Backpacking and outdoor gear companies sponsor hikers and other athletes because it’s a very inexpensive form of advertising.
The basic formula goes like this: they give you a piece of free gear or a steep discount on purchases you make through them, and you become a walking billboard for their brand, endorsing their product on the trail, writing blog posts for their website, putting their logo on your blog, and posting pictures to their Facebook page or Instagram feed so they have content they can use to advertise their products on social media.
You’re thinking…they’re getting a really good deal for a piece of free gear or a price break. They do, but I’ll explain below how you can get more out of sponsors to make it worth your while.
Who do companies want to sponsor?
Gear manufactuers want to recruit people who are in a position to recommend their products to new customers. The name of the game is new customer acquisition. They’re in business to make money and if you want to get sponsored, you need to be able to demonstrate to them how you can help them grow beyond their existing customer base.
For example, if you can only recommend their products to people who are already familiar with their products you’re not going to really help them increase their customer base in any significant way. Take thru-hikers, as an example. If, during your thru-hike, you can only promote manufacturer’s products to other thru-hikers who already know all about them, you’re not going to have a big impact on the manufacturer’s sales.
However, if you have a large blog following that constantly attracts new readers, you’re famous because you hold the FKT for hiking the Appalachian Trail or some other feat, you’re a famous writer, or you’re very influential in a well-defined community that is likely to buy products you endorse, then you can make a pretty good case for getting sponsored.
If not, expect rejection.
Can you get paid?
Very few people get any money from sponsors. Giving away products is cheap (because it only costs them 20-40% of the retail price to make), but cash….you have to have some serious star power to get paid money. If you have it, you should get yourself an agent. Uli Steck and Bear Grylls don’t spend their time writing emails to gear manufacturers.
Who do you want to be sponsored by?
The ideal sponsor is a company whose products you already use and that you’d recommend to all of your friends even if you had to pay for the gear and couldn’t get it for free. It’s good for you, because you can recommend their products with a clear conscience. It’s good for them because they don’t have to train you about what to say and they know in advance that you’ll use their products. You can’t be sponsored by a company and not use their products. That’s a no go.
If you want to make hiking or a related sideline, like photography and writing, into a career, you want to be sponsored by companies that have a large audience that you want greater visibility within. The bigger the audience, the better, as long as it’s a good match with your interests.
For example, if you pride yourself as being an ultralight backpacker and trail runner, you probably don’t want to be sponsored by a backpack manufacturer like Gregory Packs that makes heavy gear and has no presence in the trail running community. Ultimate Direction would be a much better match, because you’ll build a lot more name recognition with an audience that is aligned with your strengths.
What should you look for from a sponsor?
The best sponsors are companies that have a well-defined sponsorship program and want to promote themselves by promoting you in their customer newsletter, on their website or blog, and through their social media channels. That’s a potent combination because it enhances your reach and stature, and the brand can avoid being gaudy and obvious about the fact that they’re advertising themselves.
The most successful sponsorship programs have a dedicated staff member running them, a well-defined application process that makes it easy to apply, a list of benefits you’ll receive by working with them, and clearly stated participation requirements. If none of this is present, you’re not going to get that much value out of the relationship beyond free gear and bragging rights.
How can I get a sponsorship if a company doesn’t have a sponsorship program?
Start writing emails where you explain how you can help the brand increase its visibility and sales. The more concrete you can be, the better. Be forewarned though. A lot of smaller brands get flooded with requests for free gear and have gotten very cynical about hikers trying to welch free gear from them. If you can’t provide an overwhelmingly good reason why they should sponsor you, you probably won’t get a response.
What if I just want free gear, not fame and status?
Good luck with that. You have to give to get, as they say. If your sponsor can’t advertise the fact that you use their gear, they won’t receive any benefit by giving it to you.
How to wreck a sponsorship relationship
A sponsorship is a business relationship and it’s important that you treat it that way. For example, if you do something that pisses your sponsor off, particularly if it’s public, you’ll have a hard time getting sponsorships from other companies ever again, since you’ve demonstrated that you are not a good business partner.
Most sponsors will terminate their relationship with you if:
- You sell the free gear they send you without using it.
- You complain about them publicly, without working with them behind the scenes to resolve any issues.
- You leak competitive information, like product futures, they share with you in confidence.
- You endorse the products of a direct competitor.
- You stop promoting their products, and go dark.
Is there a downside to being sponsored?
Yes. If you are in a position to influence other people on their gear selection, you need to be extra careful about potential conflicts of interest and bias when promoting your sponsor to people who seek advice from you. It’s important to be proactive and openly disclose all of your sponsorship relationships so that people can make up their own mind about the trustworthiness of your advice.
You can also get ‘stuck’ if you stay with a sponsor too long, they stop innovating, and the rest of the industry moves ahead without them. If you want to stay on the cutting edge, you might be better off buying your own gear so you can can try gear from other manufacturers and always use the best gear for your needs.
Disclosure: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) does not have any current gear sponsors on purpose to avoid introducing bias into gear reviews.
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