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A marketing image for REI's new Evrgrn line. Photo: REI
A marketing image for REI's new Evrgrn line. Photo: REI

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Selling the Great Outdoors: The Billion-Dollar Brand Battle for the Casual Camper

Mass retailers like Nike are facing off against legacy outfitters, but who will win?

This past winter, travel blogger Mindy Tsang backpacked Peru’s Inca Trail, enduring the days-long journey to reach Machu Picchu. The rigorous hike required hours of alpine scrambling and bouldering, and after finally reaching the top of the breathtaking summit, Tsang posed for an Instagram in her Lululemon outfit.

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"Lululemon is really comfortable and it holds up," Tsang explains. "I’ve had some of my stuff for five years now, and it performs for hiking and other outdoor activities. But most of all, I like the way Lululemon looks—that's my number one. I have clothing from those other outdoor sports companies, of course, but I think when you ask a lot of people what they prefer, they are going to say they want to look good."

Less than a decade ago, Tsang might have turned to stores like Patagonia or REI exclusively, but in 2015, tons of trendy retailers are battling for the outdoor enthusiast’s attention—and wallet.

From the rise of obstacle course racing to brands as disparate as Target and Urban Outfitters cashing in on the camping craze, we are certainly in the midst of an outdoor moment. Some 143 million Americans participated in outdoor activities last year, and trail running and mountain biking are at an all-time high. In fact, trail running—the most popular outdoor sport in the US—saw 58 million participants in 2013. The outdoor apparel industry has subsequently enjoyed impressive sales growth in recent years, bringing in $4 billion in revenue in 2014. The overall athletic category also continues to skyrocket: athletic apparel is outpacing the apparel market as a whole and accounted for $33.7 billion in sales last year; the market is expected to be valued at $180 billion by 2018.

It's no surprise that legacy retailers have been riding this new wave of interest. REI enjoyed a revenue surge of ten percent last year, and since Patagonia hired a new CEO in 2013, its profits have tripled.

Lululemon is looking to get into the outdoor space. Photos: Lululemon

But these outdoor outfitters are no longer the only players around. Mass fitness giants are eager to capitalize on this growing market. One look through Nike's Instagram, and you'll see images of mountain climbing, bouldering, and hiking. The brand is invested in convincing consumers that its goods are worthy of the great outdoors, not just the basketball court or indoor track. It's even pushing items like high-performance waterproof ponchos, while Adidas has an entire outdoor section on its site, where it sells plaid button-downs it calls "hiking shirts."

In March, Lululemon unveiled its Trail Bound line, a collection specifically for hiking. The brand has always been associated with yoga, but Jill Chatwood, Lululemon’s director of global trend and collaborations, explains that the company is now focused on outdoor sports because "being a Vancouver-based brand means we have mountains in our backyard, and the entire industry has seen a major shift in the last decade towards a healthier, active lifestyle."

Classic outdoor outfitters are hoping customers keep their longstanding reputations for quality and durability in mind.

The competition is heating up, and classic outdoor outfitters are hoping customers keep their longstanding reputations for quality and durability in mind. Their argument? They've been in the outdoor business way longer than the Nikes and Lulus of the world.

Susan Viscon, REI’s senior vice president of merchandising, believes the company has been able to stand up against mass brands because it's been "delivering value to its members for years with a 100% guarantee."

Patagonia, which was founded in 1973, promises lifetime repairs on its products, even dispatching a mobile repair truck to travel coast-to-coast over the next few weeks. "No one in the industry will come at apparel holistically the way Patagonia does because everything we do is considered," the brand's chief product officer Lisa Williams proclaims. "We aren’t going to put just anything out there. It has to have environmental and social merit, and its quality needs to guarantee our standards. We make sure all of our apparel checks multiple boxes."

Patagonia glaciering

Patagonia prides itself on producing exceptionally durable gear. Photo: Patagonia

Jasmin Ghaffarian, head of women’s outdoor at The North Face, adds that her company is known for its outstanding materials and has cultivated a strong customer base because its key focus is on authenticity. "It’s exciting that brands are looking to the outdoors and want to have that edge, but it also comes off as inauthentic," she posits. "Nike is a brand that is really great in the athletic space, but not necessarily in the outdoor space. We’ve been around for 50 years; we’ve dressed people for thousands of expeditions. We’re not a hot, new brand that is trying to impress customers with anything gimmicky."

While legacy outfitters have amassed legions of loyal customers, the quality argument doesn't necessarily hold up anymore. At a time when Lululemon boasts its own revolutionary Luon material and Nike is constantly tweaking its technical FlyKnit products, everyone is pushing for performance. Mass brands' products are better than ever, notes Axie Navas, a senior editor at Outside Magazine. Even Patagonia’s Williams admits "the reality is that construction, performance, and material specification have gotten to a point where 80 percent of what’s out there functions reasonably well and can help you through whatever it is you are doing outside."

Navas believes customers are turning to retailers like Lululemon because what it means to be an outdoor enthusiast today isn't necessarily congruent with the image outdoor brands promote. "There’s a whole new market of younger people that want to make outdoors a lifestyle," she says. "They are looking for the intersection of core performance and style. They aren’t looking to be outdoors every single day or weekend, but still want to have gear for when they do want to commit. They want high-performance wear that will take them from the city to the mountain."

Given this new type of shopper, brands like Lululemon and Nike will eventually "eat outdoor outfitters for lunch," says Steve Casimiro, founder of Adventure Journal.

Photo: Patagonia

"The outdoor industry always spoke to the core—to the guys at the top of the mountain—because that’s been the aspirational model for the last 25 years," he explains. "Everyone used to want to be one of those guys getting to the top. But what has shifted, and what the outdoor industry is scrambling to figure out, is that for most people, that’s no longer their model. There’s rapidly been a whole new wave of people who want to experience the outdoors in a different way. Some are millennials, some are not, but they just want to be outside and they don’t look like the type of folks the outdoor industry has targeted in the past."

"They just want to be outside and they don’t look like the type of folks the outdoor industry has targeted in the past."

As Navas mentioned, another thing these customers want is style, particularly in this age of athleisure. Casimiro notes that outdoor apparel hasn't changed much over the last 25 years. The "granola look of Patagonia," as he puts it, certainly has its niche clientele, but there's now a need for fashionable pieces that perform—and look flattering on Instagram, as Mindy Tsang can attest. Outdoor outfitters are still stuck on "packing on the technical gear," Casimiro adds, "while these other brands are saying, ‘How much of this do we actually need?’ They are feeding a massive opportunity."

This missing fashion element has inspired the birth of a whole category of indie brands that specialize in outdoor apparel like Poler, Aion, ToPo, and Alite, and online stores like Huckberry. They've been dubbed "the cool kids" by industry insiders, selling tough-but-trendy gear—everything from sleeping bags and tents to compasses and anorak jackets—that's stylish and affordable.

Portland-based Poler launched in 2011, because, as co-founder Benji Wagner explains it, "we felt the outdoor industry was so focused on technical innovation that it lost sight of the fact that most people engage with the outdoors in simple ways that are also worth celebrating."

"There’s been all these weird, crazy elitist sentiments in the outdoor culture," echoes Casamiro. "The idea of how to play in the outdoors used to stay in narrow guardrails, but that’s really changing. These newer brands are embracing camping—they just want to be in the woods! They’d like a tent, but it doesn’t have to be made for Everest. That’s a message the outdoor industry has not sent."

Brands like Poler have emerged in response to the rise of the casual camper. Photos: Poler

The models in Poler and Huckberry’s marketing campaigns look like active friends you want to plan hiking excursions with, not intimidating outdoorsmen.

"We operate on the belief that being 'outside' is just as important as being 'outdoors'—we don't need to be in the backcountry to feel the benefits of fresh air," adds Ali Ruhfel, Huckberry’s director of sales and brand partnerships. "It doesn't take any extra gear or a technical skill set to walk home instead of take the bus. This fundamental outlook is one everyone can appreciate, weekdays or weekends, car camping or mountain climbing."

These brands represent more than just the modern, inclusive makeover the outdoor apparel industry needed—Navas, who has reviewed their products, says they hold up in terms of quality and performance as well.

"We operate on the belief that being 'outside' is just as important as being 'outdoors.'"

They also resonate with young outdoor enthusiasts because they emphasize diversity, a larger issue the outdoor industry has struggled with. Much of the messaging and imagery used by these newer brands revolves around the representation of young people, including women and people of color, which is a big shift in the outdoor space. As Scott McGuire, president of outdoor branding strategy company Mountain Lab puts it, "There’s no question that the industry has always been predominantly run by middle-aged white men."

The Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 recreation participation report noted that, "as seen in previous reports, outdoor participation is highest among Caucasians and lowest among African Americans." Journalist James Mills addressed this in a 2011 High Country News essay: "As a person of color with 20 years' experience in the outdoor industry, I've long wrestled with vague notions about the racial tensions in this field. Despite a successful career, unfettered access to professional opportunities, and no practical limitations on my enjoyment of the outdoors, I have always had a terrible feeling that I don't belong. And as I traveled around the national parks, I discovered I'm not alone in this perception."

There have been recent attempts to diversify the outdoor industry; national parks are trying to appeal to people of color and women with new initiatives and programs, and at last year’s Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education conference, keynote speaker and director of the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors program Stacey Bare made suggestions for "ending bro culture."

Photo: Huckberry

Just this January, CEOs from REI, Patagonia, and The North Face, among other outdoor companies, signed a pledge to "accelerate women’s leadership in their companies." But when it’s nearly impossible to find diverse faces in these brands' images, it makes sense that young consumers are turning to companies intent on appealing to people like them.

Earlier this year, McGuire’s company set up a space called Venture Out at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City in an effort to bring indie brands to the attention of old-school buyers. But despite the visibility of these new companies, legacy outfitters maintain they aren’t worried about protecting their market share. REI’s Viscon says her company's customers exhibit exceptional brand loyalty and that REI is fine with outdoor novices shopping elsewhere because "we know that when they get more serious, they will come to us for the right product."

And yet subtle shifts to these outfitters' strategies demonstrate this battle is very much on their minds. Ghaffarian tells Racked that The North Face is coming out with a new style-focused women's line this year. This is about "refining the progressive aesthetic," meaning The North Face will lean away from the hardcore athlete it once associated with and roll out newer products that "look and feel functional, but are also sophisticated enough that athletes want to wear them in and out of the gym."

This month, REI (which now publishes music festival camping guides, complete with curated shopping lists) is also launching a new line called Evrgrn, which will feature "gear for good times" that can go "from the beach to the campsite, from the BBQ to the concert, always ready for your outside happy hour," according to its website. It's not quite the mountain man angle REI has used for the better part of a century.

REI is looking to reach younger customers with its Evrgrn line. Photo: REI

"The people doing these sports 30 years ago were not doing it the same way," says The North Face’s Ghaffarian. "Now they are camping at Coachella and using hiking as a social interaction rather than a solitary sport. What that means for us is that our products have to be functional, but they also have to be fun. We used to design for sport; now we’re looking at this as a lifestyle."

Rather than completely watering down the functionality of their products and risking the alienation of their core clientele, legacy brands are differentiating themselves through education. Company executives emphasize how important it is to hire employees—both in stores and on the corporate level—who are invested in the outdoors and can deliver helpful information to customers.

"Sure, other brands might be doing their best to produce what will work," says Eastern Mountain Sports' VP of e-commerce Tom Hassell. "That said, we bring in people who know and use the product themselves. The applicants who walk in our doors are predisposed to that lifestyle. We support them with terrific training in the outdoors to get to know the gear so that when customers come in looking for clothing to wear snowshoeing in the Andes, we can help them have a safe and comfortable trip."

"We used to design for sport; now we’re looking at this as a lifestyle."

In February, REI started a partnership with the American Council on Exercise to create a series of classes that will train participants in specific outdoor activities. The North Face followed suit in March, debuting its Mountain Athletics workouts, where customers can train with the brand in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, D.C., and San Francisco. EMS has been running an outdoors school since 1968 in six different locations, and while Hassel admits the brand has been susceptible to competition (the company has also gone through several owners over the last decade), he believes the school has set them apart in the industry.

"The EMS schools are where we train and teach customers how to use the gear, and in some cases, it’s life-saving," adds Hassel. "We’re not like these traditional retailers that are expanding their offer to advance themselves. These are sports where you need to know what you’re doing and in some cases are risk-inducing if proper care isn’t taken. Correct gear and knowledge is critical to getting the most enjoyment."

Ultimately, though, this may be a generational split. While young bloggers like Mindy Tsang are decked out in Lululemon, her older counterparts aren't quite as convinced.

"Why would you waste money buying new outdoors equipment every time you want to trek?" asks Erin Barett, a 40-year-old shopper inside a New York City Patagonia, adding that she wouldn't buy gear from a company like Nike. "You could just invest with a brand that knows what they are talking about and know you're getting your money's worth. I don't understand."

Editor: Julia Rubin


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