Austin-based cooler brand Yeti will open its first brick-and-mortar store this Thursday, February 23, on the city's iconic South Congress Avenue retail strip.

Scratch that. Yeti will open its first "flagship experience" on Thursday, says Tony Kaplan, the brand's director of consumer experience. "We don't call it a store. It has more in common with an experiential museum than a retail store. We have tons of retail partners out there in Austin and around the country. It's not like we need another place to sell our products; it's a place to celebrate our roots."

Accordingly, the 8,000-square-foot space feels more like a Yeti theme park than a store. There's an indoor-outdoor bar, a stage for concerts, and a customization counter where Yeti enthusiasts can add colorful touches to their gear. There are stacks of products to buy scattered around the store, but they're almost an afterthought; the real focus is all the brand artifacts. An 8-foot-tall stuffed brown bear (shot by Yeti brand ambassador Jim Shockey on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula) looms over customers as they enter. A barbecue smoker from the backyard of legendary Austin pit master Aaron Franklin (also a Yeti ambassador) sits behind the bear. There's a flats-fishing skiff floating on resin in the back of the store, a school of tarpon swimming near the ceiling, half a pickup truck, and beat-up rodeo gear with explanatory placards that reinforce the brand's core ideals--ruggedness, durability, the lure of the wild.

Let's back up. Yeti was founded in 2005 by brothers Ryan and Roy Seiders, two avid fishermen who grew frustrated that typical coolers weren't tough enough for them to stand on while fishing. They found a design they liked in Thailand and convinced a manufacturer in the Philippines to start making an improved version of it--tough enough to be grizzly-proof, they touted.

In one of the more unlikely triumphs of branding, the new line of coolers turned into a coveted lifestyle brand, a personal statement for its users--like, say, Red Bull or Harley-Davidson. People wear Yeti hats and shirts, plaster their trucks with Yeti stickers, and pay $30 for Yeti coffee cups. For outdoors enthusiasts, Yeti signifies toughness and performance. For the tailgating set, the brand is a status symbol, a clear signal that you're the kind of person who can afford $500 for a cooler (or $1,300 for the nearly coffin-size Tundra 350).

Yeti hauled in $469 million in revenue in 2015, up from $5 million in 2009, and filed for an IPO in mid-2016, though it's currently on hold. (The Seiders don't have much involvement in the day-to-day operations of the company anymore; they sold a controlling stake to private equity firm Cortec Group in 2012, and the company then hired a professional CEO and management team.)

Kaplan says the flagship has been a "very expensive" project for the company--"a seven-figure investment"--and that there are no plans for additional locations. So why bother?

According to Debra Zahay-Blatz, professor of marketing at Austin's St. Edwards University, the store makes perfect sense as pure brand spectacle. "There's sort of a yin and yang of branding in the age of social media," she says. "Brands can touch people every day online, but ironically that makes people yearn to experience the brand in person even more. But traditional retail is dying, so this kind of destination showroom is the wave of the future."

Over the past several years, online-first, direct-to-consumer brands such as Warby Parker and Bonobos have plunged headlong into the reinvention of brick and mortar stores. But Yeti represents something different, Kaplan says, because it sells through so many other retailers already and can't risk hurting those relationships. "I think of the flagship as a testing ground to bring experiential marketing to our retail partners," Kaplan says. "We can try different ways of telling our brand and product stories here, and then take those concepts to REI, or pop-up events elsewhere."

Indeed, Kaplan says sales aren't going to be the main measure of the new store's success. "It's about how many people we can touch and communicate with and inspire," he says. "We are in the heartbeat of a tourist destination, so we'll be looking at foot traffic and signups for our mailing list." The store, which was partly designed by the company's ad agency, McGarrah Jessee, will try to draw those new connections in by holding regular events such as concerts, film screenings, demos, and workshops.

If the throng of scruffy-faced, flannel-wearing men who showed up for the store's VIP opening party last week is any indication of the interest, Yeti could be on to something. The crowd included everyone from Lance Armstrong to rodeo champion Luke Branquinho. As one prominent Austin restaurateur and hotelier--a chief architect of the city's current trendiness--said to me after the party, "Even I didn't know there were so many hipster outdoorsmen."

Published on: Feb 23, 2017