Tracking the Athletic Hunter: MTN OPS' Unique DTC Target

MTN OPS produces a wide range of energy, workout and nutrition drinks, which makes it sound like any number of trendy DTC brands. Not so. This is a brand with a very specific and different target in
mind. The hunting and sportsmen segment. As MTN OPS CEO and co-founder Trevor Farnes tells us this week. You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.

MediaPost: Tell me about the origin story for the brand, and why you thought we needed another nutrition and energy line of products.

Trevor Farnes: It actually started about four years prior to the Brand MTN OPS coming on board. At first it was this mission to improve my father's life, but also to find a product that would help in the prevention of heart disease for my family. [My brothers] helped me buy the first 350 bottles, and I started developing the website and designing the labels and all of that. And the first person that bought it on my website was a chiropractor. I started knocking every door out there I could - chiropractor, naturopathic doctors, and such, and started to build a brand within that naturopathic space. And within a few years had built up a few thousand doctors that were buying this product. 



I was introduced to a few guys that own a marketing firm. They were doing most of their marketing within the hunting space. And I just asked, is there a place for products like I've created in a hunting community? And their eyes lit. This is 2014 at this time. They said, there's this big hunter athlete movement that's occurring right now with brands like Under Armor, Yeti, SITKA, and there's no real consumable brand leading the way as an authoritative figure with supplements. And there really wasn't a product that spoke their language, and a brand that was resonating with them. I had developed these products that were long-lasting energy, increased blood flow type products which helped a hunter out on the mountain in an incredible way.

And so, we found that this product would resonate well, if we can brand it right, if we can message it right. We can go after a community that's kind of been forgotten about and untouched, and behind mainstream media and such. We decided to do it, and in 2014 we launched the brand MTN OPS.

MP: That's quite a trajectory. Now move us forward into the current footprint. And your growth and appearance, especially at retail.

Farnes: We were a digitally native brand for the first few years. It was all online. After about a year we got a call from Cabela's. Cabela's was our first retailer that said, hey, we love your message, we love your core values, we love what you guys are representing. And it's new to this audience that needs it. And you guys are fueling a passion that is almost a cultish passion. They might hunt 7 or 10 days a year, but they're talking about it, dreaming about it, sleeping about it, eating about it all the rest of those days. Cabela's was the first, and then we started to branch out into a lot of specialty retailers within the hunting industry like Sportsman's Warehouse, SCHEELS, Bass Pro shops when they came together with Cabela's. Today, about  30% of our sales are through retail. The remainder still are through our website and through Amazon. 

MP: Let’s drill into this demo - where they live, how they may be different from other DTC demos. Obviously, they have day jobs, they're not professional hunters. What is the profile?

Farnes: It's a 21- to 48-year-old demographic that's at our core. And 10% of them live in the West. If you look at it, the hunting industry as a whole, most of them are in the Midwest and back East. But the West is tip of the spear. It is the influencers out here that everyone aspires to be - this Western hunter back country in the mountains, hunting elk with a bow - that is tip of the spear. The East and the Midwest are influenced heavily by the 10% that are leading this charge. A lot of our major influencers are from Utah, Oregon, Washington, or California. But you've got individuals that are working long shifts every day, they're blue-collar workers, they're hardworking Americans that are in it for their family, they're in it for their community, they're out in the land, they're protecting God's land. That kind of stuff is important to them. Conservation is important to them.

And so that's our demographic. And I would say 75 to 80% of it is male. But the female demographic is growing rapidly right now, and there's some incredible huntresses of the industry, like an Eva Shockey, who's a brand ambassador of ours. Her father, Jim Shockey, is the godfather of the industry. We have an Eva Shockey series of products that speaks specifically to this female demographic that is on the rise. I've got three of my own beautiful daughters. They all hunt, and I've got a wife that hunts. [Women are] really driving a lot of momentum right now in this space.

MP: Well, that’s the important distinction, I think, is that unlike general digital media hogs like me, they're very deliberate about their digital use, to connect with this community. And that has to call for a different marketing strategy than a typical DTC. 

Farnes: Very deliberate way, and so we speak to it in a very deliberate way. And we focus our attention there where they want to be found, how they want to be spoken to. These are not individuals that will put up with fraud. We're a business that's built by hunters for hunters. And had we come at it from a different approach, we would have been sniffed out right away. But we are living the brand that they are associating with. We're a part of their community. They see us living it. It's the passion they love. Building a community where we're all sharing hunting stories but we're also staring, hey, here's what's working for me from a fitness level. And we help people train inside to conquer outside. They're still approaching a lot of their wellness routines in a similar fashion to a sports nutrition industry. They want to be educated on supplementation. But 70% of our consumers are taking supplements for the first time.

So that's how new, our consumer base is to supplementation. Our biggest hurdle is educating them on why this is important. And then allowing them to then go out and experience the passion they love in the mountains. And they come back and say I did that so much better, I enjoyed it so much more. But then, on top of that, these are husbands, wives, fathers.  They're saying I'm only hunting 7 to 10 days a year. The products in the community help me do that better than I've ever done before, but I'm a father every day of the year, and you should see me as a father, you should see me as a husband, I'm keeping up with my kids, I'm playing ball with them in the backyard, I'm chasing them up the stairs at night.

MP: What form does that actually take in media and in these social networks and groups? You have a very active ambassador outreach program and you're using influencers. How much of your marketing work is really around working with influencers, and how do you manage them? 

Farnes: Yeah, the approach with influencers they fall into a few different levels or tiers, and that depends on influence and how much notoriety they have in the industry, how much credibility they can bring. Even within the retail space, a lot of those retailers, at first, saw that we were with so and so, and that immediately gave them some sense of credibility that Jim Shockey would put his MTN OPS shirt on and promote the product. 

And then on social media, whether it's them speaking for us or we're utilizing their likeness, our brand is all about trust. We have individuals within MTN OPS that are influencers for our brand. They work for MTN OPS, but they also have an influence. We just had an individual that I was telling you about who just broke the Guinness book of world record for number of pull ups, 8,100 pull ups in 23 and a half hours right here in our gym. We've got an office gym, it's an incredible gym, we do a lot of events there. We have photo and video assets that are created there by our marketing team all the time. 

MP: How much paid media do you do, and what sort and where?

Farnes: The main realms are Facebook and Google and then, obviously we do a lot on the affiliate channels, buying media through those affiliates as well. And it's a decent portion of our spend. I mean a every month I would say 80% of our marketing dollars are going towards paid media. And on our website, we've got sample programs that bring people in. It gives them a chance too. And that's usually where we're directing people. We're directing people to an opportunity to taste and try our product, and if they can taste it and feel the difference, then we've got an incredible retention rate. And the brand pulls people in because we've broken down barriers, we've broken down walls, and we've let them into our lives. They can see who we are, what we're about, they read our core values, but more than reading it, they see us living them. And people want to see that, they want to see that authenticity and people practicing what they preach. 

MP: We can't talk about your brand without talking about one of its central missions, which is End Hunger. You have donated over 5.2 million meals as of today.

Farnes: Prior to starting this business my wife and I had started up multiple businesses and had seen some failures. During this this time we had two little girls, one little boy that came not too long after that. We always call it our seven years of famine. And through those difficult times we really focused on food. I mean, sometimes, actually, often, the mortgage wasn't being paid, the car bills weren't being paid, but we had to utilize that money for food. And oftentimes there wasn't a lot in the pantry. And so our eyes were opened. We gained some experience through those difficult times, and some perspective that we felt God was allowing us to learn some things that would benefit us in the future. I love a quote that says, “You’re in the most powerful position to serve the person you once were.” We were building empathy during those times, understanding what it was like as a parent to struggle to provide food for your children. 

And that's what we branded it, operation Conquer Hunger. And with every order that comes through MTN OPS, we take a portion of that resource, one of the loafs and the fishes, and we multiply, and we donate a meal to a child in need. We hold events all around the country.

MP: And is this another case where you're educating your hunter audience on the benefits of this charity and how it maps against some of their other values? 

Farnes: I think you're right, but I think that my story's not uncommon. A lot of people have either been in a financial difficulty situation as children or as adults. And so, they hear the story, and they think, Okay, I've been there where the struggle was to buy food, and it was hard to pay the bills. What we've done that's different is, we're doing something about it. We're telling a story that resonates with them because they've either been there or seen it. And now they're saying, Okay, somebody's doing something about it. And I could be a part of that community.

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