the branded vacation

Last week my husband and I were out on holiday — it was a delightful vacation and a wonderful brand experience, an REI brand experience that is.

To explain, REI has a division called REI Adventures which offers more than 140 different trips on every continent.  The last REI trip we took was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and to safari in the Serengeti.  This time, we headed to Loreto, in Baja California Sur, for a week-long kayak/bike/hike trip.

(This is the view from the top of one of our climbs.)  Both trips have been extraordinary ways to immerse ourselves in the REI brand.

REI says,”We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.”  Every brand touchpoint of the REI Adventure experience reflects this promise.  From captivating promotional literature, to  biodegradable luggage tags, to helpful customer service agents — they all carry the same message about REI’s commitment to getting people outdoors in an inspirational, educational, and responsible way.

But here’s the thing — REI doesn’t just talk about their brand values, or ensure their materials consistently express them.  They deliver those values through the vacation experience.  Some examples:

  • Being “active caretakers of the environment” isn’t just some corporate-speak that REI uses to placate critics — the guides who REI contracts with are friendly, knowledgeable locals who share REI’s brand values, so they actively worked with the hotel we stayed at to ensure it adhered to practices that minimize the use of natural resources.
  • REI’s stewardship also is demonstrated through the meaningful cultural exchanges the tour participants have with the region’s people — in Tanzania, the tour included a bike ride on the backroads of Mosquito Creek to visit a budding school that one of the guides personally contributed to building (with his money and his hands).
  • REI Adventures goal is to “get people outdoors” to go to the places people have always wanted to go and to do the things they’ve always wanted to do.  It’s clear the guides are there to help you live out those dreams — they know how to (gently) push you to do ride out a sandy patch of trail or take the plunge into a deep swimming hole so that you really do experience the adventure that you seek, and that the brand embraces.

This isn’t meant to be a commercial for REI — rather it’s another way for me to explain what I believe a strong brand is all about.  A brand isn’t just about a message to communicate, or an image to portray — it’s the actual delivery of the bundle of values and attributes that define:
•  a product or service’s value that is delivered to its customers, and
•  a way of doing business

REI embodies this approach and perhaps that’s why, despite experiencing the pressures of the recession, the company remains profitable.  Last year, they paid out the highest dividend in their history, opened nine new stores across the country, and kept their co-op remains debt free and with a strong balance sheet.

Thanks, REI, for a great vacation, and a valuable study in brands.

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