City dwellers represent a viable slice of the outdoor market. Brands need to be careful.


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I have spent most of my adult life within the concrete limits of cities. When I was young, my family just didn’t do things on the outside. The people who wore fleece, who roamed the trails and who I saw in adventure magazines seemed like a different breed from me and everyone else I knew.

My experience is not unique. It is estimated that 83% of the US population resides in urban areas, and barriers to outdoor recreation are significant for a large portion of this population. Many city dwellers rely on public transport, and the cost and pace of city life often means we have limited resources to plan great outdoor adventures.

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The pandemic, however, has upended the idea that people have to travel far and spend a lot to get out. As indoor venues closed and people flocked to local outdoor spaces, government organizations such as the National Park Service began funding infrastructure improvements in city parks and green spaces, especially in underserved areas. . And participation in low-barrier activities like running, biking and camping has seen record increases.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2020 report “The New Outdoor Participant”, 36% of these new fresh air seekers live in cities. Additionally, they are more ethnically diverse and represent a wider range of income brackets than today’s Urban Adventurers. The report also says new entrants have historically been overlooked, stating that “a lack of information about where to go, how to join, and who to join with can be a barrier to trying new outdoor activities.” Yet, notably, more than 60% of those surveyed planned to continue their new outdoor activities after the pandemic.

It’s an open invitation for brands to convert first-time urban adventurers into lifelong customers. But first they have to work around some basic hurdles, starting with versatility and cost. Most entry-level recreational enthusiasts are aware that they don’t need specialized sport-specific equipment, which can come with an intimidating factor. As a result, more and more outdoor brands are designing for city dwellers who want a pair of shoes they can wear for hiking, paddling and biking. “Our customers tell us all the time that a Cotopaxi product is the first outdoor gear they’ve purchased,” says Jeffrey Steadman, director of community engagement at Cotopaxi. “It’s quite appealing to have gear that not only keeps you working every day, but also helps you climb a peak or explore a new city on the weekends.”

Then there’s the toughest hurdle to jump: helping urban clients physically and mentally get to where they can embrace nature in a deeper way. Most city dwellers can get out and run on the sidewalk. But right now, they just don’t see themselves – or people who look like them – mountain biking or snowshoeing through a forest preserve.

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Successful marketing in urban communities requires a more thoughtful strategy than simply adding diverse faces and bodies to ad campaigns. At a minimum, brands can take advantage of the OIA’s suggestion to curate social media content with information on nearby green spaces, transit options to access parks and trails further afield, training for outdoor activities and connecting with like-minded people. urban adventurers. “If you want to support the culture of going out, you have to invest in the [cultural] infrastructure,” says Constance Beverley, CEO of Share Winter Foundation, which funds programs to make winter sports accessible to a diverse community of young people. “Do you partner with organizations that bring sport into a safe environment? Do you offer education programs for people to feel empowered outdoors? Brands need to embrace these ideas to fully exploit the urban outdoor market. »

As for me, I woke up one day in my downtown Chicago skyscraper, craving a hike but not knowing where to turn. Shortly after, I founded the Urban Outdoors digital community to equip city dwellers with tools to get outdoors. Outdoor brands have the opportunity to take these 101 experiences to the next level. Let’s hope they get it.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.

About Ethel Partin

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