Ben Steele Blazes New Trail As REI’s First Chief Creative Officer

Steele is geared up to communicate the retailer’s values with action. Case in point: REI’s closing on Black Friday in 2015—the first-time ever in the retail world.

Ben Steele Blazes New Trail As REI’s First Chief Creative Officer

If it wasn’t for a career guidance quiz in high school, Ben Steele might have ended up a dentist. But instead of teeth and gums, he was pointed in the direction of advertising and applied for an internship in Boise, Idaho, where he grew up. There he quickly developed a passion for copywriting, marketing, and brand storytelling.

During his career, Steele has celebrated successful storytelling and brand design with companies such as Starbucks, Major League Baseball, PepsiCo, and Lexus. Last year, he was named REI’s first chief creative officer, in charge of leading the company’s creative strategy to bring to life the brand’s identity as a specialty outdoor lifestyle retailer.

Notably, Steele was behind REI’s closing on Black Friday in 2015—the first-time ever in the retail world. The company paid its employees and encouraged customers to spend time doing what they love, be it with their families or taking advantage of the state park systems, the national parks, and other outdoor activities.

Steele recently spoke to about his career, being an outdoorsman, and the REI culture in action. As REI’s first creative officer, what were the initial items on your to-do list to establish the position? Which ones have you been able to check off so far?

Steele: I spent my entire career, prior to REI, on the agency side, and at two different points in my career I was fortunate to work with REI. While I was at Hornall Anderson, we were partnering with REI on environmental store design, trying to imagine the store of the future.

Through that process, I met Jerry Stritzke, our CEO, and we found ourselves talking about the REI brand, the notion of co-op, what does membership mean, and what’s possible. Through those conversations Jerry ended up creating this role and went from talking philosophically about the co-op to talking about a position here at the co-op. My initial goal was: How do we express the specialness of this brand in a way that’s very authentic to what REI is? What was the challenge of that?

Steele: Seventy-eight years in, the brand hadn’t spoken loudly, and while it was a remarkable place, it perhaps hadn’t shared with the wider world what made it special. How do we demonstrate what it means to be a co-op beyond just a business destination? How does it manifest itself as a different type of company? What does membership mean above and beyond a 10% dividend back at the end of the year?

These are things that are really important to REI, but the conversations tended to be more internal. Our goal was to say, “How do we bring people into that conversation and elicit their imagination, their passion, their participation to help answer those questions?” You have worked on some impressive campaigns over the years. How has your background and experience prepared you for your role at REI?

Steele: I have been really lucky to work with a lot of great brands. What I have learned throughout my career is the brands that do it best understand very, very simply, why do they exist, what do they do, who are they for? If you can answer those three questions, you can make amazing connections with people. I think answering those questions from a variety of perspectives, getting the chance to do those in big and small ways on stages big and small, prepared me to come in and ask and answer those same questions in partnership with our awesome team here at REI. Tell me about your willingness to break new ground and how that has helped you throughout your career.

Steele: I will certainly not be the first person to say it’s an increasingly crowded marketplace. You’ve got to be able to not only differentiate but create authenticity if you want people to take notice. For us at REI, to some degree, that meant thinking about things not as marketing but instead as brand behaviors. How do we express who we are in a deeper way?

We’re evolving from a transactional storytelling method to a more emotional storytelling model. That’s breaking new ground for us. It’s probably a vast understatement to say closing our doors on traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year is breaking new ground. Doing that not as a marketing initiative but as an action and a demonstration of who we are is an invitation for people to participate. Can you cite a recent example of a marketing campaign that you’ve implemented and the genesis behind it?

Steele: One that we recently launched is a campaign that we call “Every Trail Connects.” Last year, we invited people to directly help us invest half-a-million dollars to protect and rebuild some of Americas most beautiful trail systems around the country by voting and participating. This year we did something a little bit different. We created a series of videos that tell the stories of individuals who are passionate about bringing those places to life—through the activities they’re passionate about and the ways they shape their lives around the outdoors.

The first chapter was about this incredible, 67-year-old ultra-marathoner in the Bay Area. The next chapter was about a man who has dedicated his life to helping people complete the Appalachian Trail in Maine. The most recent chapter is about a young woman who is this bike-packer who has dedicated her life to pushing herself to see how much of her life she can live on her bike, on two wheels. How would you characterize the success of the campaign so far, and what have you seen in the metrics?

Steele: The results of “Every Trail Connects” have really been exciting because, in every case, they’ve not only led to great engagement and great viewership but a really exciting and vibrant conversation. We are seeing our members talking to us and each other and really expressing their excitement around our representing the things they care about, showing them a world view that feels like the reason they step into the outdoors.

The traditional metrics are great, especially for a campaign based on long-form video, but the more important thing is there’s a conversation that’s started. We convened that conversation, and we’re able to see the energy that’s created not only toward the co-op but toward the vibrant community of the outdoors. How has your philosophy of marketing changed now that you no longer work at an agency?

Steele: My personal philosophy is that you can’t overestimate the power of a story. At the end of the day, the most powerful way to connect with your audience is to craft a message or story or narrative that people want to have as a part of their lives and to share. My deliverable used to be as narrow as a TV ad or a radio ad or a print ad and digital asset. In this role, I’m able to focus on the bigger ideas and goals above a particular execution. We understand why it’s so important for people to be engaged, and we understand what buttons we want to push, what levers we want to pull, what conversations we’ll want to enter to make that happen. I feel like I have a bigger-picture view and, as a result, my philosophy continues to evolve more to the macro. How do you use all of the metrics and analytics that come in to inform your choices and help the company grow?

Steele: We view analytics as one half of the equation and insight as the other. What I mean is data on its own, analytics on its own, can show you a picture of what’s working, but it can tend to lead to more of an instant-gratification look at what’s working—we push this button and this result happens. Insights, I think, give us the longer view or the more macro view, which is to say we made three or four moves, we took three or four actions. What happened as a result, not just in the singular perspective but across a variety of cohorts or over a period of time.

So analytics is absolutely a focus for us. We have a very talented team there, but we force ourselves to go a level above that and say, “What insights do we pull away from this?” and “How are we learning and being better not only at reaching people but at creating a dialogue with them around the stuff that they care about?” Can you give me an example of a way you’ve used social media to get REI’s message out in a unique way?

Steele: We created a tool that allows people to create a social meme to share what they are doing on Black Friday. They were able to upload their own photo or choose from a group of preselected photos. They could pick the activity that they’re passionate about and display to the world … this notion to opt outside, to choose to spend Black Friday in a different way.

Giving them a tool to do that, giving them a way to display that and to share their passion, led directly to engagement, for sure. But again, it also created some interesting, surprising, and creative uses for people to show us this is who I am, this is what I care about, this is where I’m at. That became part badge, part identifier, part self-expression.

We’re also doing really interesting things in driving long-form video in social and creating moments of activation through ideas like a “weekend challenge.” Mobile also has risen in importance throughout your career. How is REI using mobile for its advantage?

Steele: In lots of ways. We have an app community as part of REI called “Adventure Project.” It’s a series of apps that allow people to track their activities and share insider information on trail systems, photos, and reviews. We created this very cool tool for the national parks—the “REI Co-op Guide to the National Parks.” It’s a free app where people can find information about and hidden gems in national parks across the country. That was a service not only to the national parks but to our members to be able to plan great trips and adventures, to aspire them to visit new places, and to share their personal expertise. Do you consider yourself a big outdoorsman? Are you part of the generation that this company is trying to reach?

Steele: Absolutely. I love the outdoors, and it’s a big part of our family’s life. The thing that’s amazing about REI is you can think you’re a pretty big outdoor person, and then you show up here. You come back from a weekend, and you say, “I went on an amazing bike ride. I did this great hike.” And somebody says, “I did a 48-hour endurance ride” or “I summited this amazing mountain.” So everything is relative, but I’m a passionate runner and a cyclist. I love skiing. I love hiking with my family. We’ve got a whole community of people who are here because they love the outdoors. I’m proud to be a part of that.

Everyone’s here for the right reasons. They believe in the purpose of REI, and that purpose is to help people live a life well-lived in the outdoors. We embody that ourselves, so it’s not a foreign concept to imagine what someone who cares about the outdoors would do. It’s more of a question of how we bring our passion to the table in a way that helps people live that life outdoors. Looking ahead, what is your biggest goal in the year ahead to help the company grow?

Steele: Our biggest goal is twofold. One focus is, how does REI express itself at the local community level? We have 144 incredible stores that are really the center of the outdoors in each of those communities. How do we do a better job of finding the amazing stories that exist there, shining a spotlight on them and telling them? At the same time, how do we give those stores’ teams the tools to tell the broader stories that we’re telling on a more national level?

A challenge that we put out to ourselves is, if we’re truly a different kind of company, and we believe that we are, how do we demonstrate that with every action we take? It’s easy to know the answer on what tradition or status quo says we “should” do. The harder question is, what can only we do and how do we express the idea of co-op in a way that lets people understand at a fundamental level what it means? Those are our two big goals as we focus on growth and authenticity.