clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The cult of YETI coolers

How a piece of sporting equipment became a status symbol and a pedestal for butts

All images by Brittany Cheng

A cooler has one job: Keep cold things cold. On a scale of one to sexy, that Coleman you dig out of the garage and lug to the beach every summer falls somewhere around a two — a little more exciting than a can opener, nowhere near as enticing as a Viking Range.

But for the past 10 years, a company called YETI has been making coolers hot. These things aren’t your average Igloos — both are coolers, sure, but in the same sense that a Bugatti and a Barbie jeep you can buy at Walmart are both cars. YETIs are thick, plastic, grizzly bear-resistant, bulletproof chests that cost between $300 and $1200. They look like a Brinks truck if you were to shrink it down, take the wheels off, and strap some handles to it. YETIs keep whatever’s inside cold for days and days without a change of ice.

And they’ve been going like cold beers at a tailgate. In 2015, YETI made close to $470 million in sales, over five times its 2014 numbers. The company filed for an IPO last July, seeking a valuation of $5 billion.

There’s a good chance this weekend that you or someone you know will tear the wrapping paper off one of YETI’s many offerings. The company has branched out from coolers and now sells tumblers, thermoses, hats, shirts, stickers, and more. The products are popular because they’re exceptionally effective, but also because the brand has become a status symbol in certain circles.

Originally attended by hunters and fishermen, the Church of YETI is now filled with people who wish they were hunters and fishermen, as well as college kids and folks who just like a good outdoor party. Devotees evangelize about YETI on social media, more recruits arrive, and the pews overflow.

“We had all these dudes out there wouldn’t pony up $300 for a cooler, but they had spent over $300 on logo-ed merch,” Rick Wittenbraker said, who started Yeti’s marketing department in 2009 and worked there until 2013. “It happened all the time. That’s when you start really understanding that there’s a fervor there in the population, and it is a badge of honor, and people aspire to it. There’s basically this cult around this product.”

Like any religion worth its salt, YETI has a fringe flourishing around its edges. The hashtag #yetibutts — as in, YETI coolers meets human bottoms — and social media accounts like @yetibuttsdaily and @yetibutts_official are populated with tens of thousands of user-submitted photos of women photographed from behind. Women wearing little to no clothing as they sit, bare-assed, on these indestructible chests. There’s often a confederate flag, a Trump sign, or a gun involved.

A high-end cooler — the innocuous thing you use to keep your beer cold or your fish from rotting — has taken on a life of its own.

Roy and Ryan Seiders, two brothers and avid outdoorsmen, founded YETI in 2006 because no cooler kept things cold as long as they wanted it to. Then they stumbled upon a cooler built in Thailand that they improved by teaming up with a factory in the Philippines. The deep need in the market became apparent when YETIs started flying off the shelves of the specialty hunting and fishing stores that stocked them in the States.

And the coolers were selling themselves through word of mouth. The Seiders weren’t doing a damn thing to market them.

“It was almost like they were making an effort not to talk about their product,” Wittenbraker said by phone from his home in Austin. “Talk about low-hanging fruit — they didn’t even have social accounts. And I knew from my friends who owned the product that all they wanted to do was talk about this.”

Wittenbraker met the Seiders through friends at a fly fishing film festival in Austin, and came up with a list of things the brothers could do to boost their products’ visibility. But the company didn’t have the manpower or the knowledge to implement his ideas, and there was basically no market competition. YETI had done $3 million in sales that year, even though the whole business shared one Gmail account and employed just eight people, including the guys working in the warehouse. Roy Seider thought Facebook was a thing teenaged girls used to talk to each other.

Ambassador @KenHoeve and his Flip flotilla taking some sunset swings. #BuiltForTheWild - Hopper Flip 12

A photo posted by YETI Coolers (@yeti) on

Wittenbraker convinced the brothers that social media was necessary, and that he was the guy to get it going. He set about putting a marketing framework into place, targeting mostly white guys in the South, pockets of Middle America, and the Northeast, all areas where people loved to hunt and fish.

The brand soon became a signifier of a rugged, cool lifestyle, and people started wearing YETI hats and T-shirts because they wanted to broadcast that they were the kind of person who did the things that made one of these fancy coolers necessary. Or at least pretend that they were.

“You start piling all these things together, and you realize there’s this tribe,” Wittenbraker said. “It’s kind of aspirational. You’d have blue collar dudes making 24 grand a year, and they own a $400 cooler. Because that was symbolic to them. It was iconic to them to say, ‘Yeah, I’m there, I got the best.’

“And for wealthy people in New England, this is the best in class. The guys with the houses on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard or Kennebunkport, do they need a cooler that’s grizzly bear-proof and holds ice for eight days? No, not at all. But it’s that standard and it’s that quality.”

Wittenbraker’s plan worked, and the brand took off online. YETI currently has more than 600,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, where it posts wholesome, back-to-the-earth type photos of people fishing, hunting, and drinking coffee or bourbon by a campfire (as well as dead animals — PETA, avert your eyes). Wittenbraker was right: All people who are obsessed want to do is talk about the object of their ardor.

(I had an Uber driver overhear me talk about this article on the phone while I was in his car, and as I was getting out, he stopped me to tell me what make and model he had and how much he loved it.)

“No question that social media has been a massive driving force for YETI,” YETI’s current vice president of marketing Corey Maynard said. “The power of peer referral and celebration of these communities have been foundations of our brand.”

In 2012, the private equity firm Cortec bought a roughly two-thirds stake in the company for around $67 million because the Seiders couldn’t keep up with demand. Wittenbraker described the company as a brand that takes people’s passions — hunting, fishing, partying — and puts them “on steroids.” At this point, devotees are basically shooting themselves up with YETI. Hell, they’re mainlining the brand.

I’ve talked to dozens of people who love YETIs, from hardcore fishermen in Maine and North Carolina, to mountain bikers in Colorado, to teachers in Texas, to finance guys in Manhattan. They spoke about how well the coolers work, but they also like what the brand represents: a rugged, outdoor lifestyle. And many of these buyers are aware that they’re drinking the Kool-Aid. Matthew Wells, a senior associate at a construction management firm in Boston, likened it to Patagonia.

“You don’t really need the performance that the gear provides, but you’re into the fact that you have it,” Wells said. “And you probably wish you did more of the stuff that requires it.”

YETI has tapped into another market, too: College kids and people who love to tailgate. Campuses became fertile territory for converting people to YETI worship. The company quickly found traction at Big 12 and SEC schools located in states where the coolers were already selling out. Branching out into other products like tumblers and thermoses — products that now account for 62% of the company’s sales — helped reach a less hardcore demographic.

“I am a sucker for the brand,” said Chris Ravn, a banker in New York City who wrote to me via a Facebook message. “Not only does it keep my fish and beer cold, but I also still like to think I'm a frat boy!”

When Wittenbraker was with the company, the products sold best in the South. Buyers were overwhelmingly male by a ratio of five or six to one. Maynard wouldn’t disclose where YETI sells best these days or who’s buying, claiming that the company has “grown substantially more balanced in terms of gender and geographic diversity over our 10-year history.”

Wittenbraker thinks it’s only natural, given demographics, that the coolers would find their way to tailgates. If you’re using a cooler to hunt and fish and it works well, why would you go back to an inferior version while you’re watching football? YETI wised up quickly and began making coolers with the logos of SEC and Big 12 schools on them, though Maynard denies putting much marketing weight behind this.

Yeti stack #ImJuiced #yetibutts #cooler #party #poolparty #summer16 #college #university #fraternity #sorority #letsgo #beauty #hammered #beers #drunk #dive #juicednation

Posted by I'm JUICED on Tuesday, September 6, 2016

“We have very sparingly marketed overtly to tailgating or college students,” Maynard said. “Choosing instead to focus our communications on aspirational outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, surfing, ranching, rodeo, professional BBQ, and other kinds of outdoor adventuring.”

Nevertheless, YETI is now firmly rooted in the culture of southern schools, and has expanded into everyday fraternity life.

“There’s this uniform and validation and level of social accreditation,” Wittenbraker said. “For a lot of southern schools it’s like, ‘I gotta have my Chubbies, my Southern Tide polo, my Costas with blue-mirrored lenses on a Croakies strap, and the big swoop-doo bangs.’ That’s the guy. And every college has, like, six billion of those dudes. They’re the same guys, not all of ‘em, but a lot of ‘em, who buy the coolers.”

* * *

I first heard about #yetibutts this summer when I was talking to someone who mentioned that he and his buds from college thought the hashtag was funny. I asked him what #yetibutts was, and he told me to just look it up on Instagram. So I did. And found myself scrolling through thousands of pictures of women’s bare butts.

Not all of the coolers in these photos have college decals on them. But many do. And most of the owners of the butts — which are overwhelmingly white — appear to be college-aged. They’re also faceless, because the pictures are taken from behind.

There are levels to #yetibutts. Some photos just feature women on coolers wearing bikinis. Sometimes they’re wearing thongs. Sometimes they aren’t wearing anything.

But many pictures also involve Trump stickers, or flags with the president-elect’s name on them wrapped around these half-naked women (there’s a big overlap between #yetibutts and #babesfortrump). There are also a lot of guns. A woman might be holding one, or maybe a hunting rifle leans up against the cooler as she poses with a beer in one hand and dangles a bra off the finger of another.

And then you start to notice that many of these photos feature Confederate flags, an undeniably racist symbol. It could be the print of a bikini, a sticker on the cooler’s plastic siding, or an actual flag draped over a woman’s shoulders or held above her head. If you weren’t troubled already, maybe the Confederate flag will do it for you. Or maybe you don’t see anything wrong with any of this at all.

In August, The Daily Caller, a conservative website, posted about #yetibutts, calling it The Biggest Trend Sweeping Across College Campuses. Maxim then picked the story up and gave the post this kicker: “If Yeti Butting were a major, all these girls all deserve to graduate Cum Laude.”

Currently there are 97,674 posts tagged with #yeticoolers on Instagram and 11,153 posts tagged with #yetibutts (there’s a #yetiboobs hashtag, too, but it’s misleading, because the pictures mostly still just feature butts). That’s so many butts! I can’t find the first picture ever posted, but the movement seems to have taken off in 2016: The account @Yetibuttsofficial has gained 11.9k followers since the first post on June 21 of this year, and @yetibuttsdaily has amassed 26.6k since Feb. 22.

YETI disavows #yetibutts.

“We had nothing to do with the hashtag and do not support or condone the instances where it has been used in connection with offensive material,” Maynard said.

YETI doesn’t seem to be actively trying to shut any of these accounts down. I reached out to the company to see if they’ve sent any cease and desist letters, but didn’t hear back by the time of publication. The company has, in the past, gone after people who are selling goods with the YETI trademark but are not officially affiliated with the brand.

The #yetibutts accounts don’t appear to be monetized. When I asked @yetibuttgirls via an Instagram message if they made any money off the account, I got this response: “No I don’t. The guys and I have thought about selling clothes and hats and stickers but we’d have to change the name. Consider we would get in a lot of trouble with YETI for using there [sic] name.”

When I asked where they lived and what their name was, the owner of the account didn’t respond.

#merryxmas #merrychristmas #yetibutts #yetibuttsdaily #yeticoolers #yetibutt

A photo posted by Yeti Butts (@yetibuttsdaily) on

Wittenbraker says he first noticed the #yetibutts trend when the brand started holding contests for user-generated content on Facebook. They’d see these kinds of photos come in on their page, and they deleted the ones they had control over. Maynard was clear that there is no official relationship between this organic guerrilla marketing movement and the company itself.

YETI prefers to push the rugged outdoor lifestyle rather than one based on naked women and confederate flags. But figuring out how the latter attached itself to a cooler — a cooler! — isn’t rocket science.

“I think part of that really comes down to, well, here’s this item,” Wittenbraker said. “By itself, it’s pretty benign and has this standalone purpose. But it gets pulled into these other arenas because of its impact on these activities that people go crazy about. So when you really look at it as temporary housing for beer, and that everywhere beer goes, the cooler goes ...”

He paused.

“... then it doesn’t take long to understand how it sort of got there.”

YETI coolers have morphed from an efficient piece of sporting equipment into a container for multiple American forms of worship, from enjoying nature, to tailgating, to flying the Confederate flag. But as long as you’ve got people coming into your sanctuary and tossing bills in the collection plate, do you really care what made them walk through the door?