REI Co-op: 'The Enemy Is Autopilot'

REI Co-op is lacing up the next phase of “Opt Outside,” its long-running brand platform. The multiyear effort builds on REI’s expanding community, launching on June 15 with a day of hundreds of free classes and events. The effort is targeting a younger consumer, who is more likely to equate time outdoors with mental health. Kristen Mooney, brand strategy lead for the Kent, Washington-based retailer, explains the new effort.

Retail Insider: REI launched “Opt Outside” way back in 2015 as a way to get people to spend Black Friday out in nature instead of at the mall, and it continues to resonate. How do you keep the idea fresh?

Kristen Mooney: A couple of years ago, we announced that we would be closed on Black Friday forever, and that felt like a big moment for us, a big commitment. And we started asking, "What does 'Opt Outside' mean? How do we make sure people feel that Black Friday feeling all year long? Culturally, what keeps people inside, especially in a post-pandemic world?"

We started to see that the real enemy is autopilot. We’re all busy, and let life get in the way of living.

Retail Insider: One way to spur action is through classes, events, and tour packages, which REI has been doing for decades. How do you help people link those to this “Opt Outside” feeling?

Mooney: We want to interrupt people's daily lives like we interrupted that Black Friday moment, and urge them to align their time with their values and get outside all year round.

Retail Insider: Even before the pandemic, REI successfully “owned” the idea that time outdoors is essential for mental health. Now, many brands focus on that. How do you stay different?

Mooney: One of the things that makes us a different brand is that we are a cooperative. We think a lot about how we work with customers, members, employees and partners to live our mission, connecting everyone to the power of the outdoors. So, we love that other brands are also saying, “Opt Outside.” We want to invite everyone to become part of this movement. We see those two words as shorthand for our mission and the bigger movement we believe in.

Retail Insider: Other athletic brands, like Brooks Running Shoes, are beginning to focus more on fitness as a communal wellness pursuit rather than a personal value. Do your events give you a head start in that line of thinking?

Mooney: We hope to tap into that and expand the community through our classes and events. They happen year-round and help people to get inspired and think about getting outside in a new way. Our local marketing events people have run clubs and events that do that.

We’re launching now because summer is one of our biggest seasons. People are getting outside and doing things, so we want to offer plenty of experiences when they're already in that mindset.

Retail Insider: Many retailers shy away from offering experiences. It’s not always easy to control the quality. I know you’re expecting at least 6,000 people to participate in this year’s #OptOutsideFreeDay events, and last year, more than 38,000 people participated in day activities. How do you market experiences so the outdoor community knows what you’re all about?

Mooney: In the past, we’ve used a more integrated approach. This “Opt Outside” launch moment is an opportunity for us to almost reintroduce experiences, celebrating the variety. We’re offering more than 300 classes for free, and then continuing those classes through the rest of the year. Most are taught by Green Vests, the store employees who are experts. Classes feel very personal and very local. This is the biggest expansion of those in several years.

Retail Insider: Can you say a little about the new creative? The talent looks a little younger and seems a little less …core REI. There’s a bird-watching video, for example. What vibe were you going for?

Mooney: We wanted to keep the spirit of REI, that excitement and inspiration that happens when you step outside, but in a way that felt a bit modern, a little fresh. Some of the scenes and actors are a little younger. They capture, we hope, that feeling of freedom when you slam your laptop shut and go outside. So, we are moving the brand forward from a visual perspective and finding a new way to stand out through our visual design systems.

Retail Insider: The “O” in “Opt Outside” is flushed all the way left. Why?

Mooney: One of the things that I love about this campaign, which we created entirely with our in-house agency, is that it communicates this call to action. The ads stretch beyond the page and pulls you outside to take a big breath of fresh air.

Retail Insider: Where is the campaign running?

Mooney: On all our channels and paid channels, including CTV and digital video. We’re also launching a partnership with [exercise app] Strava. And we will have an “Opt Outside” moment during Black Friday this year. This will be a multiyear brand campaign, which will continue to build equity.

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