If you’ve followed my blog or Instagram page, you’ll recall I wrote a letter to KUIU recently, who happens to be a favorite brand of mine. In summary, the letter I wrote was one of those “we need to talk” type of letters where I expressed my disappointments and frustrations with where Kuiu as a brand is going. If you want to read it, follow this link HERE.
What happened next
Nothing. Well, kind of nothing..but something. I posted it to social media with a simple thumbnail that read “Dear KUIU.” KUIU never commented on the post nor reached out immediately afterward, but to be honest, they’re probably tagged in a million photos every day so unless the timing was perfect, they probably wouldn’t have seen it anyhow. What did happen however, were some interactions with readers who ended up reading the post (well over 400 in single day).
Most of the readers agreed with my sentiments regarding what I was seeing happen with KUIU and there were a few that went high and right by really trashing the brand and the overall business model. I am by no means a business guru and it wasn’t a stone throwing contest I was trying to have, but nonetheless, very interesting to say the least. Other comments were made in a manner that basically told me to stop complaining.
I never expected that letter to be understood and accepted by all readers, but I think for the most part, those who read it sincerely understood where I was coming from and what I was trying to convey. After many days of comments rolling in, still no contact by KUIU had been made and I either figured they had seen it and snubbed it, seen it and put me on some sort of black list (kidding), or just never even seen it in the first place. Either way, no big deal. I know my heart and even if they never read it, I felt good knowing it was out there.
But still…I wish they would have read it…
A few weeks after I posted the article, I decided to DM the KUIU account to test the waters on whether or not they’d respond as they had in the past when I was trying to communicate. I received a response thanking me for telling them about the article and that they not only read it, but that they spoke to one of the CEO’s about it. They went on to say they knew I was a long time customer and that wanted to jump on a call to discuss my letter.
I was taken aback. I mean, the person running the account and I have literally be IG pen pals for years at this point, but I don’t believe we had ever needed to get on the phone for anything. For them to want to speak with me about my letter on an actual call, well…yeah, I was super stoked to say the least. I said I’d be happy to speak with them so we set up a call for that night and made it happen.
I was called later that afternoon after working hours. They were on their way home and I was about to make breakfast for dinner (who doesn’t love that?). We talked about how long we’d been IM’ing each other on Instagram and how the new year was treating everyone. Last year (2018) was a hard year for KUIU with the tragic loss of their founder and given that the company is still very small, the impact of such an event was felt very deep.
After catching up, we dove in. They expressed who they wanted to hear me out and that since they had been with the company for many years, they took the letter to heart. It was very clear to me that they were by no means offended by my comments, rather, took them in stride and was sincerely curious about where I was coming from.
Over the course of the conversation, I recapped what I had written about and why I came to my point of view. It wasn’t that I was trying to dog on KUIU, but rather quite the opposite. KUIU was coming out right around the time I had decided to take hunting and backpacking more seriously and their gear really and sincerely improved my overall experience in the backcountry. KUIU made it easy to purchase gear from them because it was not only well made, but because they were the experts in their field. I figured if it worked for them then it would work for me.
I wanted KUIU to know that I wished they would remain focused on mountain hunting and finding innovative solutions to my problems rather than creating fashion solutions.
On that note, my IG pen pal wanted to touch on some of the reasons behind why KUIU decided to make lifestyle apparel and various branded doo dads.
DISCLAIMER: Please do NOT take these words as some sort of news headline. This was a friendly conversation between a brand rep and a customer. By NO MEANS are these statements any sort of official word from KUIU regarding the exact nature of their decisions, business model, or anything of that nature. Use your brain and take the rest of these words with a grain of salt. Again, this was a conversation between two people talking about my letter. Don’t be dumb.
In short, the founder of KUIU simply didn’t want to wear someone else’s brand and to the point of the consumer gadgets, they said they often find that these items are great gift giving solutions for fans. I’m sure their decision to go these routes is much more involved than this (again use your brain and don’t go high and right on me), but you get the idea. I actually understand where they’re coming from and after thinking it over for a while, I have some thoughts.
on not wanting to wear someone else’s brand
I get it. You created a brand and it probably feels weird to now wear someone else’s branded gear. If you’re the leader of a company, it makes perfect sense that you’d want to rep your brand whenever possible. Being caught out in town in a competitors jacket puts money in their hands and takes away from yours. In the event a KUIU customer sees you in town wearing “X” brand, they might thing “oh…interesting, so and so is wearing X now. I guess they believe in that brand.” As a result, that person might go buy that jacket. On the flip side, if you have a branded jacket for streetwear of your OWN brand, then that customer will think something like “I didn’t know KUIU was making stuff like that? You mean I don’t have to buy one from Patagonia? I need that freaking KUIU jacket!” Sale made..done and done.
Here’s my only problem with this scenario. While I DO understand that this makes sense, I just can’t get over the fact that KUIU is taking designers away from designing mountain gear to focus on street apparel. I still don’t believe KUIU should be in that market because it only serves to water down the brand. The instant the product line begins to go in any direction other than ultralight mountain hunting gear, the edge is lost on that specific niche. They can no longer claim that mountain hunting is all they do because clearly, they do other things. A jacket for the street is not going to end up being part of a mountain hunting system so one might argue that it’s a standalone product that doesn’t fit anywhere other than in your closet.
In a world where you can basically get any product you want for whatever price you want, we as consumers want to know that the products we buy are coming from EXPERTS. I personally buy my every day wear from brands that have made it their business to create, design, and market every day lifestyle clothing. What if Gucci began selling outdoor gear? How freaking weird would that be? Would you actually trust that they knew what they were talking about? My guess is that you’d likely never purchase a piece of outdoor gear from any company who’s mission is something other than making outdoor gear.
My point here is this; KUIU makes ultralight mountain hunting gear. When the product line begins reflecting something other than that, it risks being tarnished and opens the door for competition to come swoop up the customers who are looking for the next expert. If the product line continues to spread into too many areas that aren’t supporting the mission of the mountain hunter, then the game is over. You either get lost in the noise, lose your edge, or just become another brand that used to be something special.
If I were running the show, I would have created a completely different brand for street apparel under the influence of Kuiu expertise. It would have been a spinoff of KUIU with a dedicated team built to create lifestyle apparel that targets their audience. This would be done by people who actually design lifestyle apparel for a living. By doing this, you can really spread your wings by introducing new colors, styles, materials and whatever else you want without risking the damage to the KUIU mountain hunting mission. How fun would that be?! Wearing a branded jacket that Jason himself designed and just so happens to be his own personal brand? People love that guy! He single handedly changed the face of the hunting industry and we have him to thank for all the great options and company competition that is now out there. Of course they’d purchase a Jason Hairston branded jacket!
The other thing that creating a separate brand does is eliminates the question of “would this work in the mountains too?” Sure, it might be the same materials, but you wouldn’t have to answer the mail on that . Street stuff for street stuff and mountain stuff for mountain stuff. Done, conversation over.
On gift giving products
Again, I get it. It makes sense, but I still don’t agree and here’s why. It reminds me too much of the branded junk Cabelas sells. All I can think about is that weird section of the store that for some reason sells really bad home goods and weird gifts like the talking bass fish. It’s bad and not a direction I’d be taking the company in if I were calling the shots. If spouses want to buy their guy/gal a KUIU gift, make it a good one and make it something they can actually use in the field instead of something that looks like it’s hot off the boat from China. Those products might be few and far between, but by not having strangely branded doo dads for people to waste their hard earned money on, you’re not only saving them from themselves, but you’re also encouraging them to buy a higher priced product that ACTUALLY does something for their favorite guy/gal in the field. Personally, I don’t like being gifted anything that I can’t actually use. Let the gifts be branded t shirts and hats and be done with it. The original product line has inexpensive items anyhow so I’m not sure what role a KUIU branded phone holder thing plays. Off the top of my head, if I’m looking for an inexpensive gift for a buddy that likes KUIU, I’d be looking at a pair of gloves, a dry zip bag, roll top bag, or a neck gaiter.
My point? I understand why these branded products exist, but I just think it waters down the brand and the only word that comes to mind is “blahhhhh.” If I were running the show, I’d have a fire sale on whatever inventory is left of those items and delete them from the catalog. I’d repurpose those resources and focus the team on finding mountain solutions to other problems rather than designing gifts for the holidays.
Before I got off the phone, my IG pal said one thing to me that was nice to hear. They assured me that KUIU was by no means refocusing the brand, but rather they were more focused than ever on offering mountain hunting solutions to their customer base. They couldn’t reveal what they were so excited about, but they did mention there were some great things coming up that will make an impact.
I have to hand it to the KUIU rep. They didn’t have to make time to call me after work, didn’t have to respond to my DM, didn’t have to read my letter, and sure as hell didn’t have to discuss my letter with one of the CEO’s. But they did. They did all of those things and to top it off was a pleasure to speak with. I felt like we could have had a much longer conversation and maybe one day we will, but for now, I’m sincerely grateful that anyone from KUIU would take the time to reach out for a discussion.
It’s strange to me that KUIU has a weird vibe in some circles in the industry. I am by no means an industry professional, but even in my few interactions with people who are, I get this feeling that you either love KUIU, or you hate them and I can’t seem to understand it. Are we not all on the same team here? Are we not all trying to live our adventures in the wilderness for our own personal reasons? Why does there need to be so much animosity between brands? We don’t all need to hold hands and sing around a campfire, but damn, just because you don’t like how a brand presents itself, doesn’t mean they’re the devil in disguise.
Brands are made of people and you’d have to present a pretty damning case to me for me to believe that a brand could actually have ill intent towards its customer or the industry in general. Bad customer service, untimely shipments, higher than normal prices, product issues, or whatever else you can come up with DOES NOT equate to ill will. It doesn’t mean anything other than that there is an opportunity to improve.
I do believe there are people in the industry who tarnish it and are there for the wrong reasons, but until someone presents a case based on fact and real evidence, I don’t believe KUIU is anywhere close to the type of brand who would intentionally take advantage of a customer.
I saw a number of comments on my last IG post that if I were a KUIU executive, would make me very concerned, but just like you and I, we all have to make mistakes in order to make improvements. My wish for KUIU is that they continue to grow, churn out quality products and really maintain that edge on finding solutions for mountain hunters.
Finally, I just want to publicly thank KUIU for reaching out to me and for taking the time after work to speak. I meant a lot and I think it shows that they really do care. I’m not special, but I am a long time customer who wrote them a letter to which they responded.