Bill Neff is the senior director of brand marketing at Yeti Holdings Inc. (aka Yeti), an Austin, Texas-based manufacturer of premium outdoor lifestyle products such as ice chests, vacuum-insulated stainless-steel drinkware, soft coolers, and related accessories. Before joining the company in 2015, he worked in sales and marketing for brands like Under Armour, Sitka Gear, and 901 Tequila. Neff spoke with Globe Content Studio at The Gathering conference in Banff, Alta. The following is an abridged excerpt of their conversation.
Q: The Yeti brand is known for its rugged design, ice-retention capability, and insane durability. You’ve also said that it’s slowly transforming the lowly cooler into a high-priced, coveted product that is as comfortable on a fishing trip as it is at a luxurious backyard BBQ. But this wasn’t the case when Ryan and Roy Seiders started the company in 2006. What did the first marketing campaigns look like then compared to now?
A: In the beginning, it was all about relationship building. The Seiders’ knew people in the business, which helped, and their parents were deeply involved in the fishing community. That’s how it started and why they approached world-famous angler and woodman Flip Pallot, who became an ambassador for Yeti, much like Nike signed Prefontaine as its first runner.
Between 1992 and 2006, Pallot hosted ESPN’s The Walker’s Cay Chronicles, the first major television show devoted to saltwater light-tackle fishing. He was a legend and unlike most outdoor-TV hosts, he created a show with nuance, intelligence, and surprise with the outdoor programming. At the time, the Outdoor Channel was in its heyday. It was real television for people who hunted and fished and wanted to watch the best of the best go do these things, so teaming up with personalities on the show made sense. Ryan will say that is where Yeti’s marketing all started. It was all about the personalities speaking on behalf of the brand.
Q: You started by making connections and leveraging ambassadors to spread Yeti’s brand gospel. It strikes me that the social space is a natural extension of this initial marketing strategy.
A: Social media is really important to Yeti, but at the start, we would post a picture, and that was it. We were just checking boxes and didn’t understand the full power of tools like audience segmentation, prospecting, targeting, etc. Now we have a whole performance side of social that we use.
But the organic side of our social – we’re still learning. Right now we still do a lot of posting pretty, inspiring pictures, but we’re evolving. Our social strategy goes past what Yeti is going to post or communicate. We’ve also empowered our ambassadors to use our products in a really natural way, but we don’t obligate them to in a contractual way.
Q: Who are you targeting when you post? Presumably, the Yeti brand has evolved to include more than just the hunting and fishing community.
A: We still see the most engagement from our hunt-fish crowd and it’s understandable that that would be the case. We’ve had the longest time to build roots there. When we post a climbing or a ski picture, for example, we don’t get the same level of activity. But we’re just now inviting those communities into our mix and so we’re hoping to balance that out.
We also don’t necessarily go out to make products for males or females or market based on gender. We’ve learned lessons in the past: When we came out with our Camino Carryall tote bag, we internally thought that it was going to skew more female. Even when we sent it to our male ambassadors, they were like ‘what is this?’ But it’s completely turned around, and now some of our biggest advocates for that bag are men. They use it for everything. It’s their favourite product and they aren’t afraid to sling it over their shoulder.
“We go out to build products for people that want to get out there and do stuff.”
Our research tells us that our consumers are male and female. We are a big gifting item and it may be women buying for their boyfriends or husbands, but our consumer base is pretty equally divided.
Q: You’re on a hiring spree across the U.S. and Canada right now. What do you look for in talent and what are some of the challenges you face as you continue to grow?
A: We get a lot of applications when we post new jobs (the ratio of applicants to actual hires is under 1 per cent) but at the end of the day, we hire smart people who want to be there. They don’t have to know how to hunt or fish. Obviously we get plenty of people that do but the company hires people who are passionate for the Yeti brand in whatever they do.
A: I think a challenge of ours will be to find the right mix of natural and healthy growth. Hiring people and onboarding them and getting new systems in place, finding new manufacturers – those are all challenges as we’re not logistically set up to be an international company. We’re working on it, but the back end of the business is becoming more and more of a priority.
Another struggle we have, I imagine, will be maintaining the soul of who we are. For us, we’ve been able to maintain that level of ‘we know who we are’ but to be honest, our core is still developing. I can’t help but think of Phil Knight again. If you were to ask him, in the first two years, if Nike was going to get into skateboarding, he probably would’ve said ‘no.’ The company’s core was running, but it continued to evolve and got into other traditional sports like basketball, football, tennis, hockey, soccer, golf and eventually skating, which is now core to them. That’s such a brand I admire because as they grew, they also drove strong roots in the communities they participated in. When I look at who I want Yeti to be when we grow up, I turn to Nike’s playbook for that.
But it’s still early days for Yeti. We’re still at the beginning.