Health care worker Lynda Stinson spent a recent Thursday evening at Chicago’s Thalia Hall watching a series of short films about outdoor adventures, including one that highlighted self-described “city kid” Malik Martin being mentored by expert climber Conrad Anker. “Conrad lost all his homies in the mountains and I’ve lost all my homies in the hood,” the 33-year-old Martin says in the film, which includes scenes of the two men scaling an icy cliff.
Outdoor brand Yeti’s sales growing with help from targeted marketing strategy
Behind the outdoors brand’s marketing approach, including a film tour and ambassador program that reaches loyal followers
The films, which also included stories about a storm chaser, a canoe racer and a lobster fisherwoman, shared one common element — Yeti, whose branded coolers, reusable bottles, hats and other outdoor gear made fleeting, but noticeable, appearances in each film. For Stinson, the company’s advertising struck the right tone. It is not “snobbish (or) esoteric,” she said.
The positive review is a good sign for Yeti, which is running the film tour in seven cities this spring and summer as part of a larger marketing strategy that relies on individual consumer connections as much as mass media.
The films, which are produced in-house by Yeti and also air on its YouTube channel, “make zero financial sense” in the short term, said Paulie Dery, Yeti’s chief marketing officer. But they are part of a “slow and steady” marketing approach that involves “a thousand little connection points,” he said. When “people see you as really invested in their world, in their community and the people that make it up, then I think people become much more loyal.”
That loyalty is showing up in the brand’s sales results. Yeti’s first-quarter sales jumped 19 percent to $293.6 million. The brand got a significant boost from direct-to-consumer sales, which increased 23 percent to $156 million, according to its first-quarter report. Yeti's advertising costs were $61.9 million in 2021, up from $42.9 million in 2020, according to its annual report.
During a May earnings call, President and CEO Matthew Reintjes said Yeti “outperformed our expectations for the first quarter.” He cited the return of in-person marketing events that had been paused during the pandemic, including the film tour, saying “we are making sure Yeti is front and center in a real way in the communities that are core to our brand.”
One way Yeti connects to these communities is via its ambassadors, which is what it calls its network of about 140 people who plug Yeti products in a variety of ways, including on social media or at events. The network includes cooks, skateboarders, fishing enthusiasts, mountain climbers and other fans of the outdoors.
Ambassadors are a significant presence in the film tour, either as directors or stars of the films. They also attended the film showings, including the Chicago stop where Anke r— who has been a Yeti ambassador for almost seven years — interacted with attendees. Yeti also gave away drinkware to people who had provided their email addresses to the brand, giving Yeti valuable first-party data.
The use of brand ambassadors has emerged as a popular marketing tactic across a range of industries as brands seek to tap into people who have loyal followers. While these so-called micro-influencers might not have the huge numbers of followers that celebrities do, they often have reach into key communities marketers covet.
Brands using ambassador programs include activewear marketer Lululemon, which uses its program to test products, among other things. Fast-rising energy drink Celsius counts 1,500 ambassadors who range from influencers with strong social followings to popular fitness instructors who are asked to attend trade shows and other events.
Yeti tries to take a hands-off approach with its program. Unlike typical brand deals with influencers, ambassadors don’t have to make mandatory posts on social media or take brand trips, unless they want to, said Dery. When it comes to payment, there is usually “very small financial compensation” although “it does vary in some instances,” he said.
Yeti’s ambassadors help “cross-pollinate” and bring the brand’s products to new outdoor categories when they meet each other at company events and go on trips together, said Dery. “Most ambassadors have been introduced to us by other ambassadors,” said Dery.
Anker said that when his friends filmmaker and climber Jimmy Chin and climber Hilaree Nelson “saw my relation [with Yeti] was going well,” they decided to forge similar ambassador relationships with the brand.
“It feels like a family,” Anker said of the ambassador program, which has been a core part of Yeti’s marketing since the brand’s 2006 founding. Anker, who has climbed Everest three times, said that the partnership usually takes up 40 to 50 days of his year. He checks in with Yeti once or twice a week and attends events including the film tour, which happen sporadically.
Ambassadors are also identified by Yeti’s community outreach team. The brand will usually wait for two years before signing a contract, in which time it monitors “how they behave for [the] ensuing year or two ... how do they show up, do they like us” in order “to make sure both parties are really invested,” said Dery.
Although Dery said that structurally, the ambassador program is “never going to change,” Yeti has plans to create a junior ambassador program that would invite younger influencers to represent the brand and “facilitate the next generation of ambassadors.” There is no fixed timeline for the creation of the junior program, said Dery.
As the brand looks to expand globally, Yeti has also added international ambassadors including U.K.-based chef Lee Tiernan and Australian underwater photographer and director Al McGlashan.
The expansion of the program could give Yeti a boost in awareness beyond its core following. Since going public in 2018, the company’s name recognition has increased from 10 percent to 17 percent in the U.S., which in part indicates it is still a relatively young brand, according to William Blair Equity Research Analyst Sharon Zackfia.
The Austin, Texas-based brand has prioritized “being protective of the long-term brand that they’re building,” Zackfia said.
This long-game approach can also be seen in how the company has cut back wholesale distribution at stores such as Lowe’s, where it recently began winding down its relationship, according to a February earnings call. “We reduced our independent wholesale footprint to approximately 3,000 target accounts, which we believe helps focus our efforts on very high caliber retail to drive consistent, high-quality experiences for our customers,” Reintjes said on the call.
Zackfia described this as a move to protect the company’s long-term image, despite the short-term revenue loss. “If you’re going to have a premium product, you want to control where that product shows up,” she said. For example, “if it shows up at a non-prestige retailer for 30 percent off, [that] could have damaging ramifications” and affect the brand’s prestige image.
The brand’s competitors include brands such as Igloo, RTIC Coolers, OtterBox and Hydro Flask. RTIC coolers has positioned itself as the cheaper alternative to Yeti, with an almost identical origin story (two brothers in Texas) and going so far as to make products that look like replicas of Yeti products. The brand makes a cooler that’s around $100 less than the cost of Yeti’s.
Yeti’s products now range from coolers to hats and bags to bottle openers. The brand released new products this spring that included smaller versions of its carryall and new colors such as bright pink.
Yeti has also branched out onto TikTok. The brand has 280,000 followers and 2.2 million likes on the platform.
“We’re not a natural fit [for TikTok] but we’ve found our place there,” said Dery. This includes posting videos showing how to stock a cooler and instances in which its products have survived fires with ice still inside, as well as making jokey replies to videos of people showing how much Yeti merch they have, said Dery.
Yeti also maintains presences on Facebook and Instagram along with traditional TV advertising. It doesn’t have an agency of record and instead produces its spots in-house, according to a spokesperson.
Some of its ad spending has been dedicated to the film tour. Yeti plugged the events on its website as well as through email, PR and social media. Its ambassadors also posted about the tour on their platforms and the Chicago event drew about 200 people. Films were projected on a screen with two banners that read “Yeti” on either side.
Stinson said she found out about the event from a mailer. She spent $30 on a ticket — which is a significant pricetag for what was essentially a branded event. But Stinson said that she likes how Yeti is “trying to tell these stories."
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