“Let’s Get Ueli On Speaker Phone”
The world’s greatest climber, a great pitch meeting, and letting go of an idea that never happened.
Nearly seven years ago, we were invited to a pitch a simple assignment with a dream brand—help Mountain Hardwear connect with outdoor professionals. The strategy behind the ask was simple: Serious outdoor apparel is a bit of a trickle-down industry. If outdoor professionals adopt a brand, then weekend warriors will often follow suit. It was the best kind of pitch—a wide-open brief with plenty of communication and collaboration with the client. Mountain Hardwear was in the depths of a brand refresh and they weren’t shy about it. They shared internal documents, works-in-progress and manifesto-style brand guidelines.
Most of our early ideas were as pedestrian as you’d imagine—old gear with a story to tell, sweeping anthems, gritty images and hard-working headlines. But one day, our new biz/account team (Stephen Grieco! John Gross! Kyle Snarr!) started talking about craft beer and the way it lubricates the outdoor industry. We’d seen the kiddie pools full of beer on Fridays at the Outdoor Retailer show (held just a block from our SLC office), but a little research uncovered an entire economic structure built around outdoor professionals, beer, and in-kind services. We had our insight: Connection to our target audience needed to deal in the currency they valued most, beer.
It was 2011. Ueli Steck was taking the climbing world by storm. The Swiss Machine was summiting peaks at a rate that seemed otherworldly… Because, frankly, it was. He ran up sheer ice faces instead of climbing them. His dedication to constant improvement and his unmatched physical conditioning made him one of Mountain Hardwear’s most popular and widely covered athletes. It also made him the perfect centerpiece for our pitch campaign.
The idea was relatively simple. Mountain Hardwear would collaborate with independent breweries in key outdoor markets (Salt Lake City UT, Asheville NC, Juneau AK, Burlington VT) to brew a special edition Ueli Stout. Each brewery would offer its own take on the beer. Outdoor professionals would be invited to events where they could enjoy an Ueli with Ueli. That was it, really. A pure connection with the brand’s most prized audience, driven by beer and the most prolific and well-known climber on the planet.
The pitch meeting itself was something else. We started with what appeared to be slide after slide of canned, clichéd market/audience data (the boring stuff that everyone in a new business meeting actually hates)… Only to hit a literal record scratch about 2 1/2 slides in. Corny? Absolutely, but theatrics play in pitch meetings. From there, it was all beer. A nearly endless slideshow of people enjoying a craft beer on the slopes, at a summit, or on a rock. We went overboard on the spec creative. We had nothing to lose and it was way too much fun for our designers. Breweries were chosen, labels designed—we might have even ordered some custom tap-handles and mocked up some real bottles.
At the peak of the meeting, we unveiled three posters touting the Ueli Stout. I still love these posters. (Yeah, we know it looks too much like a Shepard Fairey. It was a comp done in two days and was always intended to be re-designed—or re-commissioned. That said, I still love it.) We printed them on some high-quality paper and gave one to each of the Mountain Hardwear executives in the meeting. One of those executives freaked out a little. “I’m calling Ueli right now,” he said. This was a new one. The meeting stopped. He dialed an international number and found Ueli on the side of a hill in Europe somewhere. The line was fuzzy and the call was quick, but Ueli laughed when he heard that some knuckleheads in Portland and Salt Lake City wanted to make an Ueli Stout. We sent him some posters. It was the probably the best-received pitch I’d ever been a part of. Which, obviously, means we didn’t win.
We still talk about that meeting all the time. In the years since, Patagonia has brewed a few special edition beers—and it kills us to see the positive response since it’s a tiny fraction of what we’d hoped to accomplish with Mountain Hardwear. I’m the only person involved with that meeting who is still at Struck, but we still email or text whenever an outdoor brand does something similar with “what could’ve been” notes.
On Sunday, Ueli Steck died while training for an unprecedented climb of Mt Everest and four other surrounding Himalayan peaks. When I saw the news, it wasn’t exactly shocking. This is what happens to climbers and adventurers like Ueli. Very few of them make it to old age. I don’t write that with an ounce of detachment, but with an honest sense of impermanence. Ueli Steck was probably the greatest climber of his generation. We talked to him on the phone one morning in December of 2011 about beer, about his own Ueli Stout—and now he’s gone, missed immeasurably by friends, family, and an outdoor community that deals with these types of losses all-too frequently.
It’s stupid to be sad that we never got to give him his own beer. But most of advertising and design is stupid if we compare it to things That Really Matter. It’s something we all live with. If we’re lucky, we get to talk to Ueli on speaker phone. We get to look back at the posters and be proud of something even though it never happened.
RIP, Ueli. I hope they’re serving Ueli Stouts at the trailhead in heaven.