Guest editorial: Selling the Great Outdoors

The outdoor market is flat and getting flatter. Our problems started well before September 11. In fact, our problems began to quietly appear on the radar screen well before the recession.
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The outdoor industry had been taking its growth for granted. Armed with the battle cry, "If you build it, they will come," manufacturers and retailers believed that innovative product was the stimulator for a growing market. Build an outdoor jacket that was bombproof, waterproof, breathable, and the right color scheme, and you would grow the business. It was all about product, and it was all about getting that product through the distribution channels. The rest, well, it would take care of itself.

In many cases, this thinking was right. Innovation can be a big factor in our growth when the innovation is understandable enough to provide sizzle and create demand, especially with hard-core users. From there, the trickle-down theory starts to take hold.

However, it's become clear the general consumer now believes most outdoor product is of good quality and works well and, with few exceptions, they're essentially correct. Product parity has arrived and innovation from one product intro to the next is infinitesimal at best. Go to any section of any outdoor shop, and you?ll see a numbing display of great product -- backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, stoves, water filters, shells, casual clothing, and footwear. The degree of quality separation between products has very clearly narrowed. Retail salespeople, by far the biggest movers of product in the industry, appear to believe for the most part that one product will work just as well as another for most buyers too.

How about the media? Look at the product reviews in the publications. It has now boiled down to minutia. Editors rave about a lacing system, the two ounces of weight saved in a backpack, the pockets of a shell. Do consumers care? Yes, if they are hardcore outdoor enthusiasts. No, if they are general consumers.

In short, general consumers don?t use the outdoors as an extreme gymnasium.

To most, the outdoors is a walk in the park. Outdoors is a motorized camping trip to a national park or forest service campground. Outdoors is fishing. Outdoors is a bike ride with the family. Outdoors is pheasant-hunting with friends. And those are the good things. Outdoors is also mosquitoes, gnats, hot muggy weather, uncomfortable beds, rain, bored kids, and so-so food.

In contrast, the outdoor industry appears to view the outdoors through rose-colored glasses. Everything good, even the rain, bad food, and wild critters.

Which brings us to our flat market. Because of increasing product parity (be it perception or reality, you decide) and our inability to see beyond ourselves, we've ended up creating a shopping disconnect.

So, how do we connect with the general consumer and invite them into our world, our market?

When you go to the Caribbean for a vacation do you think about sand fleas, sea urchins, sun burn, and rip tides. Nope. You think about warm weather, casual swims to cool off,
snorkeling, scuba, fishing, a good book, great food, and beautiful sunsets. Why? Because you have been sold that. Every resort, cruise ship operation, and travel council selling the Caribbean has painted a picture that appeals to a wide variety of Americans.

Visa doesn?t sell the ease of using its card. It wraps itself around the sizzle of the Kentucky Derby. It?s the experience of the Derby, made easier by Visa.

We sell product. They sell experience.

So, what do we have to sell other than product? Plenty -- relaxation, exercise, fitness, family, friends, adventure, education, and safety -- all far from the madding crowd. In short, life without the burden of sensory overload brought to us by today's civilization. We offer the most coveted product of all today -- the luxury of time, to focus on a conversation, a ride, a climb, a hike, or just being by yourself. Trouble is, we're not selling it.

Let?s get specific. It means hiking a mile from camp with your 4-year-old daughter and seeing a deer, and her excitedly telling everyone about her adventures with daddy that night around the campfire. It?s mountain biking with friends on the White Rim Trail and then camping that night dazzled by a sun setting over the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. It's a lazy daylong float on a local river, trailing fingers in cool water and dreaming. It?s a two-day hiking and camping trip along the Appalachian Trail with old college chums, experiencing new adventures, reliving old memories, getting great exercise, and laughing. Laughing a lot. All of these experiences center around one big thought: "You?ll be more alive than you've been in years." Now, we should wrap that up into an invitation general consumers will accept and will search out!

They won?t accept a visual invitation to join our club if we show them a guy 600 feet off the ground, grimacing, stuck on a 5.13. Or a bloody body on a mountain bike.

OK, so what?s the solution? A storyline: a consistent message to consumers about the wonderful experiences to be found in the lakes, mountains, plains, and seas of America. This would be an unrelenting message painting a picture of every American rediscovering a better part of his or her lives in the outdoors. Each activity needs to be wrapped around a promise of enrichment and fulfillment, which tie back to the core outdoor values previously mentioned.

Here are a few rough ideas: The first is a large outdoor brand awareness campaign that sells the sizzle of the outdoor experience. It's an integration of television, print, web, and point-of-sale. This appeals to a broad demographic, but is especially effective with boomers who have two key components: time and money. Integrated, one form of media would pass-off to the next until the consumer lands at the point-of-sale. These pieces create a vision of optimism and a promise of enrichment, discovery and adventure. And when consumers walk into retail stores, they won't be shopping for a product, but for an experience. Now price won't be the issue. Getting to The Experience will be the issue.

Another idea is a grass-roots program for teenagers that includes manufacturer-dealer school presentations, an Internet site, and a traveling show tied with local dealer-in-the-field contests.

And, here?s a more passive idea concerning an industry-wide program in which all advertising contains a cooperative promise of a rich outdoor experience.

Many believe industry-wide initiatives won?t work. OK, then let every company in our industry infuse its advertising with a its own experiential message, one with broad appeal.

For too many years we have been selling to the enthusiasts and ourselves, believing that all consumers see the outdoors as we see it. It's now time to break out of that box and go door-to door. It's time for us to be real salespeople. Armed with a smile, a sales pitch full of captivating and wide-ranging experiences and a resolve to connect with America. It's time to broadly sell what we love.

Paul Kirwin is the president of Kirwin Communications. Operating in the outdoor industry for 17 years, his company continues to be a group of "out of the box" thinkers. Kirwin believes every company has a great story, but it often goes untold. Sometimes it's buried in the rubble of inconsistent advertising. Sometimes it's never been found. And sometimes it just needs updating. Once found or uncovered, it becomes a force of its own. And drives a company "out of the box" and into the creative beyond.

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