outdoor brands

Are Outdoor brands screwing themselves with Social Media?

By Marcus Chidgey


The debate is intensifying over whether today’s outdoor brands should be sponsoring Adventurers for their ability to create slick content and engage social media followings, or their ability to accomplish genuine feats of exploration.

Over the weekend, thanks to a Facebook share from Alastair Humphreys, I came across Devon O’Neil’s article “Is Social Media Screwing Over Explorers?” on Outside Online. It yet again gave rise to a question surrounding outdoor brands that I have been struggling with for some time. 

Why is it that, at a time when Adventure is becoming ever more popular as a means of marketing everything from cars to insurance to clothing, Adventurers continue to be underfunded and, by and large, paid in product?

Adventurers are the people whose exploits we are all driven to watch, read about and follow. Some go out and, as we know, achieve great feats of human performance and endeavour, whilst others inspire by getting people outdoors, bringing others closer to the world around them.

Very few do it for money, they do it for love, and often this is what’s so compelling. Though, with the Adventure mega-trend they have created, you’d think the names that drop into your Facebook timeline would all be accomplished pros, comfortably living on six-figure sponsorship deals.

Yet the truth is that most struggle to make ends meet. What unites all Adventurers is that, no matter where they are in the pecking order, they should be getting paid a hell of a lot more than they currently are.

Product doesn’t pay the mortgage. Adventure sells – so what’s going wrong?

Devon suggests that we have reached a turning point where, in the outdoor market, brands have realised that in order to sell more product they need to sign-up opinion formers who can promote more ‘accessible lifestyles’ to their own large social media followings. He proposes that outdoor brands just don’t need the big names anymore, particularly if they aren’t social-media savvy.

Sure, social media has helped to articulate and popularise ‘Lifestyle Adventure’ – Adventure which, with a bit of motivation and training, is within most people’s grasp. Luckily for brands, this kind of advocacy means they don’t need to fund any expensive trips to far-flung parts of Nepal or Tajikistan! And, with social media, they can pretty much guarantee the minimum number of potential customers they reach.

It works like this: if you have 50 ambassadors on annual contracts each with 20,000 or more followers on one channel, the brand has a potential reach of a million people. Now let’s say each Adventurer posts 30 or more times over the year and most have 2-3 of these channels (Facebook, Twitter & Instagram). That’s a great proposition. Convince just 0.5% of followers to spend £200 on product and you bank £1m. Now give each ambassador a £2,000 account to spend on product which, in manufacturing terms, with all costs factored in, costs at most 40% of that. £40,000 (50 x £800) to drive sales of £1m+ – that’s a pretty good deal. Top that up with a few expedition grants, that’s still a pretty good deal.

I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets here. It’s common knowledge and you would think it makes perfect commercial sense. Build the biggest direct-to-consumer marketing channel you can with your available marketing budget and the revenue becomes a numbers game. The Adventurers are filming and photographing themselves largely anyway. It’s a no-brainer. The economics work, right? Or do they?

Well, actually in the long run I’d argue that they don’t. By focusing on breadth rather than depth, outdoor brands are potentially screwing themselves. The problem with the model is that it’s a race to the bottom.

In February, I went to ISPO in Munich for the first time and I was absolutely bowled over by the sheer size of the show. It’s the equivalent of six aircraft hangers rammed with thousands of outdoor brands from all over the world. In one day, I managed to clock up over 16 km on my smart wristband just walking around it.

Whilst there were a few standout brands, I was struck by just how ‘samey’ some of the garment design was. Certainly to the average consumer, the kit was pretty much identical. In some instances, the logos were totally interchangeable. I thought to myself, how are all of these brands going to survive when the product is so similar? Well, in short, they can’t and they won’t.

The trouble with relying on social media ambassadors to amplify the brand, and paying them largely in product, is that the the bulk of the content becomes one-dimensional. With few funds available in the way of producing content, Adventurers tend to resort to product-placement posts: “People were asking me about the fill on my @brandname sleeping bag, it’s 600 fill”, or so-called ‘brand mentions’ – “Another day in the office [cue mountainscape] @brandname”. 

And, if you follow a few of these Adventurers, you start recognising these posts very quickly. Like bad adverts, you begin to ignore them. Much like the homogeny I saw at ISPO, the brands mentioned on these posts start to become facsimiles. “Another day in the office @brandnameA”, “Another day in the office @brandnameB”.

That’s not to say we’re not engaged still by the Adventurers themselves, it’s just their brand mentions often end up being formulaic and sometimes tragically dull. Worst of all, the brands concerned start being articulated in very similar ways to their competitors. It all becomes a much of a muchness.

This is where creativity, talent and, perhaps most importantly, adequate funding comes in. 

Sure, brands can buy reach by daisy-chaining social media profiles (in itself there’s nothing wrong with this), but they have to invest in talent. Buying something is transactional and gives an immediate return. Investing in something is multi-faceted, usually requires more funds and generates wealth over time. 

Take a cursory look at some of the major outdoor brands’ revenue projections and you’ll see they are forecasting 10% or more global growth year-on-year for the next 3 years. This amounts to tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of future revenue. In newer territories, this will be driven by market growth, but in Europe for example, the market is hitting a ceiling. Makers of outdoor goods need to acquire market share to grow and one of the key battlegrounds is brand.

Right now, far-sighted outdoor brands should be looking to build a core group of ambassadors who can afford to go fully-professional, who can afford to hone their craft and are provided with the resources to express their talent and their creativity. Brands should see their ambassadors’ careers as joint ventures: the originality, uniqueness and success of their ambassadors in turn tied to their business success. 

In the long run, authenticity and originality will win out. It always does. It won’t be about the most instagram pics with brand mentions you can possibly publish with your cohort of ambassadors, it will be about a long term commitment to a set of values and unique ideas. Which is why I think it’s a huge mistake for Mountain Hardwear to have dropped Ueli Steck. Talent like his comes around only once every generation. There will always be exciting new ambassadors available to be broken mainstream, but retaining ownership of industry-defining talent and by proxy your brand heritage, is essential for the future.

Older, wiser Ambassadors should be mentoring the young guns, in effect becoming guardians of the brand. Projects like the Coldest Crossing are admirable in their aspirations, but there’s nothing like having experience on the team to mitigate against media fallout and on-the-ground risk. Indeed, I would say that at least 50% of our work at Captive Minds is about risk mitigation, contingency planning and delivery. With in excess of £15m spent on brand-funded expeditions in the last 14 years with us, we know how important this is.

Too much emphasis on social media as a cheap end game, and not enough funding going in to professionalising and maturing talent to create ground-breaking content, is what will screw outdoor brands. There should be room to undertake genuine feats of exploration, create great content and deliver it to a large audience of potential consumers. 

To do this, Adventurers need the support and funding of brands to deliver properly, and a joined up vision to make projects bigger and multi-platform. In return, brands need confidence the short and long term value being given back to their business. With more money coming into the system through global market growth together with increased competition, hopefully we’ll start seeing this.

Ultimately, it will be those who take calculated risks in business, and on the hill, who make it to the top.