How One Brave Idea Drove REI’s Award-Winning #OptOutside Campaign

The big winner at Cannes started with a spark

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As predicted earlier this month, consumer cooperative outdoor retailer REI's #OptOutside campaign was one of the big winners at this year's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It took home nine Lions overall, including a Grand Prix in the Promo & Activation category and in the coveted Titanium category, celebrating non-traditional campaigns.

Adweek spoke to Ben Steele, the company's svp and CCO, as well as the creative team at Venables Bell & Partners that worked on the campaign, to uncover the story behind how they developed #OptOutside and turned it into a phenomenon that might even inspire a future Macy's Day Parade float, according to FCB global CCO Susan Credle.

A big, brave idea

The campaign began with a simple suggestion.

"In the midst of a big holiday brainstorming session, the head of our merchandising group said, 'We could never do it, but what if we close on Black Friday?'" Ben Steele told Adweek. "Obviously at face value it seems crazy, but it was all about giving our people the day off and inviting others to join us. Part of this job is about storytelling, but when you can take an action and show people rather than just telling them, it can be really powerful."

Steele positioned the underlying concept as one focused less on direct promotion than highlighting consumer choice, which in this case meant the decision to spend time in the outdoors rather than using the now-infamous holiday as a race to find the best deals.

REI employees almost immediately agreed to go all-in once they'd established this idea as a real possibility. Steele and his team then presented it to CEO Jerry Stritzke, who was immediately intrigued and paused a related slideshow to ask, "What exactly are you suggesting?"

After an intense daylong session in which the internal team discussed the implications of this unprecedented plan, Stritzke was on board. "Everyone's focus was on how we would do this, not listing all the reasons we couldn't do it," said Steele.

REI issued a single "we plan to close all our stores on Black Friday" brief to Venables Bell & Partners and several other agencies involved in a review. Creative director Lee Einhorn told Adweek, "They almost tossed it out: 'We're not afraid.'"

The #AhHaMoment

VB&P, which later won the review, ran with the brief and came up with a number of related ideas including one in which hikers would make their way up a mountain to meet Santa Claus. But the development of the hashtag was a key moment. The Venables creative team reviewed a number of proposed tags and immediately reached a consensus on #OptOutside, which eventually served as a substitute for a more traditional tagline. "From there," Einhorn said, "It stopped being about closing the stores and became about getting people to go outside."

That hashtag later drove the creation of a meme generator, which encouraged users to share images and videos related to their own outdoor experiences. VB&P partner and executive creative director Will McGinness called it the campaign's unsung hero, and REI's Steele said, "That engine was really key. It became about more than just us and Black Friday and more about individual choices." Many consumers encountered the hashtag on Facebook and Instagram independently, and almost one year later many still use the tag on posts that have nothing to do with the company or the campaign. "It went so far beyond advertising," said McGuinness. "With the ease of use, it spread like wildfire."

The campaign wasn't powered purely by organic social mentions. VB&P created outdoor camping kits consisting of "freeze-dried Thanksgiving leftovers" that its PR partner Edelman sent to chosen influencers in the hiking and biking communities. It also partnered with a geo-mapping service to design a mobile site that helped less experienced outdoor enthusiasts find appropriate locations in their area to enjoy the natural world.

Once all the elements of the campaign had been developed, scheduling played a key role in ensuring that #OptOutside would have the greatest possible impact. "The timing was really important," McGinness told Adweek. "Initially we were going to be much closer to Black Friday when we launched it, but we ended up moving it up" to get ahead of the inevitable Black Friday media coverage in order to ensure that REI could effectively own a larger, anti-consumerist narrative.

The campaign launched in October with an internal all-staff email and a print ad in The New York Times. The print spot quoted naturalist John Muir, who wrote, "Over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home." But the campaign truly took off only after the TV ads and especially the meme generator went live.

"Edelman was instrumental as were Spark, North Kingdom and Tool," said McGinness. "It was a big collaborative effort."

Chief executive outdoorsman

REI's CEO ultimately served as a chairman of sorts for the #OptOutside idea. "Jerry got it immediately," said McGinness, and the shoot for the anthem spot in which a camera pulls back to reveal Stritzke's desk located in the middle of a mountain range illustrated just how seriously he takes his company's central ethos. During the shoot, Stritzke found himself unable to resist the appeal of the outdoors even as he worked to finish his company's first major marketing campaign.

"The mountains are home [for Jerry]," said Steele. "He expected to do one take for the ad and then take a nice hike, and he kept wandering off, looking to find a peak instead of doing another take."

Within weeks, the campaign had gotten enough attention to be mentioned on morning shows across the country, and other brands wanted to share in the goodwill. Regarding the subsequent snowball effect in which more than 150 additional retailers and the National Parks department announced their plans to participate in #OptOutside, Steele said, "We absolutely welcome other organizations if they come aboard, but in many ways we were just along for the ride." He added that the entire organization was surprised by the size of the response.

"It started with bike shops but then it was like, 'This pub is going to close on Black Friday,'" said VB&P's Einhorn. "It was amazing to see it spread like that."

Employees opt in

REI's ultimate goals for the #OptOutside campaign were twofold: reinforcing its brand identity while also encouraging more people to shop at its stores in the long term.

"They were keen that it wasn't a stunt to drive sales," said VB&P head of strategy Michael Davidson. "They weren't tracking it in terms of people buying more the day after."

But the campaign led to a significant rise in membership, which is ultimately far more important than any single sales bump for a business based on the cooperative model in which customers effectively double as both employees and owners of the company. Employee buy-in, which was driven by an internal communications campaign led by Edelman, was just as important as the ads seen by the general public. "Even if no one else in the world cares, that's 12,000 employees who get to spend the day outside with the people they love, not thinking about how to get to the store," said Steele. 

Agency president Paul Birks-Hay added, "The point wasn't to reject Black Friday but to embrace something that mattered to REI."

#OptOutside of partisan politics

Steele told Adweek that the #OptOutside theme will continue to evolve in future campaigns. "It would be challenging for us to open our stores [on Black Friday] this year. So we are thinking about what #OptOutside means for 2016," he said.

For starters, the company plans to open a flagship store in the Washington, D.C. area this fall during what Steele, in a moment of characteristic understatement, called "a slightly acrimonious election." A related campaign called United Outside launched this month with the ultimate goal of encouraging people divided by politics to unite over a shared love of the great outdoors.

"The idea is that we're best when we're together, and we can be together better when we're outside," Steele said.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.