What biking across Iowa can teach you about outdoor marketing.
I’m your basic mammal. Not the cute and fuzzy kind, but rather the bicycle-riding, middle-aged man in spandex that makes pickup drivers, coffee shop regulars and daughters roll their eyes. I had a serious bike crash last year and was finally back to riding form, so it was with great anticipation last summer that I joined 16,000 of my mammalian brethren and sisteren for the annual ride across Iowa known as RAGBRAI.
Yep, a pretty good mid-sized town’s worth of folks swathed in various combinations of crotch-padded fabrics camping, eating, drinking and pedaling their way 487 miles across the breadbasket of the USA.
If you’re an outdoor equipment manufacturer, you can see pretty much every level of your products on display – from featherlight backpacking tents and zero-degree mummy bags designed for use in the Himalayas to boxy Walmart pop-up models hastily purchased en route to the event. You’ll see glamping set-ups that would put a luxury safari outfitter to shame and a slew of half-million-dollar RVs, but you’ll also see a surprising number of trusting young souls just sleeping under the stars on cots or in hammocks strung between any two available poles.
The fact that the breadth of the outdoor adventure category is laid out on a track infield, a baseball diamond, an animal barn, or a kind-hearted local’s backyard in no way diminishes the pride these owners take in their homes away from home. I can personally attest to feeling superior at the damp, angry cries ringing out from fellow campers during the first night’s rainstorm snug in my fancy new Marmot Limelight 3P tent. Reading to the glow of my new Goal Zero Lighthouse lantern. Sitting in my Flexlight Air camp chair. Air-drying my new top-rated Pack Town quick-dry towel. All of it, quality overkill for what was essentially car camping while on a bike ride. Yes, the over-prepared life was very, very good.
Shopping at REI was a highlight of the summer. I spent a ridiculous amount of money and could easily have spent three times more. In addition to the list above, I bought bike cleats, a waterproof Ortlieb frame pack bag, and an Anker charging block to let me power up my phone and bike computer without the need for electrical outlets. I was impressed by the helpful online marketing videos – like this one – provided by manufacturers and retailers alike. I watched how to set up my tent before practicing on the basement floor. Online reviews and recommendations were priceless. I saw my tent on RAGBRAI at least two dozen times, so I was not the only one impressed. REI staff knew their categories inside-out, even if help seemed a bit harder to find than in years past. After going to the back room to find more tent spikes for me, one even recommended the more highly rated charging block above than the models they had on the floor and even helped me find it online. I left feeling like a kid at Christmas with two $20 off coupons for my next visit. Which I used two weeks later to buy another bike bag as a gift.
RAGBRAI was a week of camaraderie born of the crucible of 6 a.m. porta-potty seats, sunburns, saddle sores and paying $10 to stand in line for an hour to shower in a semi-trailer. It was a blissful week of guilt-free pork chops and sweet corn, homemade ice cream and church lady pie. It was hardly the wilds of America, but if you sell or market camping or biking equipment, or like me, are just a mammal on a well-deserved holiday, it was a fair proof that user-friendly and useful marketing really does drive sales. A welcome idea makes for a welcome purchase.