Outdoor Industry: Connecting with Millennial Consumers

By
Brandon Gracey
December 15, 2015

In a recent post about trends in the outdoor industry, the first trend that we discussed was the expanding market that the industry now faces. While the outdoor industry once concentrated on a much more niche buyer, brands are now looking beyond the hard-core outdoorsman to win new consumers. This is not without its challenges, however. The outdoor industry has found it increasingly difficult to connect with millennials––that magical, critical demographic that represents about a quarter of the population and $600 billion in annual spend, according to Accenture. These well-educated, connected consumers born in the 80s and 90s value authenticity and direct engagement with brands. As it happens, the outdoor industry is known for just that kind of authenticity and engagement. Take the recent Forbes article entitled, “What Silicon Valley Can Learn About Storytelling from the Outdoor Industry,” for example. Among the outdoor industry’s virtues are its passionate founding stories that connect products to personal stories, an unflinching devotion to quality manufacturing, and a building and celebration of brand community. But despite all they have going for them, many outdoor brands are finding it difficult to connect with the millennial generation. Let’s take a look at the reasons why that is the case, why millennials are so important, and what you can do to connect with them.

The Millennial Generation: Why Do They Matter?

According to a report released by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the outdoor industry will “soon depend on millennials, whether you are ready or not.” Indeed, according to the report, by 2017, millennials are expected to have more purchasing power than any other generation, and they’re expected to outnumber the next largest demographic by 22 million people. By 2020, their annual spending in the U.S. is expected to increase to $1.4 trillion, representing 30% of total retail sales. Perhaps even more significantly, millennials are also influencing the buying habits of others, including their parents’ generation. According to Accenture, research has shown that older generations are “increasingly mimicking the demands of their children.” So millennials are spenders, influencers, and trend-setters. Why are outdoor brands struggling to reach them?

The Outdoor Industry’s Greatest Challenge

Outdoor brands have been competing on a very technical level, developing high performance products with specs that are better than the next competitor. However, those impressive product specs don’t mean much to the millennial generation. As Outside Magazine’s Michael Roberts put it, “A middle-aged former ski bum might get excited about a $400 sub-nine-ounce waterproof-breathable shell with a single-point-adjustment hood, but the 25-year-old occasional hiker sees an ugly, overpriced jacket.” Indeed, the outdoor industry has been focusing for so long on selling products to a hardcore “tribe” of athletes, adventurers, and outdoor enthusiasts that they have risked alienating a wider audience. Growing urbanization has seen a transformation of the outdoors––from a kind of “proving ground” as Roberts puts it, into more of a playground––a place to be enjoyed on the weekends or a family vacation. To cater to this growing group of eager consumers, outdoor brands must recognize these changes.

So What Now?

1. Make your products––and brand––accessible.

Millennials are looking for accessibility on several fronts. First of all, most of these consumers aren’t going to fly off to remote locations for outdoor adventures. They’re going to look for more local experiences that they can enjoy, as well as products that don’t cost a fortune. Remember that complex technical details or industry jargon are not going to help you connect with this generation of consumers. Instead, focus on being approachable. Focus less on the gear, and more on the lifestyle you want your brand to represent.

2. Do you products “look good?”

There’s no getting around it. Millennials care both about quality and how the product looks and feels. Whether you’re designing apparel, packs, or sleeping bags, ensuring that your products are comfortable and in line with current aesthetic trends. The brands paying attention to this the most are succeeding. Roberts cites Portland-based outdoor brand Poler as “hailed for its vintage aesthetic” and “a company that makes gear ‘for people that wonder why everyone is trying to pretend they are going to do first ascents on alpine peaks.’” While that quote may seem mildly blasphemous to the average outdoor enthusiast, it’s important to remember that it’s lifestyle-focused brands like this that are helping to cultivate an interest in the outdoors among urbanites who may well end up needing more high performance gear as their interests grow and develop.

3. Keep an eye on their interests in new activities.

Although urban millennial populations may not be heavily interested in traditional outdoor activities, there are new forms of outdoor recreation that are becoming more popular. These are activities that don’t necessarily require a lot of technical skill or experience to enjoy, like “adventure racing” or paddlesports. According to the OIA, adventure racing has seen a 211% increase in participation, and stand-up paddling had the highest number of new participants in 2013. These kinds of activities could see new opportunities for the industry. Questions about millennials or any of the points we covered in this post? Let us know in the comments.