What’s the farthest you would go for the launch of your company? Would you haul Craigslist llamas to college campuses across America? The slang phrase “YOLO” carries a different meaning to Davis Smith, founder and CEO at Cotopaxi. To him, it means, “You Only Launch Once.”
This is the story of the outdoor brand Cotopaxi. Their “Gear for Good” includes backpacks, coolers, apparel, and more. By 2025, Cotopaxi plans to use recycled, repurposed, or responsibly sourced materials in all their products.
But in a market saturated with outdoor brands, Smith and co-founder Stephan Jacob decided to do something unique and extraordinary. Jacob came to Cotopaxi straight from the German special forces where he claims he “developed a passion for awesome gear and for being in the wild.” But while most brands focus on extreme athletes like rock climbers, mountaineers, and skiers (often white males), they knew they had to be different to succeed.
With the goal of including people who had been historically overlooked in the outdoor community, they came up with the Questival — a 24-hour adventure race for groups of friends who wanted to embark on their own adventure.
To promote the Questival, Cotopaxi brought two llamas (Coto and Paxi) to college campuses, attracting attention and spreading the word about the brand through the new outdoor experience they were offering. With the Questival, Cotopaxi accurately predicted how younger generations would be privier to viral happenings than traditional advertising.
The Questival and the Experience Economy
The 21st-century economy relies heavily on experiences. Look no further than the range of musical festivals dotting event calendars in every city. Far-flung from the simple days of Woodstock ’69, America alone now boasts more than 800 festivals a year.
Teams participating in Questivals had the chance to earn points, win gear, and go on international trips by engaging in various activities, from community service to outdoor adventures. The response was incredible. Teams flocked to join, some even creating their own homemade Cotopaxi gear adorned with the logo.
Cotopaxi hosted an initial 100 Questivals across the country and during that time, gained their earliest brand advocates. They have proven to be among the most loyal. Traditional marketing campaigns are too easily spotted by an over-advertised and cynical consumer base. Community- and loyalty-based programs are how brands speak to new generations of consumers who are more invested in experiences than physical goods.
Rather than initially choosing a specific audience, Cotopaxi was able to build a diverse brand community through the Questival and by welcoming individuals from all backgrounds, interests, and levels of outdoor experience.
The Value of Respect at Every Stage
But Cotopaxi’s success is derived from more than just its genius marketing strategy. According to its Senior Director of Impact and Sustainability, Annie Agle, its logistics and supply chain system is the real engine behind the operation.
She outlined the inventive ways Cotopaxi’s supply chain outdoes the competition, not only in terms of the bottom line but on sustainability, too. This includes treating suppliers as partners and showing them respect as key members of the chain. Investing in these relationships pays off in the long run. When more stakeholders are aligned, things like better practices and ethics also improve, as everyone along the chain is on the same page.
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The value of respect goes all the way to the top. Smith has seen the world and understands the universal language of respect. Born in Utah, but raised in the Dominican Republic, Smith explains the poverty he witnessed growing up as the son of a contractor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Moving from country to country in the Americas, Smith learned gratitude for what his family was able to provide, as well as the resourcefulness of the rural poor. These trips spurred a curiosity in Smith that led him to seek clues from other international entrepreneurs and travelers who had lifted themselves out of poverty through their business acumen.
Smith’s ethics made its way into the product: 1% of sales go to nonprofit partners, which include international supporters such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Mercy Corps. Benefit Corporations (B Corps) like Cotopaxi win their designations by maintaining standards in the realms of environmental protection, supply sustainability, and fair labor practices. B Corps create win-win scenarios by appeasing consumers and suppliers alike.
Cotopaxi Leading the Way
Jacob and Smith knew from the beginning that Cotopaxi would be more than just another outdoor DTC brand. While everyone can’t have a launch like Cotopaxi (there are simply not enough llamas in the world), every company can take a page from their book. Startups can take small steps every day to be more ethical, responsible, and engaged members of the global community.
Despite strict admittances, BCorps continue to grow in number, offering hope for entrepreneurs who want to find meaning both financially and personally. Thankfully, the new generation of entrepreneurs have bold visions. Cotopaxi is proof that meeting the bottom line and creating social and environmental value can go hand in hand.