Why REI's #OptOutside Is a Model for the Future of Marketing

How Brands Can Adopt More Customer-Inspired Marketing

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In the retail world, REI has done the unthinkable: On Black Friday, once deemed the holiest day in all of shopping, the retailer will close its doors and pay its employees to #OptOutside.

REI's much-lauded decision is an example of what happens when a brand has a truly empathetic understanding of its customers and uses that understanding to create experiences that customers value.

For decades, companies stayed relevant and gained market share by out-spending, out-marketing, and out-advertising competitors. A Black Friday bloodbath of consumers battling it out in jam-packed aisles, readily forking over big money for big savings is most retailers' ideal way to kick off the holiday season. For decades, the attitude that more is better, with no thought to how customers (not to mention employees) felt, was the default setting for retailers.

Today, this is no longer the case.

REI's move signals a massive shift in the way companies are doing business and marketing themselves. The new reality is that as customers become more skilled at, and have better technology for, managing their many brand relationships, they will weed out or ignore companies that fail to sufficiently understand their needs and deliver value against them. This is the new consumerism -- empowered, entrepreneurial and enabled.

REI's decision reflects its fundamental empathy for its customers, who have zero desire to stand in line for the best deal on a gorgeous fall Friday, when they could be hiking Mt. Moosilauke. As such, along with pages of glowingly positive (and free) press, the hashtag #OptOutside is trending among consumers and REI employees, with many saying they plan to skip shopping on Black Friday, and asking others consumers and retailers to join in.

The reality is that when brands operate with empathy and use it to fuel every decision, action, message, product, service and experience, they are both more agile and more successful. For brands looking to adopt REI's customer-inspired model, here are some strategies:

1. Take down your walls.

Having a meaningful, two-way dialogue with customers -- as opposed to continual, even incessant, messaging, surveying and feedback requests -- shows greater transparency and builds trust. Remaining open and accessible helps customers feel heard by the company.

A great example is Southwest Airlines. Beloved by customers for its service and value, Southwest recently went so far as coining a new word: "transfarency." It even has a website that compares the airline's fees to those of its competitors, and that encourages customer communication and creativity. Everlane, too, is successfully challenging retail stalwarts like Gap, J. Crew and Banana Republic with its mission of "radical transparency," which is resonating with millennial and Baby Boomer consumers alike.

2. You are customers, too, so act like it.

Customers want to feel that there are actual human beings at companies who understand them. As such, customer-inspired companies really feel what their customers feel -- their pains, joys, frustrations, fears and motivations. And they feel it instinctually. Companies that empathize with their customers demonstrate better "customer intuition" than their competitors, and can act faster and with greater confidence as a result.

Take, for example, the latest Barbie campaign "Imagine the Possibilities" from Mattel, which is resonating widely with parents and millennials for the way it portrays the real way children play with their dolls. For so many years, Mattel has missed the mark with moms and kids, who've been turned off by Barbie's hyper-femininity and unattainable form. With this latest campaign, which strips away the artifice and focuses on the joy of imagination, Mattel is demonstrating that it fundamentally understands how kids play with their Barbies and why their moms will let them.

3. Be empathetic.

Empathetic companies deliver superior customer experiences. They value their customers' time and appreciate their loyalty. This may be done through small gestures, like getting a free coffee at Starbucks on your birthday, or putting cellphone charging stations in stores, like Under Armour recently announced. Or larger ones, like how easy Zappos makes it to return shoes. Making coherent and seamless customer experiences everyone's responsibility (regardless of job function or level) shows customers that their needs are understood across the business, and that everyone at the company cares.

Companies that truly "get" their customers share their customers' fundamental values -- whether that's the importance of enjoying the outdoors like REI, or unleashing creativity like Converse. When companies speak and act in a way that customers can relate to, people are more apt to want to open up and share more of themselves. Armed with this information, companies can then create messaging, products, services and experiences that resonate with and are more relevant to their customers' lives and needs.

#OptOutside isn't just a call to action for Black Friday. It's a wake-up call for why, now more than ever, customer empathy matters and why marketers need to take action.

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