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Sunday, September 9, 2018

I'm not your Billboard

Years ago, I was folding clean laundry when I made a startling realization. I had a pile of T-shirts, which is primarily what I wear, and I realized I hadn't paid for any of them. They were many different colors and all had garish logos or pithy sayings on the front or the back. All of them were shirts I had gotten from either my employer or product vendors for free. The unwritten understanding is this. You will give me a shirt to wear for free, and I will wear it. In doing so I am subtly implying an endorsement for your product. Over the years I have received many items for free from vendors. The company I work for has a policy that I can't receive a gift greater than $50. I have received a lifetime supply of stickers, key chains, beer cozies (and I don't drink beer!) and more bottle openers than I will ever need in a lifetime. (Seriously, the outdoor companies need to think outside the box. Bottle openers? Really? Yakima puts them on their car rack accessories. What does that say about the outdoor industry?) These days after a conversation with a vendor rep, when they dump out their bag of free goodies, I generally just walk away. There is rarely anything I would like in that bag. There is almost certainly nothing I need.

The agreement we are all making, is that you will give me a shirt (or some other giveaway) and I will be excited to use this free item. I will like it, because it makes me part of an exclusive club. But in reality I am unpaid marketing for you. I am a walking billboard, and I don't want to be a walking billboard. Particularly for free. In essence though, I am not doing it for free. I am getting paid, in the form of the free stuff I am receiving. The schwag is my payment. If you ask me, that is a lousy deal.

This was a big part of the reason I developed a "uniform" of a grey T-shirt and blue jeans for everyday wear. I started by recycling all those T-shirts. Some became rags, some went to good will. The old ones went right in the garbage. I simply don't want to be a billboard for your outdoor company. I wanted to get away from what I think of as an implied or "soft" product endorsement.

A big part of my job is recommending gear to people, and I am absolutely fine with that. I have no problem telling you what piece of gear works well and what piece of gear is a waste of time and money. It is one of the reasons I started doing product reviews on this website. None of those are sponsored by the manufacturer. If They are my sponsor, I am beholden to them. Gear Junkie used to give real reviews listing what worked and what didn't. Then they got popular and got a ton of sponsors and they could no longer be honest about products. I'm sorry Gear junkie but my dream truck isn't a diesel chevy pick up truck. Just because you got paid this month by chevy doesn't mean that is a piece of outdoor gear.  That said I still read GJ and understand what they do, and have to do. Business is business.

I understand how this happens in the outdoor industry, most of us who work in the outdoors don't make a lot of money and free clothes are awesome. What really upsets me is when I see this outside of the outdoor industry. I see yeti stickers on the back of cars and trucks. This makes my brain ache.  You just spent $30 on a coffee mug, and want to tell the world by putting the sticker on the back of your car? Or you decide to wear a Yeti hat? So after that purchase you feel you owe the company so you will wear their brand name? No coffee mug is that good. But that isn't actually what is happening though, is it? People put a yeti sticker on the back of their truck because it gets them entrance to a club. The cool outdoor club. I feel bad for these people because they desperately want entrance to a club that isn't that cool. You want to join a cool club? Go climb El Capitain. That's a cool club, and those people know how to party.

Here is another example. You spend $40K on a new car. On the back of that car is a sticker with the name of the dealer, and maybe even a license plate frame with the name of the dealer. So I spend all this money and I have to advertise for you? I just gave you $40K you should be advertising for me! I can also tell you from experience the stickers are supremely difficult to get off, without ruining the paint on your car.

To be honest though, I have to come clean. I have been sponsored in the past by gear companies. I was never asked to say anything specific about a product, but I have been given products for particular projects with the manufacturer fully aware that 10,000 people would see their product in a picture or a video. That I consider a fair trade. I am getting something I need - an actual piece of gear as opposed to a key chain or a T-shirt. They are getting something they need, exposure.

I also make exceptions if the product is the best option. I recently had to replace the long sleeve, sun protective shirt that I wear when I teach paddling. I grabbed every piece of clothing I could find that met my criteria and took them to a fitting room. I tried on 12 shirts from 5 brands, and was upset that the best option was actually made by Patagonia. Now, there is nothing wrong with Patagonia, they are a great company that make great products but the shirt that met my needs had a large Patagonia logo on the back. I would have rather a shirt without a big logo. The shirt is amazing though!

I have been saying for close to a decade, if you want to market a product, give it to the people who use it. If it is any good people will tell their friends. If you think outdoor instructors and guides don't sit around a campfire talking about products that work and products that don't you are crazy. GoPro exploded in 2008 because they offered a really good prodeal to outdoor professionals. They made a good product, everyone saw us using them, and we talked about how great the product was. I consider that a fair trade.

I still see a lot of people in my industry who will take anything if it is free. "if it's free, it's for me!" is a phrase I have heard in the past. By all means, go for it. But if you want me to represent your product, and tell people how great it is, Your going to have to give me more than a beer cozy.