100 Years of Advancing Destinations

3 Lessons From REI's #OptOutside Campaign

Author: Jim McCaul
Posted: March 03, 2016
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On the biggest day in the world of retail, REI did the unthinkable. The outdoor gear and sporting goods company closed the doors for its 143 stores and encouraged its employees and customers to opt-out of shopping and spend time outside. Over 1.5 million people joined the movement online using the #OptOutside hashtag. REI's much-lauded decision is an example of what happens when a brand lives up to its mission – choosing to walk the walk and follow a higher mission than maximizing short-term profits.  REI exhibited a truly empathetic understanding of its customers’ and employees’ values and used that understanding to create a movement that customers responded to with overwhelming support and loyalty.

During last week’s webinar on Destination Brand Development, Bruce MacMillan, President & CEO of Bandwidth Management and Consulting and Gary Sherwin, President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach Inc. emphasized that brands are not simply logos and tag lines created by agencies. Brands are a synthesis of perceived community, industry, and marketplace realities. Shaping them into an authentic and compelling compilation of experiences and stories takes leadership and vision, as well as the ability to engage both internal and external audiences to develop the destination’s future.

Here are three lessons that destinations can learn from REI’s #OptOutside campaign:

Have a conversation

Just a few years ago, companies across the globe were in a state of panic. The rise of social media and the new marketplace meant that they were losing control of their brand! REI's move signals a massive shift in the way companies are taking back control.

The reality is that consumers are more skilled at, and have better technology for, managing their many brand relationships than ever before. This is the current state of consumerism  empowered, entrepreneurial and enabled. They weed out or ignore companies that fail to sufficiently understand their needs and deliver value to them. 

Building meaningful relationships with customers  as opposed to continual, even incessant, push messaging, surveying and feedback requests – has always shown greater transparency and built trust. It’s simply more accessible, and also a lot noisier, now given the social channels available to brands. The challenge is to harvest the resulting intelligence for further product enhancement.

Differentiation

With just about every retailer, both online and brick-and-mortar, participating in Black Friday festivities is not about brand differentiation – it’s a price war. Across the board, marketers use the same compelling reasons to convince consumers to shop at their stores — special discounts on the hottest items and a continuous pipeline of deals throughout the day. REI used one of the oldest marketing strategies of “doing the opposite” to create differentiation — and it worked.

This concept of differentiation is critically important, as an ever-increasing number of destinations worldwide open up to, and invest in tourism. Destinations must find a way to differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd. 

To do so, destinations must empathize with their most desired visitors. As always, the rules of marketing have not changed. Differentiation is about putting forth those aspects of the destination that are most unique and align best with your target segments of travelers, even at the risk of alienating others. REI may have put off customers and stakeholders alike if all they are looking for is a great deal and windfall gains, but perhaps those are not worth keeping around. Instead, they were able to strengthen their brand and build trust and loyalty from their most valuable customers and employees  those who believe in what REI believes. Companies that truly "get" their customers share their customers' fundamental values  whether that's the importance of enjoying the outdoors like REI, or unleashing creativity like Converse. Armed with this information, companies can then create messaging, products, services and experiences that resonate with and are more relevant to their customers' lives and needs.

Your Brand Begins At Home

One of the greatest aspects of REI’s #OptOutside campaign was that it showcased the company’s values, not only to its consumers but to its employees as well. Your brand is your culture; your culture is your brand. And there are no bigger ambassadors of a company than the employees themselves. 

For destinations, this means ensuring that your brand essence aligns with the culture of your residents and local stakeholders. Only then will your brand embody the authenticity that the new consumer yearns for. 

Organizations whose messaging doesn’t align with the values of their constituents enter a dangerous territory. Just ask the Republican Party.