REI, a storied outdoor retailer who has been around since the 1930s, realized that they had to connect with the next generation of consumers in order to stay relevant. Their current customer base was incredibly loyal but aging, and lacking diversity.
There were some disconnects between youth culture and the REI brand. This generation of consumers is far more diverse and inclusive than past generations. In conversations with young people, they told us that REI was credible, but they perceived it to be exclusive and for an elite group of outdoor enthusiasts.
REI asked Neato to develop a strategy and supportive programming that would help them break down these barriers so that they could build relationships with a young audience, with an added emphasis on female and multicultural consumers.
In a divided and isolated world, the outdoors should be the great equalizer. It should bring people closer. It provides people with simple but fulfilling experiences that benefit their physical and mental health. REI needed to be seen as an enabler and advocate. A brand that breaks down barriers and makes the outdoors more accessible for everyone.
We set out to make ‘opt outside’ tangible for students by providing them with experiences that demonstrate the benefits of making outdoor experiences part of their everyday lives. This could be as simple as creating simple on-ramps that nudge students to transition from indoors to outdoors.
We had to demonstrate that exploring the outdoors doesn’t require an advanced set of skills, experience, tools, or an elite level of fitness. We had to show that REI could enable students to get the most out of their time outside.
REI came to Neato aspiring to develop a college program that enabled them to establish meaningful, long-lasting relationships with a diverse and multicultural future audience.
With this in mind, Neato created the REI Outdoor Ambassador program to break down the barriers that keep the masses from opting outside by creating easy on-ramps to outdoor activities. These activities made the act of opting outside accessible for students, demonstrating the transformational power of the outdoors, all while raising awareness for the REI brand, Co-op locations and REI experiences.
Neato created a dynamic, female ambassador-led program that inspired diverse audiences in key markets to embrace the outdoors by offering them memorable and unique experiences in their own backyards. The program helped broaden perceptions of REI from elite camping/climbing to a hub and facilitator of more accessible outdoor activities.
At the heart of the program was our diverse group of well-connected, ambitious Outdoor Ambassadors, who were passionate about educating their peers on the power of opting outside. Neato recruited, hired and trained these Ambassadors to lead REI brand awareness-raising efforts on campuses across the country.
Ambassadors organically promoted the REI brand on their social channels. Each team owned and operated their own Facebook group, reaching over 1,000 students in total. Here, they posted relevant content educating students about the power of the outdoors, upcoming campus events and local REI events. Ambassadors additionally played a key role in promoting REI’s Black Friday #OptOutside campaign across social media platforms.
In addition to consistent social media outreach and engagement, Ambassadors were responsible for hosting one activation per week on their campuses. They sourced locations, strategically marketed and assisted in leading each event.
“My favorite part of being an Outdoor Ambassador was meeting new people and being a part of their experiences. In the end, we began to build a community with ambitious, daring and open-minded students connecting with the outdoors.”
Natalie Honor, REI Outdoor Ambassador at Howard
“My biggest achievement as an Outdoor Ambassador was seeing a network of outdoor ‘curious’ students step out of their comfort zones to try something new. It was such a positive experience to see students let loose even just a little bit.”
Cori Erickson, REI Outdoor Ambassador at SFSU
REI Campus Influencers
At key campuses, Neato tested REI Campus Influencers, students who had a broad reach and were already posting about their passion for the outdoors on social media. These influencers helped boost attendance at each campus as well as raise awareness for the REI brand to their followers around the country.
“Working with REI as the campus brand influencer greatly impacted my semester. I was given the means to promote a brand and ideology that I truly care about, while also given access to amazing events. Promoting outdoor activities is something I already love to do, and being able to do it in an organized manner with a great Ambassador team made the experience even better.”
Aria, Campus Influencer at UC Berkeley
These activations occurred once a week, rotating each week. Each of these events aimed at creating an approachable environment and level playing field for students of all levels and outdoor experience to relax and enjoy opting outside. Each activation featured products and giveaways from the REI Co-Op. Activations included:
Students were treated to local, artisan coffee prepared by Ambassadors using a camp stove, in an approachable, relaxing environment.
REI Instructors came to campus to lead one hour outdoor yoga sessions in high-traffic areas.
For the East Coast schools in colder months, we transported students to a rock climbing gym where they learned from best-in-class REI instructors.
Students took a break from campus life to take an easy hike led by an REI instructor.
“What made my role as an Outdoor Ambassador the best was seeing people return for a second or third event. A lot of people approached the events nervous to try something new, or apprehensive to go alone. It was great to see them gain confidence the second time around!”
Megan, Outdoor Ambassador at University of Maryland
“Hiking, yoga and climbing are all activities I enjoy doing. Plus getting groups together to feel better about themselves was so rewarding. I had people continuously asking me how they could get involved. That’s what made me realize we were impacting students’ lives with our events.”
Chrystal, Outdoor Ambassador at UC Berkeley
Larger Scale Activations
In tandem with the Evergreen Activations, each Ambassador team was responsible for hosting 2 larger scale activations: a Magic Moment and an Outdoor Concert.
Every outdoor destination offers unique, spectacular sights that only happen during select moments of the year – the day the sun sets directly under the arch, the night the full moon lights up the entire mountain, a meteor shower, etc. Ambassadors hosted hikes led by REI instructors during magic moments including peak fall foliage and full moon.
Ambassadors partnered with local student musicians to host an outdoor concert in high-traffic areas on campus, including the campus Farmers Market and the main quad. Musical performances ranged from acoustic to hip hop and audience members received custom REI giveaways throughout each event.
Neato worked with REI to facilitate the #OptOutside College Sweepstakes, which was designed to give college students a platform to showcase how they opt outside. The sweepstakes garnered responses from our program markets, as well as students from universities across the US. Winners were selected each month and awarded a $250 REI gift card. At the conclusion of the sweepstakes, a grand prize winner was awarded an REI Adventure trip for two.
To increase awareness for REI and Outdoor Ambassador initiatives, Neato partnered with OnCampus Media to create media assets for each market. Neato developed all creative for this initiative, including newspaper ads and 15 unique email blasts.
‣ Open Rate: 12% (Industry standard: 10% – 18%)
‣ Unique Opens: 8,100
‣ CTR: 12.3% (Industry standard: 8% – 12%)
Match rates per campus:
‣ Berkeley: 77%
‣ Howard: 65%
‣ SFSU: 85%
‣ UMD: 80%
This program had a genuine impact on program campuses and beyond. Students went for their first hikes, tried yoga for the first time and learned how to use camping gear they may not have otherwise used. Through these experiences, a diverse group of students truly learned the power of the outdoors, de-stressing, disconnecting and trying something new.
“I loved being able to get my African American friends - who (like me) had never been exposed to activities like hiking or trail running - out to do new things. They loved these events and I loved being able to help them and bring some diversity to our events.”
Tionna, Outdoor Ambassador at University of Maryla
“My biggest accomplishment as an Outdoor Ambassador was introducing a new program to Howard’s campus. Prior to our program, Howard had no outdoor club or organization. As Outdoor Ambassadors, Natalie and I were very lucky to have a strong pool of participants who were interested and eager to try new things.”
Cydnee, Howard REI Ambassador
Total Weeks Active
Unique College Newspaper Ads & Email Blasts
Total Activations Completed
Students who Opted Outside
Ambassador-Owned Facebook Members
Social Media Impressions
Students reached via Targeted Emails