A week after swapping stories and connecting with electric and utility communicators in the Smoky Mountains, my member credit from Recreational Equipment Inc. known by most outdoor enthusiasts as REI arrived. My family bought a tent and a few other outdoor supplies last year (hello, pandemic) and got $52 back. My co-op member mail sparked a flashback from StoryConnect: The Conference.

REI’s story was the most popular session at Pioneer and WordSouth’s annual storytelling conference, earning an average 5.2 rating on a scale of 1 to 5.

(To the folks who rated the session a 6 or 7, we love REI, too.)

In the session, REI Sales Lead Tom Hannon shares how the nation’s largest consumer-owned cooperative strengthens its co-op culture, using strategic internal and external messages and service-based sales tactics.

“Every single day has the potential to be a fundamental shift in someone’s life experience; not just our members’ lives, but yours, too,” Tom tells the session attendees as he explains the need to focus on storytelling and service when training co-op staff.

Couldn’t join us at StoryConnect? Here are three co-op storytelling lessons from REI to spark inspiration for electric and telco utility communicators. 


Design With Stories

Every co-op starts to meet a community need. REI, the nation’s largest consumer-owned cooperative, began in 1938 (the same year many electric co-ops began) with the design and production of an ice axe. Next time you visit an REI store, check the door handles. The handles are (safe) replicas of the axe. 

“One of our storytelling tools we use every day is our store,” Tom says. “Our store visuals are a huge part of telling our story.”

Every REI store has a front-of-store display to identify member pain points. For example, REI’s “What’s Your But?” campaign coordinated store displays with a social media sweepstakes and staff videos. Members shared a problem or hesitation keeping them from enjoying the outdoors. Staff offered advice (and gift cards) to meet member needs.


How do you add storytelling in your lobby? Some utilities have a mirror with a phrase like, “Wondering who owns this utility?” Some electric co-ops use historical displays and timelines. A few telcos and electric utilities offering broadband have created custom work spaces to show how fiber broadband improves life. What other ways can you design member spaces with storytelling in mind?


Connect With Purpose

REI enjoyed moderate growth over its first seven-plus decades, but it wasn’t until the co-op’s 2015 Opt Outside campaign that REI focused on purpose-led marketing.

“Opt Outside was the first time we did something publicly and nationally to tell our story in a way people needed to understand,” Tom explains. 

REI closed all stores on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Instead of a post-Thanksgiving sales push, the purpose-led cooperative paid 12,000 staff for the day and encouraged members to #OptOutside. The campaign was rooted in REI’s belief that a life outdoors is a life well-lived.

“On the day we made that announcement, I can’t count the number of phone calls I took with folks saying, ‘I don’t have a clue what you do, but I understand I can join your co-op. I want to be part of it, because I believe in what you do,” Tom says. “It encourages you to be with your family and the ones you love. Get outside.”


Do your marketing efforts focus on your purpose? Several times at StoryConnect we talked about the importance of focusing on your why: not what you do (poles and wires) or how you do it (safe, reliable, affordable) but why you do it. How do we make life better for the communities we serve? Purpose-focused storytelling connects with members and builds your relationship with them. You’re not a utility they pay each month; you’re a partner with shared goals and a vision for your community.


Build Staff Storytellers

Co-op culture starts with an engaged staff. Building on the success of connecting purposefully with members, REI created an internal guide in 2019, The Co-op Way. 

“The Co-op Way is our North Star,” explains Tom, holding a copy up for attendees to see. “To be nimble, you need a guiding document to take you in that direction. It’s a huge part of who we are and how we intend to live on a daily basis.”

The Co-op Way defines shared values for all co-op staff, including:

  1. We Fight for a Life Outdoors
  2. We Go Further, Together
  3. We Start from a Place of Respect
  4. We Believe the Outdoors Is for All

Education and training plays a key role in turning REI staff into trusted storytellers. When working with a member or customer, staff are coached to identify member goals and get them what they need. 

“Shameless enthusiasm is something you need to practice every single day,” Tom says. “If I’m trying to tell someone what a great thing being part of the REI co-op is, being part of our family, and I’m looking in another direction and don’t have a passion about it, why are they going to care? They can’t care about something if I don’t care about it.”

Four co-op service behaviors are outlined in The Co-op Way:

1. Welcoming

How do we show up for our members every day? Welcoming sounds simple, but on a busy day an employee could be stocking, cleaning or talking to fellow staff. REI has a 10 feet, 10 seconds rule. Staff are trained to greet a member within 10 feet of them and within 10 seconds of a member entering a department.

2. Friendly

Introduce yourself, smile and be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm means you care and you’re focused. Always say thank you, even if they choose not to buy.

3. Authentic

Celebrate the stories members share and share your passion and expertise in a real, personal way. Learn member stories to understand what they have done and what they want to do. Make sure you have the knowledge to give members what they need.

4. Connect

Connect with each customer in a way that’s right for them. Build a relationship to help you understand and match their needs. Always start from a place of respect.

“Active listening is when we get it right,” Tom says, stressing the importance of eye contact and focus. “If I don’t actively listen, I can’t give you the answer you need. That’s the real base to all of our quality communication and how we tell our story. Our story is really our members’ story. We don’t sell products. We sell membership. Anyone can join, everyone belongs.”


Are you training utility staff on your cooperative story? Some utilities are doubling down on their co-op roots with purpose-led staff development. How can you help your staff understand their co-op roots? We have a Co-ops 101 webinar we offer for Utility Pioneers. Let your account manager know if you’d like to share it with your staff.


Want to Learn More?

By now you can probably understand why StoryConnect attendees rated Tom’s session so highly. Many folks didn’t realize REI was a co-op before they joined us in March. 

Here are a few more REI facts:

  • The co-op’s 15,000 employees serve the outdoor needs of 20 million members (and future members) with 174 stores in 41 states.
  • Each year REI returns 70% of profits to members; $112.4 million in member rewards based on 2021 purchases was shared in 2022.
  • The co-op focuses on our shared principle of commitment to community. REI donated $6.3 million to hundreds of nonprofit partners in 2020.
  • In March, REI relaunched its membership program for the first time in 82 years. With a $30 one time membership fee, you’re part of REI’s co-op family forever. 
  • See examples of REI’s education and training efforts at Uncommon Path, the co-op’s member resource using blog posts, videos, podcasts, member forums and gear guides to cultivate community.

Love this story?
Join us at StoryConnect: The Conference in 2023. We’re working on dates and a location, both to be announced soon.