a bike on the mountain side

Marketing for the Outdoor Industry

The outdoor industry is broad, from backcountry skiers to road cyclists to deer hunters. But more than in most industries, the people in it consider themselves to be part of a lifestyle, not just customers of a brand. It’s not enough to make good products. You have to embody that lifestyle as well. You need to be authentic and real, showing your customers that you know what it’s like to be them, and that you understand their goals and struggles. Let’s talk about how to do that.

Retail Space Is A Delicate Balance

On the one hand, retail offers some real advantages over online shopping in the outdoor space. The ability to feel the heft of a bow, the fit of a jacket, or the weight of a bike is something that the internet can’t offer.

But most outdoor brands are having trouble nailing down where people are buying, and thus where to spend their marketing dollars or place their products. Big-box stores that can carry enough variety to showcase your brand are in decline, and specialty retailers are often too specialized.

Make Direct Contact With Consumers

Instead of putting money into retail, a lot of outdoor brands are taking a more grassroots approach. By piggybacking on events and offering gear demos at climbing gyms, bike shops, and wherever else their customers live, these brands are able to put their product in the hands of customers who value real-world experience without casting an overly broad net.

Keep in mind that you don’t just have to work with outdoorsy events. The overlap in audience between outdoorsy customers and breweries, music festivals, and film fests is huge. If you’re doing your homework on who your buyer personas are, you should be able to find them wherever they spend their time.

Content Is More Important Than Ever

As proponents of the inbound marketing methodology, we already spend a lot of time telling you that content is king. In the outdoor industry, it’s even more important.

As usual, your content needs to be on-brand, informative, and educational. You’re answering the basic needs and questions of your audience so that when they go looking for answers, you’re the brand they find.

But in the outdoor industry specifically, authenticity is crucial. If you write a blog for a cycling company, you had better be a cyclist. If you want to write reviews about duck calls, you’d better have taken them out and called ducks with them.

Outdoor customers want to know that you know what you’re talking about, and they can be unforgiving if you don’t. You’re not just talking about an object they bought — you’re talking about their passion, and they need to know you’re taking it seriously.

Write compelling stories, as much as you can. When Columbia Sportswear wanted to show off its new Omni-Shade line of sun-protectant gear, they didn’t just talk about materials and technology and call it a day.

Instead, they gave a bunch of Omni-Shade clothes to a pair of accomplished distance hikers and set them out on the 80-mile White Rim trail through the middle of the Utah desert. In July. Not only is the video entertaining, beautiful, and engaging, but it shows the clothes in the context they’ll really be used. If they can survive that trip, they can survive anything.

Write about trends in the industry you live in. Are 1×12 drivetrains coming to road bikes? Is the cost of Dyneema backpacks worth the weight savings? Are auto-ranging bow sights taking the skill out of the sport?

These are the kind of things your customers care about, and they want to be informed on how their world is changing. Better yet, talking about new and potentially controversial trends is a great way to get conversation — and engagement — going.

Show your customers that you relate to their challenges and goals. Use tools like Google Analytics to find out what people in your industry are concerned about, or what they strive to accomplish.

Find people who have recently accomplished those things and use their stories as inspiration! And of course, congratulate your followers on social media when they do something awesome.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words…

…And a video is worth a million. If your product is something intangible like software, there are only so many photos of happy people with laptops you can really use. But if you’re in the outdoor industry, there’s no such thing as too many photos.

User-generated content (UGC) is especially powerful, showing that the people who buy your stuff are actually out there using it, creating a community that potential customers want to be a part of.

Putting the Social in Social Media

Customers of outdoor brands are hyper-focused on being a part of a community. There’s a sense of kinship from meeting a fellow mountain biker or rock climber that isn’t universal to all brands.

If you want your customers to respect you as part of that community, you’ll have to live the part. That means building a brand persona that has a distinct voice and tone. It also means pushing boundaries and taking some risks, even if that feels like you’re excluding people.

Take Backcountry.com, for example. In 2013, they re-launched their brand, topped off by a video, This Is Backcountry. The video is visceral, emotional, and connects with people in a way that a blog post or a mission statement never will.

It’s also aspirational — most of Backcountry’s customers will never do the things in the video, but they’d like to think they could, someday. Backcountry knows that some of their customers will buy a $600 rain jacket and wear it to their kids’ Little League game, but that’s not the club they’re trying to be a part of.

Influencers and ambassadors are another great way to build street cred through social media. Just as the Columbia video showcased the product in a real world environment, ambassadors can put your stuff through the wringer in an authentic, convincing way.

Keeping it Real

The bottom line, when marketing to the outdoor industry, is authenticity. Outdoor enthusiasts aren’t just buying a product. They’re representing a lifestyle and a community, and they need to know that you care about that community as much as they do.


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