Social Spotlight: REI’s #OptOutside and how a campaign becomes a movement
Welcome to the Social Spotlight, where we dive deep into what we love about a brand’s approach to a specific social campaign. From strategy through execution and results, we’ll examine what makes the best brands on social tick — and leave you with some key takeaways to consider for your own brand’s social strategy.
Many brands focus their marketing efforts on building an always-on, consistent social strategy with the goal of remaining top-of-mind with consumers year-round. But REI has proven that there’s something to be said for focusing on a specific moment in time and owning it like no other brand ever has. And in an age where 70% of consumers indicate that it’s important for brands to take a socio-political stand, finding a social good angle to support with your campaign has never been so vital. But once you’ve made the initial splash – the most successful of which are built around an idea the reframes an entire set of cultural norms – how do you keep the momentum going year after year to ensure that your annual campaign continues to build equity for your brand? This week’s featured brand, outdoor retailer REI, is a study in sustained growth for a radical idea.
Recreational Equipment, Inc. was founded as a co-op in 1938 by a climbing enthusiast couple, Lloyd and Mary Anderson, with the goal of making outdoor gear available and affordable for others like them. The spirit of accessible exploration has driven REI from the beginning, and this consistent laser focus on a distinct brand value is what makes a campaign like #OptOutside, launched 77 years after REI’s founding in 2015, so instantly resonant and effective. Initially conceived as a stand against the ghastly American consumerism of Black Friday, the messaging around #OptOutside was inclusive of everyone who would benefit from not being able to shop at REI stores or on the website (and spending time outdoors instead) – both consumers and REI employees.
Not opening stores or processing online payments on the biggest shopping day of the year was a stunning statement rooted in what REI has stood for since its founding, and the impact it made was a marketing coup. The 2015 inaugural campaign netted a 7000% increase in social impressions and more than 2.7 billion media impressions in the first 24 hours, not to mention an absurd 9 Cannes Lions for REI’s PR agency, Edelman.
As impressive as those results are, the initial shock value of REI’s business counter-intuitive stand drove much of the media interest. That left REI with the challenge of growing and evolving #OptOutside in the subsequent years to build the campaign from a one-time PR stunt into an annual American tradition. That meant expanding the purpose and goals of the campaign to be bigger, more audacious and more impactful by growing #OptOutside from an individualized experience to a cultural movement.
And that’s where things start to get interesting, as far as results are concerned: According to Sprout’s listening data, the #OptOutside hashtag was used 156K times on Twitter and Instagram during the inaugural campaign in 2015. By 2019’s iteration, that had increased a respectable 66% to 259K uses. But engagement with those hashtags was up a whopping 3000% over the same time period, from 338K engagements in 2015 to 11.6 million in 2019. That means not only were people participating, they were engaging their friends and followers in conversation about #OptOutside. Pair that kind of peer-to-peer engagement with the overall 91% positive sentiment rating for the campaign over its history and you have the makings of a movement.
- Goals: Brand awareness and perception were the initial goals for the 2015 launch of #OptOutside, driven primarily by media and social impressions and dependent on the boldness and novelty of REI’s stand against consumerism in favor of spending time in nature. But as REI looked to extend the campaign, the clear link between supporting environmental causes (you know, so there’s an outside to opt for) and growing the reach and impact of the movement became clear.
- Offline connection: As REI partnered with nonprofits, starting with the National Parks Service in 2016 and expanding to more than 700 partner organizations by 2018, the “good purpose” focus of the campaign took center stage. By 2019, as the global threat of climate change dominated news headlines and contributed to an already charged political environment in America, REI repositioned #OptOutside. Initially a call for individuals to connect with nature instead of consumerism, the 2019 campaign sought to extend both the purpose and the timeframe of the movement. Sub-branded as “Opt to Act: 52 weeks of action to leave the world better than we found it,” the latest incarnation of #OptOutside finds REI recommitting to reducing its own environmental impact. The brand has pledged that it will be a zero-waste company (meaning that 90% of waste is diverted from landfills) by the end of 2020 by expanding its gear trade-in and rental programs and eliminating poly packaging for shipped orders.
- Key channels: Twitter and Instagram have carried the bulk of the conversation around #OptOutside, with more than 14.2 million uses of the hashtag currently on Instagram. One of the more inspired elements of the campaign from its inception is the partnership between REI and its employees to bring #OptOutside to life: From year one, employees have been encouraged to share what they’re doing with their day off on social or on Medium, with the results collected and shared on the campaign microsite. It’s certainly not new to use employees as advocates, but REI gave them motivation (no work on Black Friday) and a platform (the campaign) in which to shine as brand ambassadors.
#OptOutside is one of the most recognizable and successful campaigns of the ‘10s, because it was built on long-standing brand values by a brand that is unafraid of bucking convention. The distribution, partner strategy and inclusiveness of the campaign drove significant cultural awareness, engagement and participation because REI gave us all a platform for choosing the road less traveled.
- Don’t shy away from changing your goals as your campaign grows up. Stewarding a movement means the foundation may start with your brand, but it rarely goes beyond that unless your audience sees a way to participate and make it their own. And that means being willing to step back, relinquish control and watch what they do with your idea. REI won in part because it leaned hard into brand awareness in the beginning but was able and willing to shift focus to engagement and advocacy goals as the campaign matured and the audience shaped the movement to meet their needs.
- Have a lot of partners. Engaging in mutually beneficial partner relationships with other brands and nonprofits allows you to extend the reach and relevance of the message, not to mention the ability to borrow the equity (and share your own) of your partners’ audiences.
- Rethink employee advocacy. It’s simple to ask your employees to advocate on your brand’s behalf, but the real power lies in asking yourself whether you’ve given them intrinsic motivation to do so. REI could have asked its employees to share the message encouraging consumers to opt outside on Black Friday but still asked the employees themselves to come into work. And many of them would have, out of obligation or even concern about their job security if they didn’t. But instead, the brand created space for its most vital brand advocates to not only participate but to lead the way for consumers. If your employee advocacy strategy stops at asking your colleagues to share your brand’s content, it’s time to reconsider how to build a more symbiotic relationship. The content will be better and your employees will be happier to share it.
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