Abominable pitchmen: How Yeti Coolers created a high-end market

Yeti Coolers print ad.
Yeti Coolers print ad.

Luxury food containers for camping didn't exist a decade ago. Here's how Yeti used branding to carve a new niche

Remember the state of the luxury cooler industry only a few years ago? Of course you don’t because you hadn’t heard of it. In fact, this may be the first mention of luxury food containers you’ve read.

Roy and Ryan Seiders founded Yeti Coolers in Austin, Texas, and turned it into a best-selling pioneer at the high end of the cooler industry. Along the way, the brothers pursued an advertising strategy that positioned its brand at the high end of a traditionally low-end product category.

When the Seiders founded Yeti in 2006, there was no precedent for nigh-indestructible luxury coolers priced between $250 and $1,300. But a clever branding strategy broke the mold.

Yeti used a top-down, pyramid marketing approach to create a product that previously wasn’t on the radar and made it into a household name for fishing and hunting lovers across the country. The company started out sponsoring programming on hunting and fishing television stations. Corey Maynard, VP of Marketing at Yeti, said its early advertising campaigns were calculated to reach "influencers" and "prosumers."

"Those commercials didn’t reach millions of people, but the people that they did reach were the most serious hunters and fisherman," Maynard said. "So it would reach 100,000 or so hardcore hunters and fishermen who would be the person within their circle of friends who their buddies would ask about the latest gear."

This strategy quickly morphed Yeti Coolers from an unknown brand into a must-have product for serious hunters and fishermen.

"We targeted people who spent the money on the best gear," Maynard said. "The people who will always have the latest stuff, and then we let them tell their stories to their friends on our behalf."

One of the biggest challenges Yeti faced early on was convincing people to pay $300 or more for a premium cooler. In order to tell the story of Roto-Molding, the technology that makes Yeti coolers so tough, Yeti rolled out a series of entertaining, often hilarious, digital spots. A video featuring 500-pound professional wrestler and strongman Big Bald Mke was a particular hit. The video features Big Bald Mike doing his best to destroy a Yeti cooler for 2 minutes and 49 seconds. He falls short, but the spot attracted nearly 200,000 viewers.

"The 500-pound-man-vs-a-Yeti-cooler video was an attempt to tell that same durability story in a funny way," Maynard said. "In the end, it ended up doing that much more successfully than any of us could have originally imagined, and the video went viral."

The strategy worked. In 2011, Yeti pulled in $30 million in revenues. That number had risen above $100 million by 2013. Maynard said Yeti expects to sell another million coolers over the next 12 months.

Yeti’s success has inspired about 10 other companies, large and small, to start selling luxury coolers, according to Maynard. But so far, "Yeti is still the vast majority of the market, more than 90 percent," he said.

Yeti continues to sponsor celebrity outdoorsmen and television shows, but its advertising strategy has grown along with its revenues. Agency McGarrah Jesse in Austin currently handles the company’s advertising portfolio, which includes digital, print and TV initiatives. Sparks Media in Chicago handles Yeti’s media purchasing.

Maynard said the next step will be to expand Yeti’s advertising program beyond just hunting and fishing lovers. The plan is to branch out to more general outdoors activities like camping and water sports.

"Basically, if you drive a pickup truck, we think you would appreciate Yeti products and our brand promise," he said.

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