the third year in a row, outdoor retailer REI is inviting Americans to skip shopping on Black Friday and #OptOutside instead, offering a new digital way to inspire them about where to go and what to do.
The Seattle-based co-op has enjoyed broad success with the effort since its launch in 2015, not just with the 12,000 employees who get a paid day off and the 7 million people who participated last year, but also the 700 organizations and brands that have joined in the event.
This year, Alex Thompson, vice president of brand, stewardship and impact, says REI wanted to make the effort more interactive. “We wondered if we were doing enough to enable people to think differently about getting outdoors, and how we could help them go deeper.”
The result is a site that that has an experiential search engine, enabling users to type in a location and activities, from the obvious, like great hikes near Los Angeles, to the less expected, like walks for dads and best dog adventures. “We don’t think anyone has done anything like this before,” he says. “You get these curated experiences, organized by hashtags, as well as practical advice, like what kind of food to bring.” There are also 20 user-generated films.
He says sheperding the program each year has been a learning experience for REI, the biggest co-op in the country, with some 16 million members. The launch “completely blew us away, in terms of the response,” he tells Marketing Daily.
He says REI execs knew the idea was risky, but that it also had tremendous potential for inspiring both employees and members. “We wanted to do something for members, and more broadly for society, at a time of year that has perhaps lost its path. And it is entirely tied to our North Star, which is that a life outdoors is a life well lived.”
The success of the first year created a different kind of challenge in 2016 when so many more brands and partners wanted to pile on. “Very often, a brand will say 'How can we take control of this?’ But we are a co-op, so that’s a little different. It made sense for us to share it with any organization that was committed to the idea of a life outdoors,” he says. “So essentially, we decided to give away the keys.”
That meant brands did many things: Subaru, for instance, turned it into a “Day for All Dogkind,” working with the ASPCA to ferry urban and shelter dogs to the great outdoors for a day. Google partnered with local outdoorsy nonprofits. Some national and state parks decided to lower or eliminate fees for the day, and hundreds of conservation groups and trail associations also participated. And Unilever joined in with its “Dirt is Good” initiative, aimed at getting kids outside more.
The campaign generated plenty of awareness and engagement for REI, which stands for Recreational Equipment Inc. (It had annual revenues of $2.56 billion in 2016, and spent $71.5 million on advertising.)
But while #OptOutside, which has won a kayak-load of marketing and advertising awards, is fighting a bit an uphill battle in terms of changing behavior. In reality, fewer Americans spend any time in nature: The Outdoor Industry Association reports that only 48.6%, about 144 million, of Americans reported participating in even one outdoor activity in 2016. (For those that do get outside, running, jogging and trail running are the most popular.)
But people want more of Mother Nature: The research also asks what kind of adventures they aspire to, and outdoorsy things interest people more than sports, fitness or leisure events. (Camping is in the top-three most appealing activities, in all age groups.)
Many retail experts detect declining interest in Black Friday shopping, though, and Thompson thinks the #OptOutside message has the potential for a much broader appeal, bolstered by growing research that any time spent outdoors is healthy, calming and restorative. “And life isn’t getting any simpler or less complicated,” he says. “I hope that in 20 years, we can still be doing this.”