June 13, 2023

Is This Thing On? Ep. 16 with YETI Chief Marketing Officer Paulie Dery

In 2006, YETI was founded with a simple mission: “build the cooler you'd use every day, that lasts all day.” In this episode of “Is This Thing On?” GALE Chief Brand and Experience Officer, Winston Binch, sits down with YETI Chief Marketing Officer, Paulie Dery, to talk about YETI’s origin story, building a brand for the long-term, investing in customers and communities and much more.


A Business Agency

In 2006, YETI was founded with a simple mission: “build the cooler you'd use every day, that lasts all day.” In this episode of “Is This Thing On?” GALE Chief Brand and Experience Officer, Winston Binch, sits down with YETI Chief Marketing Officer, Paulie Dery, to talk about YETI’s origin story, building a brand for the long-term, investing in customers and communities and much more.

They discuss:

  • (7:50) Building products that never die
  • (11:40) Why YETI won’t just put their logo on anything
  • (18:30) Doubling down on community marketing to connect with the right communities and customers
  • (20:00) Why YETI’s expansion didn’t happen overnight
  • (26:29): Getting organizations that typically disagree to unite around the greater good
  • (29:12): What’s next for YETI and going international

We’ve included the full transcript of the conversation below for easy reading, plus have a listen on Amazon, Apple Podcasts, Audible, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or wherever else you get your podcasts!


Winston (00:00):

So Paulie, you and I have known each other for a while, and one thing that I love about you is you're one of those rare CMOs that started in the creative discipline and made that transition. And I was wondering if you could talk about that and what that journey's been like.

Paulie Dery (00:21):

Yeah, sure. I mean you know what it's like when certain agencies... I think the top creatives take on a different role as they get into the ECD, Chief Creative Officer role, where they are real partners to their CMOs, their clients, which is great, and you become a little bit more business minded. But for me, the transition really occurred when I did go brand side. And you have to start picking up on the acumen of the business, for no other reason apart from you need to work out how to sell a good idea. And to sell a good idea you often need to hold court a little bit when you're at the big table, you learn these new skills of how to sell marketing and sell creative to people who aren't focused on it. And I think those skills really, really help me as a creative turn into a true marketer, which really helped.

And then the evolution to YETI CMO is really full credit to my boss and my CEO who said, "Look, marketing, if a lot of it is just what we put out into the world, then I need someone with good taste, right?" I don't know if he got the right guy. But what he was saying was, "I need someone who really understands great work and understands the brand, the rest will sort out." And when you come to a brand like YETI where it's all about the brand, that's really important. So having someone who understands how to care for creative, push creative, get great work out in the world, for him that was far more important than the other skills that pat around a traditional CMO. I'd like to think I've built those on in the process.

But for any creative out there, the work is the most important thing. And for any marketer out there, I say this all day, "The work is the only thing that matters. And what the world sees is the only thing that matters." I don't care about decks, I don't care about things that we discuss but never make it out into the world. I really rate us and judge us on what's out there. And as a creative, you have real ability to impact that. And great work solves all problems, Winston.

And I think YETI really understands that if you consistently put great work out into the world, then all the other stuff that you may perceive as things you need to solve or things you need to have a POV on, they do go away because you're putting such a good mass of good work out there. So I think for any creative out there wanting to really round out their marketing capabilities, I think you got to pick up on some acumen and you got to read a room when the room gets bigger, get good at that. And I think it's been great for me and the brand to be creative. I'm very lucky, I approve the creative and I write the check. So hopefully that's a template that many brands can follow if I don't stuff it up for everybody.

Winston (03:49):

Love that template. I mean we have this belief that brand strategy is business strategy.

Paulie Dery (03:53):


Winston (03:54):

And what's exciting to hear is that your boss, your brand, you guys embrace that and we need more brands embracing that. But also we need more creative people getting excited and curious about business. I did a short stint on the client's side before I came to GALE at Michael's, and half an hour of the day was creative, the rest was talking about the business. And when you're in the agency world it's all about the idea, like, "Why aren't they listening to our ideas?" And it's like, "Well, there's a lot of important things that are being discussed." And I think maybe you're right, your background of having that account understanding in the beginning helped you. But I love hearing that 'cause it's-

Paulie Dery (04:44):

I couldn't agree more. The other thing is in C-suite rooms, the voice of creativity isn't there a lot of the time. So you can be a force for good in terms of the consumer and the creative side of things, but that's only if people are trusting you. And again, I reach back to my Uber days and think, when I got there, what did I have to do quickly? I had to get the product and engineers to understand and buy into what we do as marketers. And so all I did there was tell stories of some of their best work. So Uber had these great abilities that no one knew about. For example, the deaf driving apps, if you're a deaf driver, Uber developed an app so that they could work. 70% of deaf people are unemployed. Uber is a major income earner for the deaf community.

Wow, what a great story for a marketer and a creative guy. Just to wrap that up and put it out to the world was a great story for the consumer, but also the product and engineer people are now like, "Hey, this guy really, he gets us and really we enjoy that he puts our stuff out in the world in a way." And so you gain that trust and then you're in, and then you can start doing some damage once you earn the trust. But I always say, "Does the body reject the organ?" And that's often what we see a lot when creatives go brand side, the body rejects the organ and it's because the body's not ready. They think they want creative in-house, they think they want agency people, but the two don't know how to exist together, which is why agencies exist. They exist outside the body sometimes and that's maybe better for the body. Other organisms find ways for the organs to work. So the metaphors will continue, I promise.

Winston (06:54):

Yeah. Well I appreciate them, keep them coming. Yeah, I mean for me, there's this famous Fred Wilson line where he says, "Marketing's what you do and your product sucks." But I hate that because frankly, most products do suck. And the other thing is that everything is storytelling. Read harary, right? Everything is storytelling and we need storytelling in the boardroom. We need storytelling in all aspects of the organization, even in a product and tech-driven company. But to your point, you have to prove your value. How are you going to help these people? And I think creatives got to find a way to have empathy for the business strategists, the engineers and the tech people, and help them tell that story in a better way.

Paulie Dery (07:39):


Winston (07:41):

Getting back, focusing on business, what's top of mind for you as a creative business leader and for YETI right now?

Paulie Dery (07:50):

Yes. So a couple things come to mind. One, it sounds ghoulish, but these are exciting times for marketers and creatives because chaos breeds creativity. All right? And what I think you start to see in any upturn downturn in economics or any shift of an access, is that really good creatives actually do more than they normally would because what happens is people retract, they slow down their spend, they get a bit more conservative with ideas, which just clears a path for good work really. The other thing we see is the people step away from brands. They're like, let's lean into performance, let's get that return." No, double down on brand. This is your time to gain ground on everyone and push forward. And this is very YETI focused. We have a little saying which is, "We're focused on building this brand for the next 200 years, not the next two."

And what does that stop us from doing? It stops us from being very short term and shortsighted with our decisions. The key question you have to ask yourself is when you get through this transitory short-term time, are you stronger coming out of it? And that's what we always say, "Hey, what do we need to do in this moment so we are stronger coming out of it?" And that is resisting becoming a commodity, resisting going heavy into performance and stepping away for brands. So I encourage everyone, there's ground to be made when there's some form of chaos or economic downturn. The other thing I would suggest talking about products as you were earlier, prove why your product is so great in these moments. We ran a holiday campaign that was called Use Your Gifts.

And the notion there was twofold. Obviously if you love fishing or you love snowboarding or you love the outdoors, use those gifts, those talents you have. So use your gifts. But also we have products that are really built to never die. And so Use Your Gifts was also a way to say you're going to use this stuff all year round again and again and again. So always show why your product is a great buy and why it is worth whatever price you put on it. But like I said, it's a great time for brands to make ground if they have the gumption to stick with brand.

Winston (10:26):

And a lot of these things, we say to ourselves as we navigate this, particularly people that have been in business for a while. You have to really think about the words, and I agree with you. I mean, it's like Coca-Cola was built during the Great Depression. There's lots of case studies of this and for sure now is the time to double down, figure out what your core product truths are, who your most valuable audiences are, get all those fundamentals right, which I love. It's cleaning up house, it's like, let's get the fundamentals right, because ultimately that's what's going to drive innovation.

Paulie Dery (11:02):

100%, and good marketers thrive in these conditions, so it separates the peleton a little, you can push out for sure. Yeah.

Winston (11:15):


Paulie Dery (11:15):

That's right.

Winston (11:17):

I'm super passionate about customization and personalization, going back to my Nike ID days way back, I told you this, but I gifted my father a personalized tumbler, a very simple customization detail and it makes a huge difference. Talk about how you guys view customization.

Paulie Dery (11:40):

That's awesome. My father-in-law gifted me my very first YETI, and I think that's how I knew that was like I was okay to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage I think at that stage. But customization is a big part of the business and it's complex. I love it for many reasons 'cause I love that YETI... It is a great gift and people always say, "How do you guys continue this incredible momentum you have?" We always joke about how many cups we sell a year and how many cupboards are left in the country. And the answer is there's plenty. And once people start buying YETI, they keep going, which is great.

But why I think it's a great gift is because for 30 bucks, when you hand it over, it feels like 100. And that is a very special place to be as a gifting item, whether that's a birthday anniversary or a Mother's Day, Father's Day type stuff, it's really important. And then when you can customize it, it's special and it's yours. But again, it's still just a $35 gift, but it feels so much more. The other thing I would say about it, we have a substantial corporate sales business where brands put their logos on our cups. Now what's interesting about that is that it is a brand decision. And at the C-suite level, we often discuss if we approve some of these deals and they're huge deals, massive companies wanting to put their logo and spend a lot of money at YETI to do it.

But we discuss, "Look, do we want this brand on our cup? Is this a quality brand?" And other deals they'll say, "Hey, we're going to buy X amount of cups because we're going to do a buy-one-of-our-things, get-a-YETI-Cup deal." We don't like that. No, we're not a giveaway. That's not who our brand is. So when you say no to these large deals, it takes enormous fortitude. But again, people ask, "How's your brand so strong?" It's those little things like that, which is why the brand's so strong. If John's plumbing down the road does 10 cups for their customers, that, we can't do that, we wouldn't want to, it's quite charming. But the big end of town, we definitely mull over it a lot.

Winston (14:12):

Where does this thinking come from? Meaning YETI's not new, you guys have been around for a long time and I would say you're one of the most dynamic and exciting brands, but has the company always had this kind of brand first sensibility?

Paulie Dery (14:27):

Yeah, I'd say without question. So our founders were two brothers, Roy and Ryan, great guys. Anytime you pick up a phone and call them, they're always going to answer and give advice. But what's wonderful about them is they were avid fishermen and the reason why they built the YETI cooler is because they were sick of bad coolers and they loved fishing all day and they didn't have a product that held ice all day. And when you fished off a cooler it would break. And so they really selfishly built this product for themselves and then what happened was other people on the coast of Texas and Florida who they were fishing with and guides wanted it too because it was amazing and held ice all day and YETI really then started to grow around this community. And community marketing is really what is the cornerstone of YETI.

We invest heavily and are committed to the communities that embrace our product. Then what happened, the product started showing up in other places for instance. So started showing up in the outdoors and backcountry skiing and pit masters were using it for their long smoking days. We saw it pop up... Climbers were using drinkware and our coolers. When we saw that, we followed. So the community had embraced the product, the product had relevance in that community, we followed. And what that does is it means that you're not enforcing yourself or convincing people that this is a great product or that we're a great brand for you. They've made that initial connection. We always say we follow the tracks and then we invest in that community. If that community's going to invest in us, we invest in them. And now what's interesting is if fish found snowboarding, snowboarding found climbing and so on, we've now found that we're in surf and skate.

And five years ago if you had said we were a surf escape brand, I think I would've been marched off the premises. But they found us and we became a part of it. So that philosophy of never pushing or forcing, like, yeah, I mean, I think our product is great for Brooklyn. It's a great audience. Brooklyn has to embrace YETI, which it has. But we weren't going to force it on it people. So that's a really good rule of thumb that we stick to here. There are many other cups out there in the world and there are many other coolers in the world. We talk about a lifestyle and always have for no other reason that we love our lifestyle. We love the characters that make up the YETI wild. We love the places we inhabit, we love the pursuits we do. We found that telling those stories is fun.

It's interesting. And if people work out that by watching those stories and films that, "Oh, their products are built for those environments," that's great, but that's not the purpose of those stories. The purpose of those stories is to shine a light on these characters and these pursuits in these places. And people love it. They love our stories, they love our films. I don't know if they make a ton of financial sense, but people are drawn to them and watch them. And I think to my previous point, people do work out that that's where those products are built for and that's where they exist. I get it.

Winston (18:17):

Yeah. And I love many things about what y'all are doing, but one thing is you take a real counterintuitive approach to community marketing and I think the other day I saw a job posting for a social manager of Equestrian and can you talk a little bit at me? Because I work with a lot of brands and the first impulse is like, "Let's go to this community, let's go to this community, let's go to this community." But you guys don't do that, right? I mean you're very choiceful and selective. Can you talk about that process?

Paulie Dery (18:52):

Yeah. Again, if the community finds us and invests in us, we're going to do the same and we do. If you looked at some of our media spend, you'd probably laugh at some of the print publications we're in that you would be like, "Why?" The circulation of about 20 people, some of these things. But here's why it's important. Those people love the pursuits we love, but also, if we don't put our money there, maybe that publication can't keep going and that hurts the community. And I think people see that and respect that, but that's what we mean by community marketing. It is a ground game. It is thousands of connections, not one. And so when a community embraces us, we try and get in deep, we call it depth and breadth. We get in really, really deep with these communities where we're part of the family.

And in many of the communities I think people would say we are. And good luck if you try and move in on family. It just doesn't happen. So again, we follow the community. Surf and skate is another one we never intended to be in, but the coastal community was starting to use our products, loved us 'cause it could handle the heat, it could handle the surf, it could handle all sorts of things. What's interesting about that, about four years ago, the world's surf league spoke to us and they're like, "Hey, you guys are everywhere. People are using you and our athletes love your stuff. Come on board, we're going to free up some space for you all to be a sponsor," to which we said, "No way. You're joking, we've just started in this community." And this is very YETI, we want to build up an enormous amount of cred.

We want to be part of it. We want to make sure that it makes complete sense to people that when we do show up that of course we did this deal. So now in January we did sign the WSL deal, we're a major partner and it makes sense, we gave us four years to go build up that community. But most brands, you can cut a check, you can get in the right places and you keep moving. How long for? We just find that if you get in deep, become part of the family, then do that, you're in a really strong position. And I think surf is a great example of that. Look, equestrian, we never set out to be an equestrian. We don't have the first clue about equestrians. Our horse riding is wild ranch, rodeo riding, barrel races... Our ambassadors, especially the female barrel races are freaks of nature and amazing at what they do. And it's very different riding equestrian. But that community in Europe has found us. And so we want to honor that community and get deep before we do anything, if that makes sense.

Winston (22:06):

Yeah, I think that to me the note is don't act like a corporation. Be human, authentic. And that's hard, but I mean I think... You all are proving that.

Paulie Dery (22:18):

To be honest, it's exhausting. Community marketing is a hand-to-hand combat ground game. We turn up to events that we've been turning up to for 15 years because the minute you don't is the minute that, "Oh, have you walked away from us? You guys got too big for us?" So we make it a real note, turn up, keep turning up. We want to talk to people, we want handshaking, we want them just to test out our new stuff and to prove that we haven't gone anywhere. And so look, it takes a lot of effort. We have people out on the road most of the year, but that's the secret sauce.

Winston (22:56):

Yeah. We work with MilkPEP who worked in that Got Milk campaign. But the new program we did, we took a page from your playbook, which is we set out to sponsor every woman running the New York City Marathon this year.

Paulie Dery (23:13):


Winston (23:13):

With basically what you said, on the ground support before the race, during the race, after the race. We got 3,500 signups and the letters we received were amazing. And it's proved, to your point, that ground game is so critical to really making a difference.

Paulie Dery (23:32):

Well back to the customization conversation we were having, a lot of the way people find YETI is word of mouth and word of mouth also being that someone gave me a cup. How do you put a price on that? You can't. We have a net promoter score of 99. That means out of 100 people who buy a YETI, 99 recommend a YETI. That is because exactly what you're doing with milk, there Winston. That contact and showing the community you're there is why you get those scores. Is it easy? Is it quick? No, but that's why we get those scores.

Winston (24:21):

Talk to me about purpose and values, I mean if you can feel them. I'm just looking at your YETI hat and you feel it, but talk about how y'all see them.

Paulie Dery (24:33):

Yeah, so we don't hang them from the rafters here at YETI. Our purpose and what we're about, we talk about osmosis a lot and it's why we actually have pushed pretty hard and got people back in the office because there's something special about YETI and the brand that is hard to put down on paper. The other thing I think when you do put something down on paper, you're saying what you are, which is then also saying what you're not. And we don't like that. We don't like that at all. We're pretty inclusive. In fact, all we want is more people out in the wild. And we do have a saying, which is that the best of human nature is humans in nature. And what that means is we think that you're a better person out in the wild. So how can we get you out there?

And I think that's really our purpose. We build products. If you do go out there and go crazy, well we got you. And we always build our products for what we call the tip of the spear, our crazy ambassadors who do things like Travis Rice that no mortal could ever do. But it's really more than that. The world's got a lot to offer. You become a really interesting person the more time you're out there, but access to the wild's hard. You're an inner city kid, man, you have bigger challenges in front of you than getting out to the wild. How do we even do that? What's my first step? And that's really what we've taken a lead on is getting more people out in the wild. We just think everybody wins. You respect the public space, you respect the outdoors and you learn some things about yourself that are great.

So that's our focus. A lot of brands have mantras and a list of things that they stand for. For us, it's to get out there. And how do we live that? It goes back to community marketing, we're all out in the field. You got to show up and you got to listen to what your people are telling you and react. But yeah, I mean access to the wild's a real problem. And sustainability's another interesting one, Winston... We partner with some amazing organizations that often vehemently disagree with each other on how to handle the wild and conserve it. The one thing they all agree on is they want to protect it and look after it and make sure that there are plenty of fish in the stream and all that stuff. And that's I think a wonderful thing about YETI. We seem to bring those people together to get to agree on a ton of stuff. And that's one thing I love about the brand. It's not about picking a side, it's about the greater good and that's a real purpose for us.

Winston (27:50):

Yeah, I mean it's tremendous. I was a longtime board member of Protect Our Winners which is one of your partners. And I love what you said about having a bunch of our sustainability partners or you wouldn't expect them to be on the same page. I find that really interesting 'cause a lot of brands are trying to figure out, "Well, how do we work sustainability into our brand strategy?" And to me it seems like it really comes back to that single-minded idea built for the wild. And that's what we're about. And it doesn't matter about what side of the aisle you sit on, we're all passionate about the wild.

Paulie Dery (28:29):

That's right. That's right. Look, we're lucky we also build products that aren't built to hit the landfill. You buy it once. We hate plastic too, like Liquid Death we're trying to eradicate single use plastic. But the answer isn't... There's no silver bullet, which is why we embrace many organizations, like you said, they don't all agree with each other, in fact very opposite to each other. But we embrace their endeavor to make the wild better. And if you exclude yourself from one side of the conversation, you're not hearing the full argument. And that's not healthy either.

Winston (29:12):

So looking forward, what are you passionate or excited about? What's next? What's next?

Paulie Dery (29:18):

Everything. For us, when I joined YETI, we were obviously very strong in Texas and Florida and parts of the Southwest. It's been awesome the last four years to see us really find our way into other parts of the country up into California and really strong up in the Northeast, which has been enjoyable, but we've now set our sights on Europe and are really excited with what's happening over there. We've been up and running for a little bit now and people are just as excited as they were when we first started at YETI. It's fun to relive that excitement again and hunger and it's like, "Wow, this is a time machine," and it's fun. We have a really strong Australian and Canada business that are just phenomenal.

Expanding out into the rest of the world is really exciting and you feel like a kid again. People love the brand, people love the products. How do you find the communities that are embracing you? And they could look completely different to the ones we have right now. Equestrian, we talked about. They've embraced us, we need to embrace them. Who knows what else? Formula One have started to embrace this, Red Bull have been using a ton of our products and we've become partners with them. Tottenham Hot Spurs, we're starting to... we were showing up all over the Tottenham team page and all that. So we've embraced that relationship. Are we a soccer brand? Are we a Formula One brand? They will tell us. I won't tell them.