The CMO Who Thinks Less Marketing Is Better


Market less, connect more. That mantra echoes through the oft-empty marketing corridors of CamelBak’s California headquarters. The global hydration company’s marketing professionals frequently bolt from the office to pursue their passions outdoors alongside consumers so they can learn more about their hydration needs. CamelBak CMO Chris Strain and his team integrate those insights into their messaging, as well as into brainstorming and design sessions that produce new products. Here, Strain shares how his team listens and responds to the consumers, military personnel, and music festival attendees who can’t sate their thirst for CamelBak products.

What’s your marketing passion?

Connecting with consumers in a way that’s relevant to them.


I don’t think consumers are looking for more marketing. I believe most of it is just white noise to them, especially the younger generation. If your marketing isn’t relevant to them, it’s just wasted energy. But if you do connect with consumers in a way they want to engage with, they can become brand advocates for you. And that word of mouth is invaluable. 

How do you make this type of relevant connection?

For us, one way is by going to music festivals across the country and providing freshly filtered water to consumers for free. We go to Firefly on the East Coast, Lollapalooza in Chicago, Austin City Limits, and others. Festivals usually have free water somewhere—often in an unappealing location, like next to the port-a-potties. So, we asked how we could improve that consumer experience. We’ve partnered with these festivals by setting up our equipment and filtering water onsite in prominent, appealing locations. We’ll run the water through chillers when it’s really hot outside. The folks at the festivals obviously want to have a good time. When they’re outside for eight hours a day, hydration is a really important part of having a good time. We’ve been able to connect with consumers who appreciate the fact that we’re out there giving them a premium service. We supplied freshly filtered water to 1.4 million concert-goers in 2014.

What type of mind-set do you try to cultivate to help your marketing team make these connections?

The “Got your Bak” mentality that we have here is one of the most important parts of our marketing strategy. The phrase means that we back up all of our products with a lifetime guarantee; we put our money where our mouth is. But this attitude also informs everything we do from a marketing perspective. We’re always trying to figure out how we can be innovative with hydration products in ways that help make consumers’ lives better.

Tell me about a recent innovation.

Our Relay water-filtration pitcher is a good example…. Convenience and taste are two of the top qualities people focus on when they drink water, so we asked, “How can we factor more convenience into our products?” We sat down with consumers and learned about all of their pain points. We talked with them for an entire year before we started designing new products. One of the complaints we heard was about the drip-drip-drip of conventional water-filtration pitchers. They’re really slow. If you’ve used one, you know exactly what that feels like. We figured out a new way to filter water where it actually fills the container at the same speed that water flows out of the faucet: on-demand water. Treating water at the same speed that it flows from the faucet saves people time and helps them do more each day. 

What are some tactical ways you translate the “Got your Bak” mind-set into practice?

Everyone on my team knows that we’re not going stay relevant with our consumers if we spend all of our time in conference rooms. We’ve got a nice office building here, but we spend a lot of time in the field with consumers. Everyone has different passions, and part of your responsibility as a marketing person here is living your passion. If you’re a mountain biker, get out on the trail to ride with some product and listen and talk to the other riders on the trail. If you’re a road cyclist, a hiker, a runner, or someone in the tactical community, the same thing holds. It’s not always about living your passion in your home location. We make sure we’re getting out in Boulder, Austin, New York, and other places. We want to watch consumers and see what products they’re carrying around to make sure that we’re staying relevant to them. Often, marketers want to go out and promote their ideas to consumers. We do that, but we think it’s more important to listen and understand consumer needs, and then try to fulfill those needs.

What’s a new desire that your team discovered while pursuing a passion?

Right now, we’re looking at making a water dog bowl for bike shops. Our thought is that your dog is thirsty, too, and should stay hydrated on rides. We visit a lot of bike shops, and we see a lot of mountain bikers with their dogs. We’re calling the program “Got your Bark” to play on “Got your Bak.” Dogs are thirsty, too!

Now, at a high level, we know how many bike shops we sell to, and our sales reps who talk with folks at those shops helped us understand how many shops would want a dog bowl for water. But the idea for this type of new product is the result of getting out in the market and trying to be relevant. If you can relate to someone through their dog, that’s very relevant. That person might become a brand advocate. 

Why do you value brand advocates?

The more I tell people about how great CamelBak is, the less they’re going to believe it. I’m paid to tell them that. When a brand advocate tells them what we’re doing—“Oh, I saw CamelBak did this!”—it breaks through the white noise of so many marketing messages in a way that’s highly relevant. That relevance drives word of mouth, which is obviously critically important for a brand.

What social and online measures do you gravitate toward?

We can’t always get out there with consumers, so we make sure we’re following the conversation in social media. We obsess over reviews and what consumers are saying about our products. We try to make our decisions based on facts and based on what we learn directly from consumers as opposed to what our gut ideas are…. There’s a tremendous amount of data out there, and you obviously have to be able to digest that to make smart decisions.

From a key performance indicator (KPI) perspective, sharing is the big goal. Sharing allows many, many more people to see your products. With social media, I think everyone was initially trying to see how many Facebook fans they could acquire. That’s evolving in a different direction, as sharing has become the primary goal. You can only achieve that goal with quality, relevant content in an appropriate context.

How do you create quality content?

There are a lot of considerations that go into it, including expertise. We have three hydration experts whose research we support. They give us information, and we put it up on our website. One of our experts is Douglas Casa, who heads the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. He’s passionate about hydration and making sure that everyone involved in amateur athletics in particular understands the importance of hydration and the dangers of dehydration. We worked with Doug to put together the hydration calculator on our website. The purpose of the calculator, which represents a form of high-quality content, is to educate consumers and to help keep them safe.

Last question: What do you look for when hiring?

My first thought is that I try not to hire people who are like me. I’m looking for diversity in perspective. Passion is obviously critical, as well. Many times, the best idea is right in front of your nose but you can’t see it because you think you know too much. So, diverse skills, perspectives, and thinking styles are crucial.

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