Reaching new heights, brand loyalty starts with living the brand

September 30, 2014

I am nearly two months out from a 4-day hike up the Inca trail of Machu Picchu in Peru. The elevation will be 10,000+ feet, nearly double that of Denver, and it will be the beginning of the rainy season. Taking these factors into account, I have been researching hiking and camping gear like my life depends on it. Because it will.

My traveling companions, co-workers, and friends keep giving me tips and links to check out and advice on what to buy. In our many conversations one brand name kept being mentioned as the store I MUST check out for all my outdoor needs, Recreational Equipment, Inc., better known as REI.

When I entered the massive recreational outdoor sporting goods store to shop for a sleeping bag and hiking boots, I viewed it solely as a fact-finding mission. I planned on getting the REI experts’ advice, (by all accounts friends were already telling me they were experts,) and then shop for the same item online at a better price. I have to admit, I’m a bit frugal; I like a good deal and will shop around for it, but ultimately, I recognize and understand quality and am willing to pay for it.

When the footwear salesperson asked what my budget was for hiking boots, I paused, paused again, and reluctantly said I had no price limit. My budget was whatever it costs. I felt like a bride telling her wedding planner she had no budget, when in fact, her fiancé had a spreadsheet detailing planned expenses down to the penny. My reasoning was that no one wants to get stuck on a mountain inadequately prepared or having opted for the cheaper option, finding out the hard way, you truly get what you paid for. I wanted boots that would fit right and feel good, were waterproof, light on my feet and would get me up that mountain free of pain, tears and exhaustion. I would argue there is no price for that.

The sales associate assessed my needs and brought me several pairs of boots he recommended at varying price points. This was my first clue that he wasn’t trying to sell me the most expensive boot based on my “unlimited” budget, but truly wanted to give me some options that would work. And boy, did he work! He worked continuously with me for over an hour, even when other customers showed up and needed help, he answered their questions, but told me to take my time in deciding while he kept bringing me different boots and sizes and answering my many silly questions. He instructed me on how the boots should feel, where the toe should hit, which were the best brands and had the newest footwear technology and never made me feel like he was selling me anything. He was more a friend, a follower hiker, a cool guy who had some good tips for me because he actually hiked himself. He lived the brand he was selling.

After trying on about nine pairs of boots and hiking up a small plastic “mountain” in the store probably 18 times, I decided for myself, without any pushy sales tactics that, in fact, much to my chagrin, the boots that felt the best, gave me the most support and had the best grip were in fact the most expensive ones I tried on. For a fleeting moment I wanted to search for the boots online while still in the lower level of REI, but as fate would have it, I had no cellphone reception. And more than anything, I felt like the sales associate was so helpful, so patient, so knowledgeable yet laidback, that I owed it to him to buy the boots. Even if I could have possibly saved a few bucks online. It took just one hour and exceptional service for brand loyalty to be established.

He also mentioned that I had up to one year to return my item for any reason in any condition for a full refund. With a store policy like that, I knew I had to buy the boots right then as I had nothing to lose. If they didn’t feel right in my pre-Peru treks, I could even return them fully worn in, without any guilt. No online deal was going to give me that guarantee and peace of mind on my purchase. He then asked me if I knew about the REI membership. That REI is a co-op, apparently the largest consumer cooperative in the nation, and everyone who is a member is also an owner and for a one-time $20 fee would receive 10% back annually on all purchases. I was in theory making money on my purchase of a membership.

I have to say, once I got home, I Googled my boots and realized I would not have saved a penny buying them anywhere else. But what is even more priceless is that going forward I’m not just a consumer, but also a happy and loyal “owner” of the brand.

What other brands are lived by their employees?

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