On June 27, over 200 backpackers take off from the starting line for the first leg of a three-day, 40-mile journey through the Colorado backcountry. More than half wear Fjällräven pants, shirts, or jackets. The rest carry Fjällräven packs.
Ten miles later they set up Fjällräven tents, gather around the fire pits to whittle with knives provided by partner brand Morakniv, collect water with Grayl filters, and boil it with Primus stoves. The whole scene is a marketer’s dream.
But like any dream come true, it’s been a long time in the making.
The Fjällräven Classic series, a multiday hiking endeavor aimed at getting novice outdoorists backpacking for the first time, kicked off in Sweden in 2005. After nearly a decade of growth (Swedish Classics now draw crowds in excess of 2,000), the brand expanded into Denmark in 2013, then Colorado in 2016. The Classic is set to make its Hong Kong debut in October, 2017.
Fjällräven isn’t the only company to use experiential events to drum up outdoor interest and brand recognition—just look at the road tour trend, Cotopaxi’s Questival, or REI’s Outessa Summits—but they might just take the cake for going all-in.
It takes about a year to gather all the moving pieces for a single Classic. Among those pieces you’ll find helicopters, trailhead shuttles, an on-call emergency staff, patrolling medical personnel, a fleet of portable toilets, a half-dozen aid stations and check-in points, and a whole slew of brand partners with demos and giveaways of their own.
Fjällräven doesn’t come close to breaking even, says Nathan Dopp, president of Fjällräven North America, especially in the States where the Classic is little-known and 200-person attendance levels don’t even touch critical mass. So why the expense?
“We all remember the first time we got out and decided we loved the outdoors,” says Dopp. “And we always remember who took us there.”
The hikes cater to beginners. By taking all the guesswork out of backpacking, Fjällräven has turned the Classic into a gateway to outdoor adventure and positioned the brand as the newcomers’ guide.
“People come out and get a feel for the brand, whether or not they’re advocates for it,” says Dopp. For a brand that’s only been in the US for half a decade, “That’s gold,” he says. “Then you have authentic users from 30 states going home and talking about this thing they found, this secret club.”
The key to building that “secret club” feel? Staying true to the brand’s generalist origins and Swedish DNA, even in foreign markets, says Dopp.
“To be successful [with a brand event], you have to do something that’s in your wheelhouse. You can’t throw an event trying to convince people that you’re something you’re not,” he says.
By keeping the commitment level casual and the mood celebratory (hikers roll into checkpoints to the sound of cheering and the smell of sizzling bacon, simmering soup, and other surprise treats), Fjällräven manages to adhere to its lifestyle roots and stand out in an events market saturated with ultralight, highly technical gear. And the resulting community feel is what keeps folks coming back.
Take Jim Head, for example. A longtime hiker from Chicago, Head read about the Swedish classic and signed up for his first one in 2014, drawn by its location on the Kungsleden, or The King’s Trail, which he’d always wanted to try but didn’t have a partner for. He went back two years in a row, having made a half-dozen good friends he could count on to show up as repeat participants.
Last year, he attended his first Colorado Classic. There he met Greg Borchert. After the hike, they kept in touch, exchanging emails and sharing training tips and strategies. This year they returned to hike the 2017 Classic together.
“It’s the scenery and sense of adventure that brings you to a new place for the first time, but it’s the people that keep you coming back again and again,” Head said.