Want to be as successful as REI?

June 17, 2013

When Sally Jewell was nominated as the next Interior Secretary, people who knew her during her tenure as REI’s chief executive hailed her leadership at the national outdoor retailer. As a fellow Seattleite, I can vouch for that. I heard nothing but good things about her smarts and competence.

But, there’s a little known story about one of the most important changes that REI made which led to the explosion in their growth nationally. It was the moment when they changed the pictures they used to cater to their customers. There’s a great lesson in there for those of us who are in the business of marketing our organizations.

In the corporate world, visuals have been a key way to relate to customers for a long time. One of the interviews I conducted when researching visual communications best practices for our Seeing is Believing guide was with a brand consultant who worked with REI on a rebranding at a time when it was still a small-scale retailer, largely just catering to the hard-core mountaineering crowd. REI wanted its rebranding to result in an expanded customer base that reached mainstream casual recreationalists.

He points to a single recommendation he made to the company’s marketing department that led to hordes of new customers streaming into their doors for the first time. He told them to change the pictures in their retail catalogues and on their website from showing people crossing treacherous glaciers (back before “extreme sports” were cool) to showcasing your average person doing average things with REI merchandise. When people saw themselves in the pictures, they thought, there’s probably something in the store for me:  two friends trail running, a family camping, a kid sledding. Sales skyrocketed after the rebranding, new stores opened in other cities, and REI moved from specialty to mainstream outdoor retailer after they concertedly changed their image and the imagery they used.

Take a look at REI’s website to get a taste of their secret sauce. Notice how they show pictures of people having fun while they use REI gear. Notice that while REI is selling tents in the image above, the main subject of this picture is not the tents, but people. See the tent off to the side. That’s what they are selling, but in marketing it does not have to be overt to be effective.

They are first and foremost showing you the emotional payoff of buying their tent. See the motto above their tent:  pitch it, then play. That’s right, so easy to assemble that you can spend your camping weekend hanging out with your friends.

It’s not too different from what we counsel our partners, to not get lost in explaining the process for how you will go about achieving success, but to explain the payoff at the end if you do achieve success. What’s the payoff if people support your work?

Liz Banse