REI: Altruism Or Savvy Marketing?


By now it’s all over the news…

REI, the privately held niche retailer that primarily sells outdoor recreation gear, sporting goods and apparel, is planning to buck the tide and close on Black Friday, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. It will not only close all of its 143 stores but also black out its website and give its 12,000 employees a paid day off so that they can “go outside.” The rationale behind this according to REI President and CEO Jerry Stritzke, is that Black Friday shopping had “gotten out of hand” and the company wanted to “encourage people to get outside, saying “maybe this was one of the most authentic things we could do.”

A bold move indeed…

It is an unprecedented move, especially at a time when many other retailers have turned even Thanksgiving itself into a day of holiday shopping. Some showed signs of wanting to be part of the goodwill flood and jumped on the bandwagon, like outdoor gear maker Outdoor Research who said it will join the #OptOutside “movement” and close its corporate offices, distribution center, Seattle factory and retail store on Black Friday.

A ‘movement’ huh? Sounds more like a savvy marketing move. Just consider the gains…

REI used this bold announcement in a variety of ways to bolster its own branding.

  • It was a chance for the company to roll out its brand’s principles in a big way, in full view of major media.
  • They also seized the moment to maximize visibility for its new logo, one that includes the word “co-op” for the first time since 1983. This gave the company a chance to emphasize the organization’s difference.
  • It went further. It created a microsite aimed at encouraging its employees and customers to spend time in nature, by where people can type in their ZIP code and find a nearby trail to hike.

Being one of the country’s few large retail cooperatives that is not a publicly traded company, REI is owned by its members (unlike profit-minded shareholders) — people such as shoppers, producers or employees and is therefore governed in the best interests of its members. As such, they have the leeway not to worry about profits from quarter-to-quarter or be beholden to the whims of Wall Street.

Basically, by opting out of Black Friday, they managed to get their literal and figurative “day in the sun” ahead of the massive news coverage that descends on retailers on Black Friday.

In essence, they stand to gain far more than they will lose in Black Friday sales (if not in immediate dollars.) But, perhaps most interesting is that REI is demonstrating that sometimes the best way for a brand to “stand out” is to “sit out.” Or in this case, “go out.”

How Being In Good Company Can Trigger Media Interest


As communication professionals, we’re constantly scouring the press and social media for trends and storylines in which to insert our clients. We are the frontlines between the public and the perceptions of the brands that we work with everyday. We are also tirelessly acting as newsrooms for clients by crafting curated content and media releases to announce significant milestones for the brands.

So, what happens at times when the news is slow from our clients or perhaps the very opposite, when there has been a negative saturation of these brands in the media yet we still feel the need to deliver results? This is where, as professionals, we should start thinking outside-the-box and focus on the company our clients keep.

Learning that an “In Good Company” piece has the power to help achieve either of those goals when original news is sparse, the little extra legwork on your part is definitely worth it. Every press outlet loves a positive story; one that makes everyone just feel good talking about it. This is about thinking beyond a typical client newsroom and finding ways to solidify them as a player on the scene when news can be slow. Ask yourself the following questions to mine news about your client: Are there local art walks, events or innovative site activations that the brand or other local third parties are doing that would garner some press attention? Are there any interesting sustainable initiatives taking place in the area? Are there local events that neighbors are attending where you can help in promoting the client to the press? Does your client do any educational outreach; can you do a profile on it? How about neighboring restaurants, stores and shopping districts; are they making any impacts and can your clients somehow get involved in crafting a larger area story?

“In Good Company” pieces are a great way to build alliances and to help cement your client as a leader to their neighbors, local politicians, customers, charity organizations and press. From a communication professional’s perspective, any small inroads you can make in building the brand’s reputation through strengthening its ties to its locale, are great steps to a job well done.

Coca-Cola “Wants you”

Anyone who watched the Super Bowl ads of 2012, will surely remember Coke’s animated iconic polar bears who reacted to the action on the field throughout the full four hours or so of the game, coupled with a live feed during the game showing the bears watching. According to reports nine million people across various platforms checked in to see the polar bears.

The Polar Bowl was creative and forward thinking, but it was still about watching…

This time around Coke “wants you” to get involved in the narrative of their “Coke Chase” story — which is about “three teams of people – cowboys, showgirls and badlanders – who are lost in the desert and see the mirage of a glistening bottle of Coke — then vote in real time to decide who wins a battle for the Coke, and the result is revealed at the end of the game.”

But here is the kicker in the game – players are pitted against other players. They can also sabotage—in other words, vote down—the teams they oppose. It triggers a competitive spirit geared to propel engagement.

According to Coke executives, they want to “gamify the game” via a real-time television, web and social media campaign that taps consumers’ votes to determine the storyline of the spot. They hope that consumers are up for another game, while watching the Big Game.

Pio Schunker, SVP of integrated marketing at Coke said, “People aren’t going to necessarily interact with your product unless you tell a compelling story. This is the most engaging and compelling way in to talk about Coke as the ultimate thirst quencher.” A bit promotional I think, but on point with the interaction part.

It is clever. It is about cross-media storytelling and engaging players in a narrative. It is about extending the conversation through a host of platforms across Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, for which custom content has been crafted. Additionally a press conference with the losers has been recorded for YouTube. It’s a marked change from last year’s Polar Bowl that had a singular tactic for social-media channels.
By the looks of the game Coke conceived, it is likely that they will beat their numbers of last year. It is also a very cool way for Coke to maximize their estimated $11 million investment.
But more importantly, Coke may very well be responsible for permanently turning around expectations of the Super Bowl ads of 2014.

It’s what we would expect from a market leader.

Hurricane Sandy & Sales Bungles

Hurricane SandyI think that some marketers have gone nuts. Piggybacking on Hurricane Sandy to sell something is akin to selling your grandmother.  What on earth were the marketing teams at the Gap, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Groupon thinking when they thought up ways to sell their wares during the storm?  It’s not only the companies that were dinged with a flurry of online outrage, but also the marketers who, by association, gave a greedy black eye to the category itself.

So, as all now know, what happened was that the Gap suggested via a tweet for “doing lots of Gap shopping at,” while Urban Outfitters offered free shipping Monday morning, attempting to capitalize on the college students stuck inside all day. Groupon offered a daily deal to midtown Manhattanites for a dinner at a restaurant serving a surprise meal in complete darkness and American Apparel offered a Hurricane Sandy Sale.


Gap apologized quickly for its marketing tweet during the devastating storm, but not really. What they said was, that “what they really meant was” – etc.  Sometimes apologies are not enough. If it was greed that spurred them on to take advantage of a national disaster, they could have garnered far more visibility by putting on their corporate social responsibility hat and thinking through how to garner customers’ loyalty in a time of need. They could have offered to send free apparel for the displaced, the ones that lost homes, or were flooded out of homes, losing everything.  Maybe they could have set up a center for distribution of the clothes through their retail outlets after the storm or, minimally, offer warm clothing to children whose homes were burned down by fire within days after the storm.

Altruistic maybe, but socially responsible…

Groupon could have offered “best deals,” negotiated through restaurants that had power, to feed those that did not.  Urban Outfitters could have just kept quiet about their shipping ideas and American Apparel, well not much can be said for a company that thinks there is nothing wrong in holding a storm sale as the devastation unfolds.

It may be small potatoes in the scheme of things, but such poor judgment should be written up by the marketing textbooks as examples of what not to do.

Jobs Creation, the American Way

It takes a village, in this case tens of millions inside the village, to pitch in and help.  It is, and has always been, the American Way – you know, helping to “pull someone up by their bootstraps” type of thing.  We have a history of that.  When disasters, as in hurricanes, foreclosures, terrorist threats, or others strike, it is the people in our big USA “village” that come to the rescue in whatever personal way they can — with blankets, food, money, simple ingenuity or maybe just an extra shoulder on which to lean.

But the present joblessness calamity in our country has triggered no such response to date.  It has left both Washington and Corporate America divided, dumbfounded, frozen and bent on playing the “blame game.”

But then — along comes Howard Schultz, Starbucks Corp.’s CEO who said, “Right now we can’t wait for Washington… Businesses and business leaders have to recognize that we have a shared responsibility in trying to make a difference.”

And there you have it.  Starbucks, with its “Create Jobs USA program” initiative, just jumpstarted the “American Way” and is roping in masses of people to support it…

Starbucks is pinning its hopes on customers who may be willing to part with $5 or more, when they stop in for their morning cup of “Joe.”  Maybe it sounds like not much, but just do the math — $5 times millions of people who visit its nearly 7,000 company-owned U.S. stores each day!  And the reward — a red, white and blue wristband that says “Indivisible.”

Smart… part of that ‘ole spirit.

The facts: Seattle-based coffee chain is collaborating with the Opportunity Finance Network, a nonprofit that works with nearly 200-community development financial institutions to provide loans to small businesses and community groups. Starbucks says 100 percent of the donations will go toward loans for firms and organizations that can add jobs or stem job losses.

It’s not the first time that Schultz has addressed the nation’s economic woes. In August, he sent more than 200,000 Starbucks employees a memo urging them to do what they can to help business through hard times. After that, he hosted a national telephone forum, bought full-page ads in two major newspapers and started a website,

Schultz says he feels personal responsibility to do something to stimulate the U.S. economy.  Are you listening now, Corporate America?

Sure, Starbucks is growing and will gain by hiring about 200 people a day in the U.S. as it remodels thousands of stores and adds another 200 locations next year. But the key word is hiring, when others take the cautionary road and stay the course.

It may take a village to make a final difference, but it takes a leader to carve out the path. Let’s face it. We need more Schultzes!  I know where I will drink my coffee tomorrow morning, and happily part with $5.  Want to join me for coffee?