The rise of Soft Outdoor

As the Outdoor market continues forward on an ever-expanding trajectory known as "lifestyle," people are understandably a little edgy as they try to keep things in focus.

The backdrop for Outdoor Lifestyle's growth is comprised of some big numbers. Really big.  In a recent study for this widely recognized $646 billion market, “Outdoor” folks now include more than 60% of American consumers -- people living mainly in cities, being mainly in their younger years, and spending at least an hour a week and $450 a year on outdoorsy stuff (LINK).

As with all Outdoor data, the most recent study relies heavily on the market's historic affinity for measuring itself agains the yardstick of the activities it supports. The report leads with dozens of “Traditional” core market metrics like camping, canoeing and climbing, but also factors in a boatload of “Non-traditional” pastimes like walking, picnicking and simply chilling outside.

In this widening pool of data sources, the clear takeaway is that the biggest sustained growth in Outdoor is in the definition of what "outdoor" actually means. And the clear challenge is using that knowledge to forge a path through an often blurry Lifestyle landscape.

Because in the new Soft Outdoors, there is no true center, no easy-to-explain hub of activity, no silver bullet that will make everything good and right at the retail counter. Soft Outdoor sees Traditional and Non Traditional activities as true equals, because at the cash register there’s no difference at all between a badass whitewater paddler and a once-a-year beach reader.

Understandably, Soft Outdoors is causing some stress on the micro level, as staying one-step ahead of a practically unlimited pool of outdoor activities is kind of like running a 100-yard dash without knowing which direction to go or when to start. 

Soft Outdoors is also unsettling for some on the macro level. An increasingly vague definition of Outdoor could easily be seen as setting the stage for assimilation by a broader market controlled by fewer brands with deeper pockets: a price-first place where people don’t really care if the logo on their chest is representative of a group that sacrifices annual profits to conserve gazillions of acres of land for their grandchildren's outdoor access. They just like the way it looks when they’re wearing jeans.  

Fortunately, there's another group for whom Soft Outdoor is very, very good news:  active brands.

As Outdoor has widened and breakthroughs have been diluted by sheer Lifestyle volume, active brands have replaced innovation as the number one thing marketers are telling stories about. With words and images, personalities and partnerships, these rising brands have become the axis around which the outdoor world spins.

Consider a list of the 100+ short-sleeved button-front shirt brands in the Outdoor market. While differences may be laughably indistinct from across the trailhead -- at a brand level there’s more than enough nuance to fill the closet for you and everybody you know with a unique and distinct personality for every day of the week. There's the yoga brand. And the environmentalist. The badass Vancouver. The Montana fly fisher. The quirky New Zealander. The Santa Barbara creative. The Jackson Hole local. The Truckee dirtbag. The Upper Midwest made-in-America. The Seattle fun-hog. The Texan.  And plenty more.

With $100 small brand shirts thriving right next to REI plaids at half the price, there's clearly an audience out there that's far more concerned with the label than the price tag.  

These plaid shirt brands -- as well as other Outdoor Lifestyle success stories -- are the ones that hold the future of Outdoor Industry in their hands. They're the ones bringing in new converts to Soft Outdoor. They're the ones satisfying the cravings of their devoted fans. They're the the ones who are defining the Outdoor Lifestyle, not just by what they make but by how they live. 

Because while things like contrast pockets and ombre plaids are all-to-easy to knock off for a mega brand looking for a line extension in a hot market, one thing that can never be replicated is outdoor culture.  And an Outdoor market without an outdoor soul is just another room full of people selling plaid.