REI Co-Op: #OptOutside

Executive Summary

In October of 2015, REI announced that as a “cultural counterweight to Black Friday” they would close all 143 of their stores, turn off all online transactions, and pay their employees to take the day off. Black Friday – historically the highest grossing sales day for retailers – instead was to be used to #OptOutside, and get outdoors and in nature. The marketing campaign sparked a national movement, with over 150 companies following suite, and 1.4 million people choosing to #OptOutside. The User Generated Content gallery – still displayed on their website – is an inspiring showcase of compelling reasons to get outside.

What to Learn

  • Importance of empathy – with this campaign, REI took a big risk, but it was based on a deep understanding of their customers. REI aligned its actions with it’s values, and the values of their employees and customers. The results – in terms of earned media and free exposure is just reward for a company that empathizes with their customers rather than trying to exploit them.
  • How to roll-out an effective campaign – REI had thirty days of continuous coverage about their #OptOutside crusade. Starting with a letter from REI’s CEO to their 12,000 employees, REI continuously supported this bold decision with media coverage, social media promotion, activity locators on their website, an app to help people find outdoor activities, boxes to take your Thanksgiving leftovers on the trail with you, and an unbelievable wall of User Generated Content.
  • How to have a two-way dialogue with your community – REI engaged their community in a quality, two-way dialogue. Rather than just blasting their own message, requesting responses to surveys, and asking for feedback, they were transparent with their community and gave them a voice. The #OptOutside stories shared by the REI community furthered REI’s message in a way they couldn’t have accomplished on their own.
  • Big campaigns can have small beginnings – this incredible campaign started with a n REI merchandiser. It grew into one of the most successful marketing campaigns in recent history, and has been used two years (and counting) since its launch.

Campaign Overview

  • UGC Type                      Photo with branded overlay, categorized by activity

  • Duration                        Running since October 2016

  • Budget                          Unknown

  • Partners                        Edelman

  • Campaign Date            October 2015

  • Incentives                     None


  • 2015 Results
    • +7,000% social media mentions
    • 2.7 Billion PR impressions within 24 hours
    • #OptOutside received 6.7 media impressions, 1.2 billion social impressions
    • 1.4 Million people inspired to spend Black Friday outside
    • 150 business followed suite and closed for Black Friday
    • Hundreds of State Parks gave free admission on Black Friday
  • 2016 Results
    • reportedly netted 716,000 visitors, which is up 36% from Black Friday 2015. The brand also saw increased traffic on Cyber Monday with 1,019,000 visitors, which is an increase of 35% from 2015, GeekWire said.
    • 6 million participants, 475 non-profit, government, and corporate partners
    • Patagonia offers all Black Friday proceeds to orgs helping clean air, clean water, and soil 93% increase in Thanksgiving traffic


Examples of Content Received

Detailed Description

Full disclosure, our team is already head-over-heels in love with REI. So we’ll try to pry off these rose colored glasses (purchased at REI’s Co-Op) and accurately assess this campaign, but bear in mind that some bias my slip through the cracks on this one. Also, this was a pretty massive, heavily orchestrated marketing campaign, in which User Generated Content played a role, but one of many. So, we’ll focus on the User Generated Content aspect of this campaign, but we want to at least lay the ground work here.

REI nailed it in terms of aligning this campaign with their company values. The thought of shutting down (online and offline) your retail store and turning away customers on the biggest sales day of the year… that concept alone gets headlines. Paying your employees to take the day off and telling your customers to spend that time outdoors instead of fighting in a mall over discounted socks – that’s a statement. REI clearly had empathy for their customers and knew what would get them fired up. As AdAge put it, this is “what happens when a brand has a truly empathetic understanding of its customers and uses that understanding to create experiences that customers value.”

On top of this, the REI team (combined with Edelman) did a perfect job of rolling this out. It started with a letter from the CEO to REI’s 12,000 employees. The videos above do a great job of capturing all the news coverage this bold statement made. They combined this with a website to find outdoor activities, a box to help you take your Thanksgiving leftovers outside on the trail with you, physical banners canvasing each of their 143 stores, a mobile app to help you find local activities and more.

Amidst this epic backdrop, REI also top-roped the User Generated Content component. The gallery of customer photos is a stunning (and unparalleled) gallery implementation. You can check out the live experience here, but just in case they take it down, we’ve documented this one for the ages in this user experience overview video.

What is most surprising to us is that this stellar experience is Jimmy Hoffman-esque buried on REI’s website. We were searching for this bad boy and it took us a bit to locate it. With such an incredible user experience, we’re shocked that this isn’t more prominently displayed and referenced on their website. Then again, the campaign started back in 2016, so perhaps they’ve moved it back on the website since its initial debut.

The process through which they collected User Generated Content is impressive. Community members were able to choose from ten different categories (eg. hiking, biking, running, skiing, camping, etc). They could then upload their photo and type in a word or phrase to go along with a branded overlay that would be displayed on top of the image. The execution wasn’t as well done as the overlays that Corepower Yoga used, but REI preceded CPY’s User Generated Content campaign by about a year, so that’s not too bad.

There are thousands of images on social networks with #OptOutside – photos and messages of support from all walks of life. This added a powerful, very human element to REI’s overall #OptOutside campaign, and make them a great role model for companies seeking to add customer voice to any marketing campaign.