How REI’s #OptOutside Became so Much More Than a Black Friday Moment

Black Friday has changed a lot over the years. Even in the last decade, the way we shop and consume products has shifted dramatically. When I was growing up (albeit in the 90’s), my family and I would travel from store to store to pick up sales brochures. Then during the weeks before Black Friday, we would scan through hundreds of pages, hunting for the best deals on my favorite Super Nintendo games (again, back when you could rent them from Blockbuster), LEGOs for my brothers, and fishing gear for my dad. Finally, when the big day came, we were ready. Checkbooks in hand, we had plotted out our arrival and departure times for every retailer we wanted to shop at. It was a really tactical experience.

Black Friday isn’t like that anymore. What once was a few friendly people camping out together in parking lots became armies of shoppers rampaging through aisles. Doorbuster sales that were aggressive but safe suddenly evolved into riots and assaults. Today, the 21st century has finally caught up, and I get emails instead of mailers. I buy more from my phone than from the checkout counter. I never have to leave the comfort of my home. We see millions of Americans clicking away on the web, eagerly awaiting packages to arrive a mere two days later. We’ve even created little mini holidays for the different shopping experiences such as Cyber Monday. Thankfully, the somewhat mobocratic chaos is also starting to fade.

And yet, no matter the medium, the essence of Black Friday lingers. We continue to throw away thousands of dollars to finally get that big TV we were going to eventually buy, but once it goes on sale, we absolutely can’t pass up. We’ve created this culture where we isolate ourselves and say “Look at me! Look at me!” Driven by our consumerism and need for the new, we are in a constant battle with our egos striving to fulfill our happiness with novelty. But that doesn’t always work. Everybody is different, and happiness can rise from an array of sources. It may be from loved ones, careers, faith, hobbies, or sports. But then there’s the outdoorsy people of the world. They all find joy in one single thing: the love of nature.

REI creates #OptOutside

For outdoorsy folk, the wilderness is a place of pure bliss. It provides tranquility, rest, challenge and vigor. These same people often despise the consumerism, celebrity fandom, pop culture, and what we consider the typical American way of life. Thus, Black Friday can be a nightmare. REI understands this. Despite being a retail company, they created the ultimate counter-cultural movement to America’s all-consuming shopping machine.

We all know the story: in 2015, REI closed all of their stores on the biggest shopping day of the year to encourage people to go outdoors and experience our beautiful planet in its raw and natural form. #OptOutside was the most praised and most condemned conversation on the web for weeks. But the campaign was so much more than a Black Friday moment.

Personally, I was thrilled to see REI making this move. Even as an ad guy, who gets paid to help companies sell more, I absolutely hate Black Friday and all it represents. When I saw REI’s press release, I couldn’t have been prouder of the co-op. They were bold enough to close their doors and risk their sales and reputation, all to remind their members what it really is that brings them joy. For me, #OptOutside was assurance that I wasn’t alone in my feelings toward Black Friday. Where I normally felt isolated in the chaos, surrounded by insanity and endless noise, REI reminded me that there are millions of people like me that just want to get away.

Things Started Heading South

It could not have been more than a few weeks later when I was reading an AMA on Reddit from Jerry Stritzke, President and CEO of REI, and saw how much Redditors truly despised the campaign. They tore REI to pieces, claiming #OptOutside to be “cheap, trashy, manipulative, and outright ridiculous.” The general stigma was that it was obviously a marketing stunt and consumers could see right through it. As consumers, there are few things that anger us more than feeling like we are being manipulated through marketing. Even though, in a small way, that’s exactly what marketing is supposed to do.

Furthermore, Redditors used the AMA as a platform to complain about new employment policies, low pay, lack of benefits, and other problems people had been experiencing at the co-op. Reading through this, my stomach sank. I was so proud of the company for this move and wanted to commend them over and over for their generosity and loyalty to members. To me, #OptOutside was a beautiful and grounded campaign, rooted in REI’s core values. My faith in them was slowly being crushed.

To people all over America, #OptOutside went from an inspirational movement to being a money-motivated campaign to drive sales. The campaign seemed to have fallen flat and nobody cared anymore.

#OptOutside Gains Momentum

It’s now March and something drastic has happened over winter. Today, #OptOutside continues to be a national trend. If you take a look, you will find thousands of tweets, Instagram photos, and Facebook posts uploaded hourly to the conversation. People are actually taking it seriously and opting outside all of the time! How did this massive shift happen?

What people misunderstood is REI did so much more than close their doors on the biggest shopping day of the year. REI created a platform for the voices of those who felt alone on Black Friday. People like me that live our daily lives despising our habits of consuming and just want to spend our free time away from society with those we love suddenly had a voice to pierce through the white noise. The conversation stopped being about individualism and started being about community, uniting a dissonant and fragmented culture. #OptOutside allowed me to take all of my adventures and share them with others as passionate as myself. What REI did was not only innovative, it was necessary.

When I post to #OptOutside, I am representing my passion and love for all to see. Then I get to browse the content and see each and every person individually find their passion and live it out! This is what I was looking for this entire time and REI unveiled it to me. I can buy all of the new jackets and beanies I want, but what really brings me joy is getting out and sharing my passion with the world. Through #OptOutside, we get the opportunity to inspire one another, and REI gets to be the backbone holding it all together.

The World Needs More Brands Like REI

When it comes to some of the best campaigns of 2015, #OptOutside takes the gold medal because it was the one of the few that ever made it beyond the two-week viral period. Every year, we see incredible ads and campaigns that buy our undivided attention for a moment; if they’re lucky, for a week. Then they die off, and we go on living our daily lives. This happens over and over again. Just take a quick second and try to recall some of the most viral moments in recent years. Remember Shia LeBeouf’s motivational speech? Katy Perry’s left shark? Kim Kardashian’s Paper Magazine cover? Oh! And don’t forget the blue and black dress! Or was it white and gold? I can’t remember.

The point is, viral content comes and goes. Brands often think to themselves, “If we can just go viral this year, then our sales will explode!” But viral philosophies are shallow and short-sighted. A campaign can be as innovative and incredible as you want, but what makes a brand really stick is when they can bring people together to share a common passion. REI figured that out in 2015. When other brands say “Hey, let’s talk about me!” REI says “We want to hear about you.”

Ultimately, brands need to take a lesson from REI. As the outdoor industry continues to become increasingly competitive year over year, REI found a way to stand out by bringing people together. That’s why we believe in them. When you are a member at REI, it’s more than just a retail store; it’s a community of people just like you. That’s what I am looking for. That and a new pair of hiking boots.

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