How Yeti Made a Cooler an Aspirational Brand

If You Can't Afford $350 for a Grizzly-Proof Model, You Can Always Settle for a Hat

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Yeti is reinventing the utilitarian cooler as a status symbol.

Named for the abominable snowman, Yeti is shaking up the market for coolers with high-end, nearly-indestructible models built for outdoor enthusiasts like hunters and fishermen. Now the brand, which has shown expolsive growth in recent in years, is trying to remain authentic in its messaging to those groups while branching out into new markets.

Yeti helped launch the premium cooler category when it debuted its first high-quality, hard-case model six years ago. Its smaller models start around $250 and prices can climb into the thousands depending on size and style. Its best sellers are small and medium hard-case coolers that fit in the back of a truck or car.

Clearly, this is not your grandmother's ice chest.

"Yeti reinvented a major part of this category and treated the cooler as more than a disposable product," said Corey Maynard, VP-marketing for Yeti, which was founded in 2006. The company cast the cooler "as a thing that was meant to last, meant to be used, and was built as tough as it possibly could be. The price didn't really matter."

The brand grew by going after niche markets like the hunting and fishing communities. In 2013, Yeti's sales were up more than 50% from the previous year, reaching $100 million – a milestone for the young brand. "It's been an absolute rocket ship," said Mr. Maynard.

The Austin-based brand is popular in the South and Southeast and is trying to carve out a space for itself in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. It's also extending into lifestyle markets like the barbeque world.

The biggest challenge for Yeti in conquering new markets is convincing consumers to pay hundreds of dollars for a cooler. The brand pushes performance and relies heavily on professional endorsements from the hunting, fishing and barbeque communities. It also uses endemic marketing for magazines and TV to take Yeti's message directly to the markets it wants to reach.

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Yeti's coolers are "grizzly proof," which is an actual certification by Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, not just marketing jargon. And they're designed to keep ice cold for long periods of time, sometimes days, depending on the temperature and preparation. But Yeti says most of its consumers will never actually use those benefits.

"The aspirational use and the actual use don't always have to be the same thing," said Mr. Maynard. "We want our communication to stay as absolutely authentic to the hardcore user from the hardcore user as we possibly can."

The company declined to comment on its media spending, but Mr. Maynard said Yeti sponsors 72 hunting and fishing programs on the Outdoor Channel along with marketing on Sportsman, Pursuit and World Fishing Network. It also made a "sizeable investment" in addressable TV this year, he said, targeting households based on their behaviors to reach them during any program they're watching. Starcom MediaVest's Spark, based in Chicago, manages Yeti's media planning.

From a manpower standpoint, Yeti's strongest marketing effort is through social media. The brand leverages its sponsorships to get endorsements from outdoor celebrities like hunter Jim Shockey, fisherman Flip Pallot and Aaron Franklin, owner of the Austin-based Franklin Barbeque. The stars spread the Yeti message to their followers in their own words, helping the brand connect with consumers.

Yeti also uses apparel and other merchandising to turn its customers into brand "ambassadors." In the beginning, Yeti included a hat with every cooler it sold to get people talking about its products. Now, it sells branded hats, T-shirts, bottle openers and other gear - sometimes to consumers who don't own a Yeti cooler.

"People want to be part of that lifestyle," said Austin McKenna, account director at McGarrah Jessee, Yeti's creative agency. "If I'm wearing a Yeti hat in an airport, it's almost an invitation to have a conversation."

To compete with Yeti, major cooler brands have introduced their own premium lines. Igloo's Yukon, which launched in 2011, and Coleman's Esky Series, released this year, both advertise high-performance and durability designed for outdoorsmen and women. Other brands like Engel, Grizzly, Orca and Pelican also offer similar products.

Yeti is evolving its product line to keep an edge over its competitors. The brand introduced drinkware and soft-sided coolers this year, which Mr. Maynard said were big hits. Yeti also ramped up manufacturing to meet what it termed the "unbelievable" demand for its stainless-steel, insulated tumblers. It also sold out of its soft-sided cooler, dubbed "The Hopper," within 48 hours after it was announced to the hunting and fishing trade community in July, he said.

"Yeti created a market opportunity that [other cooler brands] weren't spending anytime thinking about," said Mr. Maynard, when asked about his competitors. "We know that we have to work hard to stay in front of them and that's going to be through innovation and marketing."

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