Two months ago, I received a text describing a situation that I could see immediately and with full clarity in my mind’s eye. “All these guys on this bachelor party brought their own Yetis,” my friend David wrote. “We have seven Yetis for ten people.” The party was at a house on Lake Norman, in North Carolina, and although the Yeti-to-bro ratio was later revised down to six Yetis for 12 bros, my vision for what was happening was clear. Sun. Boats. Beers. Just guys being dudes.
A Yeti, for the uninitiated, is a cooler made by the Austin, Texas–based company of the same name. But it’s not just any cooler. The brand’s acolytes—and there are many—will take seemingly any opportunity to tell you that Yetis are the best, coldest coolers that money can buy. With prices starting at $250 for enough space to get a small cookout drunk and ranging up to $1,500 for one so enormous, it could be used to cater an outdoor wedding, the coolers aren’t cheap. Yeti fans’ enthusiasm can be hard to argue with, though, not least of which because you probably don’t know anything about coolers. I, for example, do not.
Nevertheless, that has not stopped the company’s products—first hard-sided coolers, and now insulated backpacks, water bottles, and cocktail glasses, as well as other outdoorsy gear—from becoming unexpectedly resonant status symbols. Yeti has the kind of sales growth that would make any Silicon Valley venture capitalist soil their pants: In 2011, five years after the company was founded, it did $29 million in sales, according to Yeti. By 2021, the company had gone public and had $1.4 billion in annual revenue. That success has been built on well-liked products, yes, but any successful branding exercise is just as much philosophical as functional. Yeti’s philosophical bet seems to be that we’d all like to spend more time outside with our bros, and that, deep down, maybe there’s a little bit of bro in all of us.
Yeti’s own description of its target market doesn’t actually include the word bro. The company began with hunters and fishermen—both pros and hobbyists—as its first fans. Selling expensive, high-performance gear to sportsmen is a well-established (if niche) market, and by Yeti’s account, it had an opening. “There wasn’t a cooler that would let you stay out and fish longer,” Paulie Dery, Yeti’s chief marketing officer, told me. “And then the lids broke when you stepped on them to try and use them as casting platforms.”
The company seems to have genuinely solved both of these problems. With nothing in it, one of its midsize Tundra coolers weighs in at a decidedly sturdy 23 pounds. I’ve seen them used as benches and step stools by people of all sizes and levels of backyard intoxication. And—with apologies for how much saying that a product performed its most basic function as promised sounds like an advertisement—I’ve also opened one in a friend’s apartment, several days after the party for which it was used, and found ice that was only semi-melted and drinks that were still pretty frosty. Earlier this summer, the financial-news website Motley Fool worried that Yeti’s products might actually be too good to make its stock a sound long-term investment, because its coolers and other gear don’t need to be replaced regularly.
So far, at least, that hasn’t been a problem. Dery reiterated to me several times that the company’s products are still designed to be durable enough for fishing, hunting, and farmwork, and that the company’s advertising targets people who are serious about the outdoors. Indeed, Yeti has become a fascination in the world of branding for its under-the-radar approach. The company focuses its event-marketing and celebrity-endorsement dollars on things such as college fishing tournaments and rock-climbing national championships, and it signs rodeo champions and barbecue pitmasters largely unknown outside their disciplines. This approach doesn’t immediately seem like it would attract a wide audience of people who spend their life mostly indoors, but associations with aspirational kinds of skill and expertise have a way of lending credibility that’s enticing to people who don’t know how to cast a fly rod or ride a horse or light a grill. Maybe they want to learn on their next vacation. Might as well start by buying the gear.
And those other customers have found the company and filled its coffers. First, they were in places like Denver and Nashville—cities and their suburbs with proximity to outdoor activities and with populations of hobbyist sportsmen. But now, Dery said, the brand has begun to see significant sales growth in coastal urban areas, which don’t exactly fit that mold. This trend tracks my own perception: In the 2010s, my friends in Georgia, where I grew up and went to a college that takes tailgating very seriously, started buying Yeti coolers to christen the backyards of newly purchased first homes, or to upgrade their college-football setups for a new season. More recently, though, my friends in New York City, where I now live, seem aware of—and interested in—the brand’s products. And although Yeti has thus far eschewed traditional celebrity spokespeople, A-listers such as Julia Roberts and Matt Damon are apparent fans. I didn’t see this twist coming.
How a Texas brand goes from a small audience of dedicated fishermen to a broader audience of largely middle- and upper-middle-class white men in the South isn’t an impossible puzzle to solve. Lots of brands that sell premium-tier outdoorsiness, such as Patagonia and Arc’teryx, have jumped from America’s avid hikers, skiers, and climbers to broader success among the well-paid, outdoor-dabbling office workers adjacent to those groups. How Yeti went from hunters and fishermen to Sun Belt Millennial dads to New Yorkers throwing rooftop parties or carrying their coffee to work on the subway, though, is a little more interesting. The market for insulated beverage containers is already crowded, and in the United States, consumer influence tends to flow in somewhat predictable directions. I’ve not noticed any Brooklynites who work at digital-marketing agencies stocking up on Columbia fishing shirts or Titleist caps. They generally want different things out of their clothing and personal effects, with rare overlaps, such as the workwear brand Carhartt, which—tale as old as time—needed the coolness sign-off of influential rappers in the 1990s before fashion-conscious white New Yorkers eventually took notice.
The key to the whole phenomenon might be in my friend’s text about all the bros who showed up with their Yetis, ready to keep their bros’ beers frosty all weekend. People love—and have been socialized—to mark milestones with objects. Buying something that costs a few hundred bucks and is supposed to last a lifetime hits a price-quality sweet spot for a lot of young-ish professionals who want a marker or two of domestic stability and success to display in their home—or, in the case of a fancy cooler, to bring out to entertain their friends at parties, or to make sure your bros have cold drinks at the lake.
Unlike most other types of outdoor gear that can be repurposed into urban life—parkas, cold-weather boots, lightweight backpacks—coolers are communal, their contents are often fun, and they don’t actually suggest that you want to do anything that causes you to break a sweat or chafe your inner thighs or maybe fall off the side of a mountain. Bros, who seem to be the people who have embraced Yeti’s products most ardently, aren’t consigned to any particular region of the country, and they love to go outside and sit down or stand behind a grill. The word bro can have some negative connotations, but I like it best as a largely gender-neutral descriptor of a person who is affable, doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and is—and this is crucial—a good hang. Everyone loves the person who shows up to the party with a cooler full of drinks that won’t return to room temperature for days, and you don’t even have to catch any fish or learn how to ski.