REI’s Black Friday opt-out epitomizes effective marketing

Nov 20, 2017

In February 2015, a group of REI executives gathered for a meeting to brainstorm promotional ideas for that year’s Christmas shopping season.

“We could never do it,” the head of merchandising said, “but what if we close on Black Friday?”

How many proposals start like that and never go anywhere? How many people reflexively respond, “You’re right, we could never do that,” and then move on?

In this case, the people in the room instead said, “Why couldn’t we do that?”

Sure, they’d lose one of their busiest days of the year. But what could they gain?

By closing stores and encouraging people to do something outdoors, they could earn tremendous publicity, boost employee morale and maybe even increase long-term sales by demonstrating genuine commitment to the recreational retailer’s mission.

“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,” REI’s Chief Creative Officer Ben Steele told AdWeek.

REI’s action that Black Friday was to close all 143 of its stores, give its 12,000 employees off, and launch its #OptOutside campaign, which encouraged the entire nation to forgo shopping and enjoy nature with friends and family.

REI even shut down online sales on Black Friday, putting this message up on their website. Orders could still be placed, but the company wouldn’t start working on them until the next day.

The dramatic move stole the media spotlight that holiday season, led to a spike in membership, won awards and started a genuine movement, rallying millions of people and hundreds of outdoors organizations, even long after the holidays.

This year will be the third consecutive Black Friday that REI will #OptOutside, and it’s still getting positive attention as a new annual tradition.

Long story short: differentiation is key to effective marketing, and because REI’s leaders were brave enough to do what had never been done before, they clearly stand out from the competition.


This article first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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