Beautiful Thinker: Bill Neff, VP Consumer Marketing at YETI on expanding from the hook and bullet crowd, befriending communities, and the invisible work that cements a brand.
I’ve been a fan of the YETI brand since they launched in 2006. Their products are beautiful, durable—and expensive. They’re able to command a high price because they know their brand and their audience. They were early adopters in one way by creating content like YETI Presents, but old-fashioned in the way they created relationships and community—by showing up. They continue to expand into new outdoor categories and industries and they don’t seem to have a ceiling. This is not an easy feat for today’s fickle consumer. Bill’s honesty and enthusiasm for the brand was infectious and it’s easy to understand how they’ve become a powerhouse outdoor adventure brand.
A lot of brands are talking about community, and YETI has been doing it since the early days. Can you talk about how “community” has changed inside of YETI since you first started, and what it means today?
Yeah. It’s funny, when we started the community department, we were looking for a director of sports marketing, so what we were trying to do in community was really not an original idea — not from a perspective of Nike, or my past at Under Armour and Adidas and these brands that were finding people to drive relevance for their product. That’s really the heart of the community team that we build at YETI, is around relevance.
It’s not about awareness. It’s not about having someone post something. It’s 100% about our products that we build, making sure that they stand up at the most critical times for the people that use them the most and the hardest. So when I got there, they were looking for that. We were a hunt/fish brand and we had started to gravitate out of those walls.
I know the brand started out tailored toward the “hook and bullet” sort of crowd. How did you expand from that and not lose the brand’s grit?
The truth is, it wasn’t anything that we were trying to do. We were born out of a passion for fishing and the hunting community soon adopted us too. Cabela’s and Brass Pro shop got on board and the brand lived there for six, seven years, which I think was the founders’ vision.
Then the founders started to hear about the whitewater community running extended trips down in the Grand Canyon and using the coolers. Barbecue Pitmasters also began using the product to rest meat and that was kind of an “aha” moment, because it wasn’t about just keeping things cool. It was about keeping things warm. It became more about thermal regulation and not just ice for days.
We allow the product to take us into places where we’re relevant. In the last five, six years we’ve really become listeners. We put ourselves in position to find relevance with how people are using our products. If a community starts to form because they’re using our stuff, we just go shake hands and we literally treat them as you would a new friend. Our grit is reflected in the mindset of the people who embrace the brand and use our products.
This mentality of human nature is what we bring into our marketing strategies with community. I think as marketers, we don’t do enough of that.
I think you’re right. Most brands just look at market share and try to match an insight and create a product, versus the human piece of listening. Is there anything you guys do that’s more of a radical act of listening? A practice, or a methodology?
No. I think we just show up. We go to specialty shops and we talk to people. We don’t move too fast and we get to know them. The more you get to know them, the deeper the bond becomes. And we follow people on social media like crazy. I like following surfers on social media, because I like to see what they’re doing. We just keep our antennas up.
I wanted to ask about the YETI Presents Films. You guys were way ahead of the curve. That came out in 2015, right?
It was in 2015, yeah. Three or four partner brands would get together and sponsor something and pitch in a little bit of money to make films. Everyone was good with that for a while but then YETI decided they wanted to do their own content. I remember wondering if that was the right move because we didn’t want to alienate these brands that were helping us build this premium aura. Looking back on it, it was so important for them to do because it helped them break out of hunting and fishing.
I think we’re known for YETI Presents because our goal in the first year was to do one a week. We were committed to produce 52 films, so we started making content. When I came on, we had about 15 or 20 films in the can. After we had done 40, we saw nobody was seeing them. There’d be 70 likes and 3,000 views on YouTube. It wasn’t giving them time to breath. These stories were too good to have them on for a week. So, we pulled back and now we make about 12 films a year. But because of that big bang theory out of the gate, everybody had their eyes on us and thought holy mackerel, YETI is doing all of this content.
We’re probably the biggest fans of it internally. That’s why we just keep doing it, and hopefully one day it’ll click and a lot more people will see them. In Q1 this year, we did a true film tour. We had our opening one in Denver and a thousand people showed up and paid to watch them. It’s not a free event. It was great to sit down and watch some great films together as a community. But then COVID hit and we paused them until recently when we rebooted the program in California at drive ins. We’ve now released them all online.
But yeah, we still struggle with distribution. I think a lot of brands do. We’ve created more structure of how we tell stories which has taken us some time and we’re still evolving. We’ve been pretty happy with it, so we’re still going to just keep telling stories and hope that people will get inspired like we do when they see them.
It seems like YETI has become more of an editorial presence almost than an advertising presence, which is always a good thing.
I appreciate you saying that. That’s what we do. It’s never just about the product shot in our films.
Do you have a more relaxed view on ROI then? It just seems like you guys have a sense of doing it because you like it, which I think is really successful.
I’m the absolute wrong person to ask about ROI. It isn’t like we’re over here being fiscally irresponsible with what we’re doing. But it’s more gut and what we feel. We just celebrate communities. I think it goes back to the original question on community. It’s more about supporting our friends than anything else.
I’ll go back to the human nature point. I never ask what the ROI is on my friends. I’m never like, “what are you giving me?” There’s just a friendship. If my friend was just taking, taking, taking all the time, they’d eventually not be my friend. If you’re listening closely to your communities and supporting them, they’re going to support you. So, we look at these kinds of projects as a celebration of it.
I was just reading about the supporting community you guys did for the Roadies. Can you talk a little bit about where that came from?
COVID hit the restaurant and brewery communities really hit hard as well as the music community. We have a music manager because we love music. We have a music manager and have stages in our stores, but we can never find true product relevance in music. We’d just come out with our new product, the Roadie 24 and our music manager talked with some friends at Live Nation. We were thinking about roadies, and we thought “these things are sort of matching up, what can we do?” So, we reached out to a few artists and said, “Would you be open to painting one of our new Roadies, and all money is going back to Crew Nation?” We moved quick and one artist lead to another and before we knew it, we had 30 artists and we couldn’t believe it.
What I love about being small and nimble is we’re not afraid to go do things. We have a CEO that just trusts us and knows it’s a part of our brand. So, we’re going to do it. I know he’s going to be okay with it and we tell him after. I’m thankful that I work for a company that’s not afraid to just go try it.
Now just a little bit more about you and your path. Can you think of an event early in your career that was really defining for you? It could have happened in your personal or professional life.
I got out of college and graduated with a marketing degree and got a job at the May company. I knew pretty quick that’s not what I wanted to do. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was living in Kansas City, and I wanted to move to Kansas City. So I got a job with a company called Boathouse Sports out of Philadelphia that does lacrosse jackets and sailing and rowing jackets.
At that moment in time, I started to work with a couple of future employees at Under Armour. Then Under Armour called and wanted to know if I wanted to come work for them. All my friends asked me why I was going to go work for Armor All and no one knew what Under Armour was. At the time Under Armour was all about authenticity and showing up. About being there with tight t-shirts, that’s all we were selling. I was a sales guy. That group navigated into sports marketing because we became big enough where we needed to be a supplier and not just an outfitter, and not just a supplier of tight t-shirts. That’s when I learned the importance of third party advocation and relevance.
Then I left and went to go work for 901 Tequila, which was a tequila that Justin Timberlake was doing, and I went to go try and do that with Justin and a few of some high school buddies of mine. That was a time in my career where I thought I was over. I loved my friends that I was working with, but I had no passion in tequila and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was different there. You couldn’t build relationships like you could in sports.
I found a job up in Bozeman, Montana which kind of led me to YETI. But what I realized in the interim is you’re never out. Keep moving forward even at times when you think all is lost. Be real through the process and always be open for that next adventure, and you’ll continue to keep growing and doing the things that are important to you.
One of the things I really enjoyed from talking to Tom Herbst at the North Face, was that he gives his team radical autonomy but then holds them accountable. Seems like you share that philosophy with your team.
Yeah. I count on it, actually. If you have to ask me every time you think we need to do something, it’s not going to work. I’m not the right manager for you.
Some people need that. I don’t. You have to be not afraid to fail, but you have to have an eye on what’s right. Usually if there’s good intentions behind it, we’ll figure out a way to make it right. It’s not taking accountability away from me and empowering the people around you, it’s just a matter of giving them the support they need to go do what we need to do.
At the end of the day, it seems that the brand’s authenticity comes from the focus on friendship and community versus value exchange.
Yeah. We have people that think of value exchange. It’s just not me. Thank God for those people. I talk about building roots with communities and strong foundation.
The truth is no one thinks about the roots a when they’re looking at a tree. It’s the work you do that no one sees. That is what builds the strength of a brand. I always bring up the Nike model. Everybody knows the Kaepernick ad or the latest Air Jordan ad. But what they don’t know is the thousands of basketball camps that they sponsor on the East Coast. They do that work in the whispers of the night. That brand is built on those thousands of basketball camps they support. It’s not about the flashy stuff. It’s about the real stuff.