YETI's Rise May Seem Like Magic, But Its Not—It's All About Understanding Audience
How does a cooler business founded by two brothers in Austin, Texas, grow into a brand worth $1.7 billion in just twelve years?
The story of YETI’s meteoric rise is sure to be taught in every business school classroom for generations. It’s even more of an improbable tale given this context: most wildly successful brands sell the staples of modern life—clothes and shoes, cars, smartphones and laptops—and YETI sells…coolers.
So what lessons can marketers take from YETI? There are many, but they all boil down to this: know your audience.
Convert Early Adopters into Brand Ambassadors
In YETI’s early days, founders Ryan and Roy Seiders included a YETI hat and a YETI t-shirt with every cooler they shipped. While this may seem like pretty basic—and very old-school—marketing, it speaks to the secret of YETI’s success. Unlike many pieces of branded merchandise—coffee mugs, koozies, flash drives—that are immediately thrown out or forgotten about, the Seiders brothers gave out free gear to an audience who spends their lives in mesh baseball caps and t-shirts: fisherman, hunters, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes, especially those in Texas and the South.
Almost overnight, YETI had created a small army of chatty brand ambassadors who spent their weekends engaging in conversations with other members of YETI's target audience.When asked about this marketing tactic, Roy Seiders said, "I really felt like we educated our consumer on the selling points of our product. So when someone had a Yeti cooler in the back of their truck, they could defend that."
This is an important, and intuitive insight—there is nothing outdoors enthusiasts love more than talking about their gear, often in excruciating detail. Almost overnight, YETI had created a small army of chatty brand ambassadors who spent their weekends engaging in conversations with other members of YETI's target audience.
Utilize Pro Logic
There’s something else outdoors enthusiasts love: showing off the newest fishing rod, the latest sonar and GPS gadgets, or the best camp stove. If a fellow gear junkie recommends a product and says it’s the best piece of gear on the market, this audience will buy it. So while the price of YETI coolers may seem crazy to the uninitiated, when you consider that a mid-market fly rod (without the reel) retails for around $400, and a decent hunting blind goes for even more, spending $300 the portable YETI Hopper Two 30 Soft Cooler doesn’t seem so crazy.
Of course, your average weekend fisherman doesn’t need a bear-resistant cooler with military-grade ropes, just like your average garage guitarist doesn’t need the $6,000 Martin guitar that Jason Isbell plays, but that’s the beauty of using a pro logic in marketing. Amateurs don’t want to be just amateurs—they want to live out the fantasy of being pros, and that means using the same gear the pros use. The same logic applies to professional-grade Japanese chefs knives or a $12,000 road bike made by the same Italian company that legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx rode in his glory days.
YETI CEO Roy Seiders explains how they utilized this same pro logic: “It was a huge help to have high-profile hunters and fishers reinforce that image with testimonials. At the time, no other cooler company was advertising to outdoor enthusiasts or taking advantage of the professionals in the sport. Ryan and I couldn't quite believe it; it was wide open. If you're a game hunter in the Northwest, you're going to know Jim Shockey. If you're a serious saltwater fisherman, you're going to know Flip Pallot. Both of them have given video testimonials on our site. We approached them even though we didn't have the resources to sponsor those guys at the time. We'd give them our cooler; they'd use it and give us a testimonial.“
However, pro logic only works if the products really are that good. YETI never really had that problem because the Seiders brothers are genuinely obsessed with making the best product possible, no matter the cost. This gear review video from Outside, which includes dropping the cooler off a cliff and hitting it with an ax (the cooler wasn’t fazed and the beer stayed ice-cold), is how you achieve every brand's dream: converting a commodity into a object of desire that people will pay eye-watering sums of money to call their own.
Capture the Lifestyle-Envious
Once YETI had won over the serious outdoors people, the early adopters, the gear junkies, the wannabe professional guides, YETI went after the next audience for any brand: the lifestyle envious, which, in YETI’s case, were the woman and men who wished they spent more time out on the water and less time at the office.
As Austin McKenna from McGarrah Jessee, Yeti's creative agency, said in an interview with Ad Age, "People want to be part of that lifestyle. If I'm wearing a Yeti hat in an airport, it's almost an invitation to have a conversation."
This is the part of reason why you see Patagonia fleece jackets in Manhattan and Toyota 4-Runners in Ohio—these products become means of self-expression that enable the consumer to advertise a message the world: I might look like an accountant or a soccer mom, but I’m really a rugged individualist at heart.
Attract Adjacent Audiences
YETI is also a perfect case study for how to expand a brand beyond a core audience. YETI and its audience live in a part of the country that is obsessed with college football, and is also extremely hot much of the year. If a fishing buddy shows up to your tailgate party in Alabama or a summer barbeque in Dallas with a YETI cooler, and you spend all afternoon pulling cold beers out of it, you can bet you’ll have your own $350 cooler by the following weekend.
YETI’s growth into new audiences didn’t happen by accident. According to Inc. Magazine,“ In 2013, Yeti did a brand tracking study that showed just 4.4 percent awareness among its core outdoor audience. So, in 2014, Yeti began to establish a strategy built on natural tangents to hunting and fishing. For instance, rural feed-and-seed stores were targeted since farmers and ranchers work and play outdoors and like to barbecue.“
Now, YETI isn’t just a brand for hardcore outdoors people—it’s a go-to brand for anyone who does anything outdoors. Like any successful brand, YETI can roll out basically any product, and members of the YETI tribe will snatch it up. For example, YETI has recently started rolling out camp chairs and blankets.
As Matt Reintjes, the company’s new CEO, said in an interview with the New York Times, “We talk about being built for the wild,’ but we don’t want to define what the wild means.“
How To Build Your Own YETI
At Britton Marketing & Design Group, we are experts at helping brands grow beyond their core audience, especially fashion and home goods brands that serve what we call the New American Middle. This is the same audience YETI has so successfully targeted, but it’s still an overlooked group of consumers. They shop based on values of family, independence, tolerance, pride in where they come from, personal fitness and wellness, and, most importantly, concern for the kind of world they will leave behind for their children and grandchildren.
Our relationship with Vera Bradley is a perfect example of how targeting the New American Middle can impact your business. For more than a decade, BMDG helped grow Vera Bradley into a beloved national brand with season after season of emotionally resonant imagery, a distinct “girl’s best friend“ tone of voice, engaging storytelling, and solid strategy. We also created a brand DNA that helped Vera Bradley understand that, in order to grow while still remaining true to what made the brand so special in the first place, they had to express their brand pillars at every consumer touchpoint. The DNA also provided Vera Bradley with a path for developing new products that would attract new customers while still resonating with current brand loyalists.
So if your brand is looking to take its products to a larger audience, give us a call. We’re here to help you grow.
Photos: Yeti, Inc. Magazine