How REI Swapped its Catalog for Print and Launched Something Huge

If you haven’t yet caught the memo that branded print is HUGE lately, this story about REI’s new print magazine should fill in the blanks for you. 

As Gregory Scruggs explains in Poynter, REI chose to forgo their usual print catalog this year and instead launched a new print magazine called Uncommon Path

“In September, some 450,000 members of outdoor goods store REI, the largest U.S. consumer co-op, received a surprise in their mailboxes,” Scruggs explains. “In lieu of the typical 28-page fall catalog talking up the merits of the latest waterproof jacket or tent, the Seattle-based outdoor gear retailer mailed out the first 84-page issue of a new quarterly print magazine, Uncommon Path.”

The REI brand has become synonymous with taking risks that go against the mainstream; they were one of the first big retail brands to push back on the Black Friday insanity, launching the “Opt Outside” movement instead. The magazine seems like a logical fit with their brand, giving them the space to deeply engage their readers on topics near and dear to their hearts.

“With a matte, textured cover that evokes a well-thumbed trail guidebook, the magazine offers an engaging mix of reported stories on controversial issues like climate change, bucket-list travel destinations, ads from outdoor apparel brands and a handful of gear reviews.
Scruggs notes.

“The overall impression is a magazine that appeals to outdoorsy readers, but without an explicit advertising goal,” he continues. “For example, an article about the subculture of Los Angeles cyclists who take advantage of 26.2 miles of closed city streets in the pre-dawn hours before the city’s annual marathon had no clear sales objective — there is no specific bike or gear best suited to this Angeleno cycling tradition. It was just good storytelling.

The company printed and distributed 700,000 copies of the magazine, giving it the highest circulation of any outdoor niche magazine in the country.

“That means it narrowly out-printed Outside, the flagship monthly independent magazine covering outdoor life,” Scruggs notes. “Erin Boudreau, marketing manager for the Alliance for Audited Media, said that Outside magazine’s June 2019 publisher’s statement indicated total circulation for Outside listed as 697,021. She noted that REI is not audited by AAM.”

The magazine is created in partnership with Hearst, the publishing power behind other branded print including Airbnb’s magazine. While Hearst handles advertising, the editorial direction remains firmly in REI’s control.

“The leadership team decided that we were at an inflection point with the size of audience and quality of work,” said REI’s content and media director Paolo Mottola. “We needed to state an editorial mission and provide more transparency about why we do what we do. It was a homegrown idea and part of the maturity of our work.”

That work includes not just environmental advocacy, but journalistic advocacy too.

“Alongside the company’s June announcement that it would retire the catalog in favor of Uncommon Path, REI pledged $100,000 to 10 non-profit newsrooms nationwide through NewsMatch,” Scruggs notes.

When a brand truly knows their “why” the way REI seems to, the “what” and the “how” become more creative and even revolutionary. Kudos to REI for understanding their readers and, in turn, helping us all understand that outdoors that much better.