There are a lot of variables in this crazy world we live in, but one set of standards will unfailingly reign true: there will always a before and an after.
The before and the after can either be glorious or tragic, depending on what kind of situation the experience lends itself to. For example, “I finally met my soulmate and my life will never be the same” or “I dropped my iPhone in the blender and my life is ruined.” Two very different outcomes to two very different scenarios, yet they both have a before and an after in common.
A few years ago, the outdoor industry lived through one of these before and after events firsthand. When Poler Outdoor Stuff launched in 2011, there was nothing quite like it. Bridging the gap between the lifestyle and outdoor markets, their products, although pretty rudimentary at the time, would forever change the game in terms of accessibility. What made Poler different than any brand that came before them was their approach to marketing and storytelling. They showed us that is was okay to skateboard and hike, and that you didn’t have to be super core, you could just be super chill. Poler was disruptive, not so much in the tech start-up kind of way, but in the “holy shit, these dudes are making something so invariably cool that it can’t really be authentically recreated” kind of way. With a Tumblr that wouldn’t quit and a sleeping bag that you could wear like a poncho, Poler introduced #campvibes into the vernacular of every novice outdoor enthusiast from Portland to Melbourne, cementing their position in the evolving, millennial-obsessed outdoor food chain.
We sat down with Benji Wagner, Poler’s creative director and co-founder, in what will eventually become the backroom of their new Laguna Beach store to discuss the before and the after and what comes next.
Why do you think Poler has had so much success connecting with a youthful demographic?
Well, the primary reason we started the company is not because the industry didn’t make good product. It was because we didn’t feel the brands were connecting with young people and inspiring them. Poler is really supposed to be more like pop music. It’s supposed to be fun and accessible so a lot of people can enjoy it. It’s not supposed to be this super cool band that never really leaves their hometown. Are you trying to make a pop song that millions of people will hear or an indie rock album that your friends listen to in their garage? Are you trying to make everyday gear or the most technically advanced stuff on the market? Obviously, those are different goals. Both are totally relevant, but for us, from the beginning, we have tried to make something that is approachable and affordable, and really connects with a wide range of young people.
Would you define Poler as an outdoor or lifestyle brand?
Yeah, I don’t know why, but the word lifestyle has always turned me off. I guess that is fair. On some level as a small brand, Poler can confuse people. Even if they really like it, they want to define it. It’s just human nature to look at something and put it in a box. If something is ambiguous, then people can still be really intrigued by it, but it’s a little harder to figure out where it belongs. In the short term, that has some challenges for us, but in the long term, it’s a great problem to have. Poler has really always been for the everyday person that goes out on the weekend, and we are trying to marry functional tech with casual styling. On one end of the spectrum, fashion is about looking cool and on the other end of the spectrum, outdoor has traditionally been about innovative gear. Poler is just meant to touch on all these really different things from streetwear to outdoor to surf in legitimate ways, but we are not really rooted in only one. The brand is meant to be disruptive and change people’s perception about what the word “outdoor” even means and what a brand in that industry is and can be like. We definitely aren’t trying to compete with what is already there. It is supposed to be its own animal that fills a hole in the market rather than takes a chunk out of something else.
Storytelling has always played a huge role in the organic growth of the brand. Why do you think it is so easy for people to envision themselves as part of the Poler story?
I think my background as a photographer and filmmaker, working with other brands, led me to think a lot about storytelling. I just feel that the brands in our industry weren’t telling stories in a way that got me as a consumer excited. In the adventures section of our website, we have some trips that are very big like rafting in the Grand Canyon or surfing in Russia, which are amazing stories, but then we also have a ton that are about going to the local swimming hole or going camping at the beach at your local state park.
A lot of people that see someone in an ad campaign doing something crazy like hanging off the side of a mountain in a way they can’t relate to often ends the conversation before it begins. It feels like they may as well be looking at a yacht they’re never going to own. There is a place in the world for those kinds of aspirational things, but there is also a place in the world for things that are attainable or just feel more true to life. When you go on a trip, do you wanna talk about the gear you have or do you wanna talk about the experience you had on that trip? What do you really end up telling your loved ones or your friends if you come back from a road trip? Do you talk a lot about the shoes you were wearing or the outfit you had on, or is it more about what you saw and what you did?
There are people that will get more out of just standing still, looking at the beach, and watching the sunset than somebody else will get out of climbing Mount Everest. If you come from a place where there is no snow, and you see snow, make one snowball, and throw it, then the reality of that experience is going to be very impactful and they might talk about it forever. It’s all about context and perspective, and I think industries can lose sight of that and feel like they are only speaking to people who have a certain level of achievement or “seriousness” about their adventures.
You started out making graphic tees and bags. What direction is Poler heading in terms of product?
It’s been an interesting process to learn from our customers what they are looking for from Poler. We definitely don’t want to get stuck in just one category and take our product development very seriously in all categories. We are introducing a much more complete line of cut and sew in 2016. We will have a complete line for the first time, including everything from small accessories to parkas. Our bags have improved dramatically while staying affordable. We are also going to make a small collection of some really technical products, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be all we talk about. When you need a three-layer jacket, we will have a great three-layer jacket for you, but our ad campaign or what we talk about is going to be more about what you do with that jacket than just showing the specs and features. That is the way we approach everything.
Poler is opening a concept store and event space in Laguna Beach. Why Orange County?
We’ve wanted to have a home in Southern California for a long time. A lot of Poler’s DNA is rooted in action sports and a lot of what we set out to do was bring together the outdoor and action sports industry in a way that had never been done before. We really wanted to redefine how people look at something like surf. Surf doesn’t exist at the outdoor trade show because it has its own trade show, and yet just on a very basic fundamental level, surfing is one of the most beautiful outdoor activities ever created by man. Everyone can appreciate it even if they don’t surf. It’s just so inherently cool to ride a wave and yet for some reason, it’s not “outdoor.” It’s just surf.
In young people’s minds, everything is merging because of the Internet, and they don’t see those kind of dividing lines between activities that were created by the industry. When we were growing up, if you were a surfer, you probably didn’t necessarily identify with a skateboarder, snowboarder or rock climber. Young people really just don’t subscribe to those kind of boundaries. They just see it all as interesting, fun stuff to do.
As far as the space goes, we will have a retail store and a cafe with some other great Portland brands like Stumptown and Salt & Straw. We’ll also have a large area where we can have events, parties and workshops. It’s really a unique place with a lot of character right on PCH in a former nursery that was here for about 50 years. We’re also going to be opening an office down here to work in tandem with our Portland office, and are just trying to plant a flag down in Southern California. Our Portland office and store are staying put. This way we have the best of both worlds.
This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Four.