Stay relevant, profitable, by focusing on America’s shifting demographics

Three-fourths of today's outdoor participants are white, but a look at shifting U.S. demographics suggests the industry will have to do a better job attracting more diverse audiences to stay profitable in the future.
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Throughout the month of February, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 19-22. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

While people of more varied backgrounds are trickling onto the trails, into retail shops and onto company payrolls, the outdoor industry remains overwhelmingly Caucasian. A whopping three of four participants today are white, according to the 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation.

Yet the latest U.S. Census found that more than a third of the country’s population now comes from Hispanic, black or Asian groups — with a 43 percent growth in Hispanic numbers alone during the last decade. For the industry to avoid becoming an endangered species, it must address that shift. The future is just about here: Experts foresee the so-called minority becoming a majority in the next 20 years.

The business “[will] die a death in the middle of the woods by itself,” said Joel Heath, global marketing manager for Teva, unless it targets a broader range of consumers. Outdoor Retailer show director Kenji Haroutunian sings the same tune: Bringing diversity to the industry — both in the form of customers and employees — “is the secret to unlocking a continually growing and healthy industry.”

Setting the stage at Outdoor Retailer
The past few Outdoor Retailer shows have become a stage for discussions on how to make the industry more diverse. Juan Martinez, director of leadership and development at the Natural Leaders Network and current board member of the Sierra Club, said he feels the industry is getting closer to turning those discussions into action.

Marketing guru Guy Garcia, founder and CEO of MentaMetrix, a research, marketing and consulting firm, said the future of the outdoor industry likely lies with multicultural youth. And that’s what Martinez, too, said he believed. That would build the next generation of loyal consumers and future industry employees from the grassroots level.

Youth are always a starting point for any industry to gain followers. The belief is, they will stick with it as they grow older. But in the case of Latinos, other cultural phenomena are in play. The older generation would be a “tough sell,” said Garcia, since many Latino immigrants or older generations of U.S.-born Latinos don’t generally engage in outdoor activities. However, “targeting younger Latinos would be very useful as they’re more connected to new, multicultural sports,” Garcia added. “They might be more likely to get interested in snowboarding or other activities.”

To win that audience, companies and retailers need to understand some of the reasons why people, including youth, of color don’t gravitate toward outdoor recreation. They include: little family exposure, lack of money, too many miles to parks or other recreation areas and few like themselves once there.

Heather Metivier, director of marketing and communications for Denver, Colo.-based Big City Mountaineers, which mentors youth and takes them outdoors, said the most common reason urban youth don’t get outside more is a lack of role models.

“‘Why would I want to participate if it’s just a bunch of white people?’” Metivier said she has heard.

Though Martinez had reservations when he started his outdoor career, he soon overcame them thanks to mentors like mountaineer Conrad Anker. Martinez has made it his mission to serve as the same kind of guide for those in the Natural Leaders Network, which connects children to nature, with a key added benefit — he’s from the same culture as many of the kids he mentors.

“I see how it makes a difference when they see somebody from their own community who understands their culture and is doing this kind of stuff,” Martinez said.

The hope of some organizations like Big City Mountaineers and Natural Leaders Network is that the outdoor lovers they are grooming can one day be on the payrolls at industry companies, becoming tomorrow’s leaders and keeping the industry off the endangered list.

Keeping kids in school and helping connect them to resources so they can move into the industry as an employee, Martinez said, will create a ripple effect. The future leaders will make the industry a more approachable space for people from their ethnic backgrounds and soon the industry will become a more diverse place.

Fostering community: Lessons from women

It will take time to build those future leaders, Martinez said, but meanwhile, minorities and those trying to bring in people now seemingly left out could look to the lessons learned by women in the industry. Nearly 17 years ago, women feeling unsupported and ignored in a strongly male industry came together to form the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition.

Fostering community and finding mentors was one of the group’s goals, said co-founder Carolyn Cooke, who was a co-founder and past president of Isis, a women’s-only apparel brand. The organization, she said, has made the outdoor industry a more comfortable place for women, but it took time and patience. Approaching its second decade, OIWC is still addressing issues of inequality, but support for women in management positions is available and women are more visible in the industry.

“OIWC has been a great source of personal power and a great place to recognize we’re not alone,” Cooke said. A sense of community — similar to what’s needed for minorities — was born.

Tap into the untapped

Creating a diverse industry and bringing the enjoyment and health aspects of the outdoors to other communities is just one benefit. Of course, the brands and retailers are looking for a larger consumer base. What needs to be clear is that diversity does not equal poverty, Teva’s Heath said. People from non-white backgrounds have money to spend — more than a $1 trillion, according to figures from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

“Those people are standing at the trail head waiting to be invited in,” Haroutunian said. “They have American Express cards and plenty of cash, but we’re not reaching out.”

Part of the industry’s success in attracting women as consumers was starting to offer women’s specific products, not just downsized men’s items. The beauty of attracting a more diverse consumer is that companies won’t have to change how they make products. Companies should, however, change up how they target fresh audiences by reaching out to their communities, Haroutunian said. This, MentaMetrix’s Garcia said, is not without its challenges. Needed will be research, he emphasized, so companies can understand their target audience and how to successfully integrate its members into their communities.

REI has done just that for the past three years since it hired Myrian Solis Colonel to build relationships with communities of color in Southern California, with another arm of the program in Atlanta.

“What makes it challenging for organizations like us to try to reach them is of course not every community is the same,” Solis Colonel said. “One size does not fit all.”

Outdoor Nation, an outdoor youth advocacy program, is another good example, said Ivan Levin, the organization’s director. At the five outdoor summits in different cities last year, crowds were split evenly between white people and those of color, Levin said, noting that more diverse faces were perhaps seen because the group promoted the events in their communities.

And then there are those nonprofits dedicated to getting people of color outdoors, like Greg Wolley’s Portland, Ore.-based African American Outdoor Association. The organization has taken 80 to 100 people a year on outdoor excursions since 2005, providing that sense of community for black outdoor participants. This has helped people of all ages get hooked on the outdoors using what the Outdoor Foundation refers to as gateway activities like hiking and riding bikes.

Although there are several nonprofits that target or include at-risk urban youth from Latino backgrounds, like Big City Mountaineers, there isn’t an organization similar to Wolley’s for Latinos. He does not limit his group to youth but includes those of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds and seeks to get them out in an organized way.

“It really is about starting locally and addressing members of diverse populations in their own homes and communities,” Levin said, “before you take them away from that” and into the wilderness. This builds the start of a relationship and, thus, also builds the mandatory element of trust.

“Building relationships and trust goes a long way in connecting with any new community,” said Marcelo Bonta, founder and executive director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment. Companies must first “acknowledge that people of color enjoy and value the outdoors and, second, engage in culturally appropriate ways of communicating and connecting.”

Where is the “right now” opportunity?

Brands and retailers in the industry must recognize two keys, Martinez said: The culture of potential new consumers and that there are certain characteristics that transcend all cultures.

“The sense of adventure, sense of accomplishment, urge to climb a mountain, go fish, go run — those are universal,” Martinez said. “They’re not just targeted to one community.”

The Outdoor Foundation reported the number of ethnic minorities who participated in outdoor activities in 2010 increased to 29.5 percent from 25 percent in 2007. Chris Fanning, executive director at the Outdoor Foundation, said the slight increase was due to the downturn in the economy that caused many people to seek lower-cost forms of entertainment, which included outdoor activities. The favorites among minorities included trail running, running and jogging. And though there are fewer participants of color, Fanning said, they tend to go out more often than their white counterparts. And what do you need for those activities on the most basic level? Footwear. According to data from the Selig Center and the UCLA Anderson School of Management, both black and Hispanic populations tended to spend more money on footwear than other items.

“I would suggest organizations that focus on trail running” start to reach out, Fanning said. Since it’s a gateway activity, “once they’re hooked, one kind of outdoor activity will most likely lead to them trying another.”

On the right road

Though REI is on the right track, Bonta noted it’s still not at a “level six,” the highest level the Center for Diversity and the Environment bestows on companies with staff and initiatives that reflect a commitment to diversity. REI, Bonta noted, is currently a level three and most other companies in the industry are a one or two.

Companies other than REI also received props from those interviewed by O.R.D. for their support of nonprofits and initiatives that seek to get more diverse populations into the outdoors. For example, Keen drew note, as well as several VFC companies including The North Face, JanSport and Timberland.

“There have been great strides as far as diversity in companies where there wasn’t much years ago,” said Skip Yowell, co-founder of JanSport. “We’ve come a long way from the dark ages of the ’70s and later ’60s … but I wouldn’t say we’re there yet. The journey sill has a lot of work to be done.”

Unlike retail giant REI, most companies and retailers in the industry have shied away from marketing to more multicultural markets, Haroutunian said.

“You flip through catalogs and it’s only white people on every page,” Haroutunian said. “There’s no place for someone who is black, Latino or Asian to say, ‘Look there are people like me.’”

And though many companies might be afraid to market to diverse audiences, said James Mills, industry veteran and freelance journalist, his advice is to start by considering publications targeted toward specific communities, like Essence, Ebony or Jet.

An overnight solution? Unlikely. Easy? Never. Impossible? Not with willpower.

“You’ve got to beat that drum for a while before people hear the rhythm,” Haroutunian said. “I think that it’s high time that the industry embrace this with all arms and go for it.”
--Ana Trujillo

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