Recreational Equipment, Inc., or REI, helped me get through graduate school.
Their outdoor camping equipment catalogs ameliorated the stress of examinations by diverting my mind just before falling asleep every night. I drifted into dreamland by fantasizing about wilderness treks made more comfortable by REI's cool high-tech camping toys.
Of course, I also purchased equipment as often as I could afford it and would wait in excited anticipation until an REI box would arrive in my mail from Seattle. My co-op number is 288XXX, which, because numbers are assigned chronologically, means that I joined the cooperative very early in its history. Today, the equipment retailer has well over six million co-op members.
I've been a customer since the early 1970's.
Now when I have out-of-town visitors, I eventually take them to the REI flagship store in downtown Denver. I always leave with a shopping bag in hand. Sometimes I work at the REI Starbuck's between meetings. You would not be exaggerating to describe me as a loyal customer.
About two years ago, I started looking more critically at REI's catalogs - still a form of therapy for this sometimes stressed out marketing executive.
I noticed that the catalogs did not show any models over 40. While the catalogs appear carefully balanced for ethnicity - Caucasian, African American, Latino, and East Asian - not a single model in the last half-dozen catalogs has been middle-aged or older.
I was disturbed that executives working on behalf of my favorite brand would be this unthinking. It must be an oversight! So I dashed off a letter to REI's then-CEO. Here's an excerpt:
Earlier last week, I was in Phoenix to present a workshop to a European team of executives touring the US. The company's goal is to understand better how American companies are successfully marketing to Boomers.
The CEO of this 500-store company, the European equivalent of Lens Crafters, and I talked about REI after dinner last Tuesday. Daniel told me in his expressive French accent, "I love REI." So the next morning, prior to giving my workshop, I presented him with my most recent REI catalog, which I had fortuitously brought with me from Denver to Phoenix.
The point of this letter is to raise a concern. Not one photo in REI's 2004 spring or summer catalogs portrays someone over 50. Every human photo is populated by younger people. Yet, your catalogs have been carefully balanced for ethnicity to present, I am sure, a true reflection of REI's commitment to diversity.
What is important for you and your marketing team to consider is the role of Boomers in the growth of REI during the last three decades. This cohort helped popularize the outdoor sports of greatest relevance to REI today.
Boomers have been buying equipment from your stores and catalogs for decades. I also submit that this generation continues to be a lucrative market for adventure travel and ultralight outdoor equipment sales.
I never received a reply.
To make this story a little more interesting, I was interviewed last December by Business Week Online concerning Boomers. I'm often asked to give my opinions about which advertisers "get it" and which don't. On the "don't get it" side, I mentioned REI's apparent failure not to include photos of Boomers or older adults in its catalogs. As a frequent customer, I have never received any targeted communications addressing my generational cohort -- another missed opportunity.
Fate would have it that I was also simultaneously hosting the Senior Vice President of Marketing for REI at an event in Denver. My comments in Business Week did not go unnoticed. Another executive in charge of public relations sent me an email voicing his concern. He said:
"The part of the article that has my colleagues talking is the implication that REI doesn't understand the importance of the aging population - and I've been encouraged to write a letter to the editor to set the record straight that not only do we recognize the importance of this segment, but that a significant portion of our customer base falls within this category."
My email reply to him pointed out the obvious discontinuity between "a significant portion" of REI's customer base and no visual representation of Boomers (or older) in REI catalogs.
Since then, REI has sent me three more catalogs and, again, the catalogs only depict young adults as models. It's truly ironic that both the former and present CEOs of REI are Boomers.
Why fret? Well, ageism for one. Another is diversity. If you walk into any REI on a typical shopping day, you'll see plenty of middle-aged adults.
The cynic might conclude that REI does not need to represent Boomers in its marketing communications. We're already fanatical over the brand.
Since when does excluding, by omission, a market segment worth at least 27% of the business make sense from a brand-building perspective?
Oh, and by the way, REI's goliath competitor Cabela's is opening a store soon in Denver. Maybe I should think again about my outdoor outfitter brand loyalties.