Voices: A Route Interview Series Feat. Keith Eshelman

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Aug 12, 2021

Creating a Brand That connects People with Parks

It doesn’t take long cruising around the Parks Project website to understand that what you’re seeing is more than a brand—it’s a mission for good. With planet-promoting wares, earth-conscious goods, and a vibe as crunchy as freshly laid trail aggregate, Parks Project is more spirit and optimism above all else.

Keith Eshelman is the founder and CEO of Parks Project, a socially conscious brand that’s all about giving back and leans into that old camping chestnut “Leave it better than you found it.” Not only have proceeds from park-inspired products provided more than $1.5 million toward parklands, but the company also works hard to unite people with opportunities to connect with the land themselves.

See what Keith has learned about growing a brand around giving back, and don’t hesitate to pop by Parks Project yourself and explore the country’s best idea in an entirely new way.

Q: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? 

A:  When I look back five years ago, that was when we started in a garage. One thing I probably didn’t recognize was that the cost per acquisition was just gonna rise. As a speaker, you make assumptions based on your performance at the gate, and those early customers and adopters who were easy to connect with grew into a smaller mass market niche of outdoors.

National parks were a quiet wake-up call that competition will come your way. If you have a novel idea, something that people are really excited about, you can’t take that for granted because good ideas spread, shit spreads.

Our goal is to try to stay ahead of the curve and ahead of the trend. Also, when I think five years back, I think the funniest assumption we made was that we were looking at the digital sphere. We thought we could probably find out who went to a national park. If somebody went to Joshua tree and checked in or posted something and didn’t add Joshua tree, then we could say, “Hey, here’s some Joshua tree products, I hope you enjoy the trip there.” 

It didn’t take long to realize that we ended up marketing to a bunch of local people here. The regional targeting of national parks turned out to be very fruitful. So, that’s kind of a funny story that we thought we could really land dialogue with people who are going to national parks, but you kinda end up communicating with the locals who are probably living in the parks and gateway towns.

Q: What does the future of ecommerce look like in your mind?

I think we’re trying to make more news to have a balance outside of the digital space. I know a lot of ecommerce or DTC brands have since launched stores and places to interact and reinforce the relationship. The idea of being all in a digital sphere and talking to people solely through ecommerce doesn’t seem like a very powerful brand-building concept.

What we’re allowed to do is develop relationships with customers and have a value proposition that this brand is worth following, it’s worth the time out of a day, and it’s worth some money out of your wallet. I really think that we’re going to try to figure out more analog means to connect with customers and be in the right place at the right time.

Most of that’s via the national parks, so a little bit more in-person. I think it’s more of a holistic view of where people are spending time and how we can connect with them. We inspire people to volunteer in the parks. We try to get people to connect with conservancies and look at their relationship with the outdoors art lens.

Not all of that is going to be our existing digital channels and owned media, and I think we’re going to figure that out. Half of it should be relaxing and I think the scale does need to start with a desire of having connections that are a little bit more real.

Q: What is your best failure? 

A: There were a lot of them. Most of them come from product ideas where it just takes a lot longer to gain traction. You make an assumption that if you put something out every season, we make apparel and accessories, we’ll be on a fashion calendar. When you do something inspiring you think the whole world saw it and now you can go onto new stories and different product ideas. 

I think we still have neon orange T-shirts that we made in early 2014 that we were confident about. We bought a bunch of them and there’s still a pile in the office and I can’t even give them away.

We’re trying new things and making many assumptions by taking risks with them. Some of them do work and some of them just don’t.  This is a great learning moment. There’s been a lot of inventory purchases that we look back on and now we know there’s a lot we can do.

Q: How have you pivoted strategy during the pandemic?

A: We had a few things happen all at once around April. That’s when there are a lot of spring deliveries for wholesale. Most of our wholesale partners just ship them, so we had a ton of inventory sitting on the dock and we had to make use of it. Fortunately, the ecommerce channel was able to absorb the inventory and ramp up in scale to cover some of the wholesale deficit.

I think what we did in ecommerce—by quickly reacting to home goods being one of our uptrending categories—really helped us. We put together some quick products such as posters and candles in late spring time for fall and holidays, and our home goods just shot through the roof. 

Our team wasn’t able to keep up with keeping our candles and such in stock. We created drinkware, blankets and pillows, and things like that because we understood that people are stuck at home. They are doing some modifications in decorating to make life a little bit better. It was a great pivot jumping into home goods and accelerating that category of the business. 

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