Let’s talk about a brand... There’s a box logo. And a cult following. And in its own world, enough clout to sink a ship.
Scroll through its Instagram comments, and opinions on the brand are split: half think it’s overpriced chicanery, the other half find every piece an investment. Some just want old colors back so they can avoid the resellers. Regardless of what they say, they’re dwarfed by faithful followers, all teetering on the edge of their next cop.
Most Supreme-heads and urban dwellers have probably never used a YETI. And yet for millions, YETI - a hard-wearing cooler brand whose $400 ice chests are the first choice of deepwater guides - has taken on all the trappings of the most cutting streetwear lines.
By many accounts, it’s neither Noah nor Kith but another four-lettered purveyor of cool (at the time of this writing, a $4.5bn company) that has mastered the merchandising logic of our generation. Step outside city limits, and it’s YETI - not Stüssy - that captures imaginations, one brand-sponsored shred film at a time.
Did an overbuilt icebox cross cultures to jack the strategy that made names like Palace into cultural icons? Perhaps. Lift the lid, however, and YETI is closer to the world of Supreme and Moncler for a whole other reason.
YETI declined the opportunity to comment on this story.
YETI was founded in 2006 by Roy and Ryan Seiders. The Seiders brothers (Texans, fishermen) saw an opportunity. Frustrated by how the standard Igloo cooler fared under the Texas sun, the two began tinkering on a new design for a legitimately premium cold storage.
YETI’s first product: the Tundra, a $350 cooler that, when launched in 2008, sold for around 10 times the price of its competitors' offerings. The Tundra wasn’t just meant to keep catches cold during a day on the Gulf, it was built sturdily enough to support a full body weight in case you wanted to stand on it for better casting, a feature not lost on the enthusiasts it was designed for.
Himalayan cooling and premium construction drew hardcore fishermen to the OG Tundra. But the Seiders didn’t just focus on building a product. From the jump, they were building an image.
“They took a category in which nobody had thought about anything other than utility, and they created a brand,” according to Patrick Williams, a senior lecturer at University of Texas’ business school.
The cooler itself was a design item: an up-armored crate closer to a Pelican case (or a Range Rover) than the standard two-tone lunchbox. A simple sans serif wordmark on the side added an intentionally premium touch. Then, in a new move for the space, YETI went heavy on merch with purchase. In the early days, the brand gave away stickers featuring its simple box logo with the purchase of every cooler (sound familiar?) to encourage word-of-mouth.
Owners (and aspiring owners) repped the stickers, and slowly but surely, word of the brand’s coolers spread. The impressive utility and contemporary finish of YETI won fans outside of the hardcore set. The high price tag certainly didn’t hurt its appeal, either.
“They owned the fact that it was wild expensive, but for it, you got a cooler you could haul out to camp for a week and not worry about it,” comments Graham Hiemstra, the founding editor of Field Mag, a digital publication for “lovers of good design and the great outdoors.” Hiemstra was formerly a contributing editor at Highsnobiety.
“YETI exists in that hook-and-bullet category that historically bought cheap and bought often. They took the opposite approach and then energized it with strong, modern branding.”
Part function, part flex, YETI coolers became the field and stream equivalent of a Knoll daybed. If you had one, you showed it off for all to see. If you didn’t… well, you certainly knew what one looked like.
By 2011, the YETI hype had crystallized. Even in the wake of a global financial meltdown, the brand’s $400 ice chests were selling faster than they could be made. A video of a grizzly bear’s defeat-by-YETI circulated gear forums. The message: if you spent time outdoors, the four bills were worth it.
“It’s a product that comprehensively changed how many view outdoors gear,” Hiemstra continues. “Now, if you showed up to camp with a regular-ass Coleman, it’d just feel so inadequate. Even though it’s likely capable of doing 99% of what you’d need.”
Just as the Cult of Arc’teryx celebrates its overbuilt-ness, mystique was growing around just what a YETI was capable of. And just as the Cult of Arc’teryx isn’t only $800 Alpha SV’s, for the YETI community to grow sustainably, the brand needed accessible options.
In 2014, YETI introduced the Rambler 20, a $30 insulated drink bottle. Want a slice of the brand’s legendary cooling tech? Here it is. Well, kind of. The Rambler’s double-wall vacuum insulation is an age-old tech (WMI Stanley is credited with first commercializing it in 1917), but it’s also a fundamentally different mechanism than YETI’s polyurethane foam-lined coolers - and it’s one that, like a T-shirt blank, is readily made at factories around the world.
YETI had crafted an image. That image - and the brand’s glacially cool but hard-to-access products - had attracted legions of fans. Now, it was time to break the ice.
STORIES OF A FAN FOLLOWING
YETI drinkware blew the brand up. Annual sales tripled from $148mn in 2014 to nearly $500mn in 2015 due to, in their own minced words, “new product introductions.” For the price of a standard Igloo cooler (or a Supreme tee at retail), you could finally have a piece of YETI. But the mugs didn’t just let old fans under the tent. They created a brand new one.
“My background is in fashion and sneakers. I even resold at one point,” comments Matt Horn, an Oakland, CA-based barbecue chef and YETI ambassador who swears by the brand’s full line. “So it’s like, now that I see these really dope coolers, and they’re not just staying in one space - that’s stuff I’m used to.”
Cost and bulk had kept YETI in the boats and pickups side of the outdoors industry. With drinkware, the valley opened wide. “For mountain sports, you need gear that can take the brunt of a day in the backcountry,” comments Robin van Gyn, a professional snowboarder and YETI ambassador. “You can’t compromise. I’m still using the first bottle I ever got from the brand. Meanwhile, I go through at least two boards a year.”
Coolers would still be the pinnacle product. but premium mugs in cool colors? Those have some travel.
YETI began expanding from the hunt and fish side of the outdoors with high-production marketing and a carefully apolitical message. “YETI Presents” films made no attempt at distancing from the Texan brand’s “red state” reputation. YETI didn’t need to. Unlike Noah (or even Patagonia), a social statement wasn’t the appeal. The brand was staked on tough, good-looking products, and that’s all there was to say.
“They have cornered the market on durability,” remarks Jeanine Pesce, founder of RANGE, a creative consulting agency that works mostly in the outdoors industry. “And the content they produce is, from a storytelling perspective, above and beyond anything else in the space. They’re almost a media company now.”
If you liked being outside and believed in the amorphously American idea that quality is worth its own price, YETI was for you. It wasn’t quite “Republicans buy sneakers, too” (the brand is a big donor to environmental conservation and has publicly beefed with NRA), but it worked well. Really well. Well enough for a 2017 New York Times article, published just one year into Trumpland, to ask: “Can a $300 cooler unite America?”
One year later, YETI would go public at a valuation of almost $2 billion.
HOW DID THEY DO IT?
The magic of YETI coolers is that they never got, well…. uncool.
Smart management and a focus on community - enabled in some part by deep pockets from a 50% gross profit margin (Nike typically hovers around 45%) - let the brand walk a fine line between authenticity and shrewd, billion-dollar-brand merchandising.
“They do focus on product first,” Pesce says. “But then when they tell stories, they invite people in, and they don’t make it all about just one archetype, either. They bring in ambassadors from all different places and let them tell their stories instead.”
There is a genuine spirit of involvement that radiates from the brand. The ambassadors I interviewed got involved by meeting YETI employees in the sorts of places only enthusiasts show up - at Texas barbecue meet-ups and mountain town film festivals. What’s impressive is the balance that lets a beloved grassroots outdoors enabler crank out premium water bottles for everyone from Gulf Shores fishermen to hedge funders with cabins.
All without resorting to under-production as a way to play up “sold out” cool.
To put it in perspective: the year that it went public, the Official Outdoor Partner of NASCAR was filming snowboarding videos and selling limited-edition drops. You could buy almost any color of the brand’s mugs and coolers in stores across the country. And whether it was a $25 wine tumbler or a $1300 cooler built to hold swordfish, it was just as authentically a part of the YETI-verse as the very first fishing cooler.
Like Apple or Disney, it had become all things to all people. The major difference: like Supreme, the effect that box logo had on others was powering the price tag.
“A lot of my friends who do barbecue are still using other brands, but YETI just has that cool factor,” says Horn. “There’s a sense of pride when people see yours and go like, ‘I didn’t see that color, that’s dope.’”
PRIVATE EQUITY TIE-IN
Forget the downtown trivia or “authentic fashion” thinkpieces. On numbers alone, YETI is running this business of cool objectively better than most, if not all, of the “merchandised hype” apparel brands we love today.
At present, the $4.5 billion YETI is worth close to five times what Supreme (the objective standard of success in clouty apparel) was valued at when it sold to private equity firm The Carlyle Group in 2017.
But perhaps a similar scaled-up success is in Supreme’s future - just as it was for Moncler and Canada Goose. In 2012 - one year after the cooler shortages and Bear vs. YETI - the Seiders brothers sold a majority stake in the business to Cortec, a New York-based private equity firm. The sale didn’t just give the company cash to expand. It brought onboard veteran advisors who could help, in the words of Cortec managing partner David L. Schnadig, “capitalize on management’s proven design capabilities, further penetrating existing customers and channels, and expanding to new markets.”
To de-jargonize, YETI’s private-equity owners oversaw the expansions that made it an ice cold money machine. Their strategies balanced clout with cash flow for years on end, threading the needle the whole damn time. Love it or hate it, a bunch of suits may have perfected the art of the link and build.
Private equity gets a bad rap in fashion and retail for a multitude of reasons. Often, they’re seen as hatchetmen, mere opportunists willing to tear up established businesses in a Bateman-esque pursuit of their own gain (see: the decades-long neutering of Sears, which led to tens of thousands of layoffs and a few PE billionaires). At the very least, the industry is cast as old rich men who just don’t “get it.”
Neither image is unfounded. And yet, some of the hottest brands of the past few decades - Versace (Blackstone), Canada Goose (Bain), Moncler (Carlyle) and now Supreme (Carlyle) - have both grown (and grown cooler) in PE’s orbit.
For better or worse, PE-affiliated brands appear to be some of the more effective practitioners of how “cool” is made today - even if, in the case of YETI, it’s a vision of premium that lands closer to Colorado Springs than Spring Street.
Every bit of conventional wisdom on how to build a successful streetwear brand - the drops, the hype, the love/hate with resellers - supposedly stems from an ineffable pulse on ground-up culture, one that outsiders (let alone suits) just wouldn’t understand. And yet, the suits seem to understand how to manufacture cool with a cold efficiency when a good opportunity arises.
To make it abundantly clear: being good at business doesn’t make shit cool. If anything, it’s the opposite. But once that initial germ of cool exists… a playbook seemingly perfected by the people who may not “get it” may have the best track record of how “getting it” gets got.
Is the merchandising logic that echoes across streetwear today really how our generation likes to shop? Or is it just the most efficient model for being sold? The answer, perhaps, is that we should look to the cooler heads.