In 2015, outdoor retailer REI changed the conversation around Black Friday, and won practically every advertising award on the planet, with #OptOutside, a campaign centered around REI’s decision to close all of its stores on the biggest shopping day of the year and pay all of its employees to spend time outdoors with family and friends instead.
Two years later, REI continues to evolve #OptOutside. New for Black Friday 2017 is what REI calls an “experiential search engine” at REI.com/optoutside, which collects user-generated content tagged #OptOutside on Instagram and combines it with real-time information about locations and experiences across the country. There will also be 20 UGC-heavy videos.
Adweek spoke with REI’s chief creative officer, Ben Steele, about the new activation, as well as what keeps #OptOutside fresh and differentiated in the marketplace. #OptOutside, he said, began as a program for employees, and that remains a key part of it. On Black Friday again this year, REI will close its 151 stores, process no online sales and pay all 12,000 employees not to come to work.
But #OptOutside has been adopted as a movement by consumers and by other companies and organizations, Steele added. Collecting that content, and organizing it with a search engine—in a way that’s inspirational but also practically useful—seemed like a great next step.
“We’ve been really blown away over the three years by what the impact and engagement with #OptOutside has been. It is not falsely humble to say our expectations for response were a heck of a lot more modest than what’s actually happened,” Steele said. “Millions of people who have used the platform of #OptOutside to tell their stories and celebrate their moments in the outdoors. That hashtag, #OptOutside, has become a part of the parlance of the outdoors. It’s a way people share their passion. That’s a view that we can see, but I’m not sure people can see that view themselves.”
The search engine now lets everyone see it, for free.
“You see a narrative of a life outdoors from the people who are actually living it, from someone who is summiting big mountains to someone who is stepping onto a trail for the first time,” says Steele. “We have 16 million members around the world. The notion that we could invent something more compelling around the outdoors than they could, would be foolish.”
#OptOutside was never meant to be a closed, REI-only campaign. It was meant to be a rallying cry. And indeed, more than 700 organizations have joined REI in supporting it in some form over the past two years. (One new partnership this year is with Lyft, which will be offering free rides to local parks this Friday in 10 cities—Portland, Ore., Phoenix, Denver, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Tucson, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.)
But the campaign remains powerfully connected to REI’s brand, Steele said, largely because closing on Black Friday wasn’t just a stunt but was an expression of REI’s core purpose.
“The ability to claim that moment and say, this is about our values and not about transactions, is still pretty differentiating,” he said. “This is going to sound New Agey, but I think it’s a time for people to pause and be intentional about, How do I spend my time? Who am I with? Where am I going? Am I in the places that matter most to me? Or am I just going with the flow?”
#OptOutside is also, of course, still a very big deal for REI employees.
“It’s a top five sales day for us—or it was,” says Steele. “The reaction we got from employees when we announced it was huge, and really powerful. I’ve been in retail for 30 years, and I’ve never had this day off. I’ve spent Thanksgiving thinking about getting to my job the next day. That power is an annual thing. It’s not like it’s diminished over time.”
Closing on Black Friday was also a major leap for the company to take in that first year, particularly for execs with lifelong experience in retail. It was counterintuitive in the extreme, and the immediately impact on the bottom line was, of course, daunting. But it was always about building something bigger.
“It was honestly about transforming our culture a little bit, too,” Steele said. “As a retailer, it’s easy to get addicted to the daily sales report, and to feel like the thing I just did was either genius or stupid based on what happens the next morning. For us, this was, first and foremost, about our employees. If this is also a galvanizing and powerful moment to demonstrate to each other what it means to be a co-op, that’s great. If we can do that externally, that’s even better. And if it becomes a platform for people to share their outdoor stories, that’s the best.”
The key metrics, he added, are “less about sales and more about a healthy brand, a brand that’s got a relationship with customers, that’s got a healthy relationship with its employees, where you see engagement on both fronts. And for that, we feel it’s been a huge success.”
One special metric, too, is behavior change—which goes beyond brand affinity and into deeper aspects of the outdoor life.
“It’s awesome if 7 million people raise their hands and say, ‘I’m going to #OptOutside with you,'” said Steele. “It’s a heck of a lot better if people start saying, even beyond Black Friday, ‘I’m going to make the outdoors a bigger part of my life. I’m going to protect public lands, because they’re places that I care about. I’m going to step forward for things that I believe.’ At the risk of sounding grand about it, we’re looking for impact at the societal level. That’s evidence of a movement.”