Outward Bound USA

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Outward Bound USA

100 Mystery Point Rd.
Garrison, New York 10524-9757
Telephone: (845) 424-4000
Fax: (845) 424-4121
Web site: www.outwardbound.org



The originator and once undisputed leader of outdoor wilderness courses, Outward Bound USA saw enrollments plunge and its visibility dim in the early 1990s. The nonprofit corporation reacted slowly to the need to battle its ever-increasing number of competitors. It struggled to update its image and set a clear marketing direction. Too many people thought of Outward Bound (OB) as a once-in-a-lifetime training and educational experience in wilderness survival when what they wanted was an exciting adventure where they could meet like-minded friends.

Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) earned the task of increasing awareness of OB as a challenging outdoor adventure and generating inquiries to its toll-free phone number and website. The New York agency responded with a national public service announcement campaign that first appeared in October 1998. Consumer print publications and websites carried the ads. Since Outward Bound was nonprofit and did not pay for advertising, the ads ran whenever a publication or site had available space.

The first ad in the series, "Rock Climber," placed a shopping-mall-style "You Are Here" sign next to climber's ropes dangling down a vertical rock wall. A black piece of climbing equipment at the bottom of the ad contained the Outward Bound compass logo next to the tag line, "Oceans, Mountains, Forests, Fear. Which Do You Conquer First?" The only other copy was Outward Bound's toll-free number and website address.

The campaign evolved away from the tag line but continued the same visual approach and theme. An April 1999 ad showed a climber upside down crossing a deep ravine on ropes. A sign on a rock ledge above the climber read, "Pay Toll Ahead." The new tag line, "Same World. Different Place." was supported by a small line of additional copy, "Backpacking, Rafting, Mountaineering, Dog Sledding—Adventures That Take You Someplace Different." White-water rafters in a third ad passed a warning sign: "Caution: Management Not Responsible for Lost or Stolen Articles."


The name "Outward Bound" derived from a nautical term for leaving home port for the adventure of the open seas. In 1941 educator Kurt Hahn, a German refugee in Britain during World War II, developed a program in Wales for young sailors. Its mission was to help British merchant seamen learn how to survive on the high seas after German submarines torpedoed their vessels. The men learned how to dangle from ropes, a must for sailors being transferred from sinking ships to lifeboats. They learned how to climb up and down their ships' 40-foot-high smooth steel walls. Acquiring these and other skills also instilled a "can-do" spirit in the men and, most importantly, increased their survival rates. A ropes course and a wall course later became staples of every OB program. The courses became known for "solos," 24- to 72-hour periods at the end of each course when participants had to survive on their own in the wilderness.

The first Outward Bound school in the United States opened in Colorado in 1961. By then OB had adapted to peacetime conditions, placing its emphasis on wilderness survival. The philosophy and activities of OB meshed fashionably with the 1960s and 1970s emphasis on personal growth. People wanted to be more self-reliant and prove to themselves that they could survive outdoors under difficult conditions. In the 1980s the nonprofit hit full stride, buoyed by a spirit of egocentricity in the country. This was the wilderness organization's heyday.

Growth in the 1980s was also fueled by many corporations jumping on board. Xerox, General Foods, Burger King, and other high-profile companies sent their managers and executives to Outward Bound to learn teamwork, confidence, and self-reliance through tasks such as building rafts without tools, pulling each other up vertical walls, and walking across rope bridges while blindfolded. Celebrities added to OB's allure and visibility. NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and former President Jimmy Carter were among the personalities who participated in Outward Bound treks.

After consistent U.S. growth throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the nonprofit organization's enrollments began declining. Annual enrollment in its 750 wilderness treks and outings plunged from 13,325 in 1986 to about 9,000 in 1997, according to the Wall Street Journal. Young people chose more extreme experiences. Revenues remained flat at about $38 million from 1995 to 1997. One of the nonprofit's own internal surveys showed that many young people, its core customers, did not know the Outward Bound name.

Even among its own participants, Outward Bound faced criticism. One 19-year-old, a two-time OB course participant and the daughter of one of the organization's instructors, announced in a front-page national newspaper article in July 1997 that she preferred the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). She claimed that NOLS offered more practical survival skills while Outward Bound emphasized personal growth.

During this period the wilderness organization's advertising sometimes emphasized the toughness or the rite of passage aspects of its courses. One 1996 ad showed a variety of leaves with one-word labels for each: "single-ply," "quilted," and "2-ply." A pine cone was labeled "extra strength." Another 1996 ad featured a silhouetted backpacker on top of a mountain with an asterisk next to him. Down below, the explanation of the asterisk read, "May Be Subject To Change." Body copy continued: "When you return from an Outward Bound Wilderness Experience, you'll look the same. But you just might be a different person."

By 1998 the nonprofit outdoor wilderness education group offered hundreds of annual courses in sailing, canoeing, sea kayaking, dog sledding, rock climbing, desert backpacking, and other activities at five U.S. wilderness schools. OB also had two urban education centers and 25 base camps in the United States. Courses were designed to inspire self-esteem, self-reliance, concern for others, and caring for the environment. The cover of OB's 1999 catalog carried the statement, "To Serve To Strive And Not To Yield." That catalog listed five core Outward Bound values: (1) adventure and challenge, (2) compassion and service, (3) learning through experience, (4) personal development, and (5) social and environmental responsibility. The nonprofit operated in more than 24 countries, but the United States remained the source of more than half the organization's business.


Historically Outward Bound programs targeted young adults. About 75 percent of OB's open-enrollment students were young people between the ages of 14 and 21. But by 1998 the company had expanded into specific programs for college age, adult, educators, and instructors. A few courses targeted other groups such as women, couples, families, and parent/child pairings. College-age courses were longer and more technical. Adult courses were built to provide more renewal and reflection. People interested in a career in wilderness education could take the instructor courses.

Still, "Oceans, Mountains, Forests, Fear. Which Do You Conquer First?" sought first to reach moderately fit and athletic young people ages 16 to 24 in middle- to high-income households. Adults age 25 and older were a secondary target. Not only might adults want to go on an Outward Bound expedition themselves, they might be paying for one or more children to take one.


Although Outward Bound was the oldest and largest outdoor wildness education group, by the 1990s it found itself in a crowded, competitive marketplace. Several regional companies began offering a range of outdoor courses similar to those provided by OB. Other competitors specialized in one area—white-water rafting, canoeing, backpacking, or another.

Calling itself "The Leader in Wilderness Education," the National Outdoor Leadership School of Lander, Wyoming, offered 50 courses that attracted more than 2,800 students a year by 1998. Other competitors included Northern Wilderness Adventures of Ontario, Canada; Trails Wilderness School in Kelly, Wyoming; and the Team Leadership Center of Door County, Wisconsin.

Another set of competitors included the specialty camps where young people spent a week or two learning a sport, doing community service, participating in the arts, or doing one of numerous other activities. Soccer, tennis, basketball, baseball, and football camps all had gained followers. A 1997 Los Angeles Times article listed Outward Bound as one choice among 39 summer programs ranging from exploring architecture to classes at a police academy to enhancing study skills. Ogilvy & Mather also saw the entertainment industry as a competitor. Amusement and theme parks, resorts, and vacation destinations provided alternatives to the OB experience.


"Outward Bound provides outstanding expeditions in spectacular wilderness settings for thousands of everyday teens and young adults across the country," said Rolf Linder, vice president of marketing for OB in a news release. That wasn't the message the organization's key markets were hearing. "Outward Bound is suffering from a lack of punch," said John Green, admissions dean at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, in an article in the Denver Post. In the same article the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania added, "We're more impressed with someone who went off to help rebuild a village somewhere than with someone who climbed a mountain to find himself."

Before developing its marketing strategy Ogilvy & Mather decided to conducted some research. The agency delved particularly into the opinions of young people between the ages of 14 and 21. It discovered a low awareness of OB. Only 5 percent of those surveyed knew and understood what OB offered. The study groups had a negative impression of Outward Bound as a place for problem kids. They did not hear much about the organization, they did not really know what it was, and what they did hear came by word of mouth. Overall Ogilvy & Mather's research showed little enthusiasm for OB and a general feeling that "it's not for me."

The perception that OB was for people with problems seemed fed by communications emphasizing self improvement and leadership skills. O&M said those attributes had little relevance or appeal to the young audience OB strove to attract. The self-improvement message caused many of those surveyed to think of OB as a program for the underconfident and weak. Losers took an Outward Bound course to get a sense of achievement. The antisocial went there to learn how to get along with other people. Some OB prospects felt the wilderness course was a way for people from the city to experience nature. Other young people thought of it as "survival courses for kooks and weirdoes," O&M said. They assumed OB taught how to live off the land through exhausting, unnecessary hardship and pain.

A second portion of O&M's research identified the types of communications that would appeal to young people. What the study groups found appealing were: trying things for the first time; doing something completely different; thrill and excitement; friendships; remote, unspoiled locations; and challenges. O&M said people interested in Outward Bound wanted to step outside their normal lives. They wanted to do something that would put a stamp on their individuality, something other people only talked about. They did not want an experience that seemed "manufactured" or "glossy," but one that would be a lasting memory.

The research further asked how OB should be described. Expedition was a good word to use, according to the survey responders, because it had credibility and implied heritage. The study groups warned against words like "course" or "program" because they made OB sound too much like sitting in a classroom and had a zero thrill or excitement factor. Likewise, research indicated that OB should not talk about introspection, nor should it tell people what they will get out of participating in a course.


One print ad in a series used previously to the "Oceans, Mountains, Forests, Fear: Which Do You Conquer First?" campaign had readers looking nearly straight up at a rock climber. The headline read: "Our Instructors Teach You. You Test Yourself." Body copy continued, "Instead of a grade, you'll earn respect for yourself, others and the environment through courses in dogsledding, canoeing, and more." The tag line was, "The Adventure Lasts A Lifetime."

Most people responded with surprise when they learned about the places they could go with Outward Bound. They liked the fact that OB could take them to remote, unspoiled places like Nepal, the Utah desert, Costa Rica, and Alaska. "This audience is looking for exciting things to do during summer break or summer vacations," said Kevin Scully, account executive at Ogilvy & Mather. "They aren't motivated by the educational aspects of Outward Bound, but rather the sense of adventure, the opportunity to meet new people, and the chance to do something different, something unique in their peer group."

With people over age 24, Ogilvy & Mather wanted to change old perceptions. Agency research indicated that many people in this secondary target market had a 1960s or a 1970s perception of Outward Bound. The campaign needed to update what was often a perception of OB as a purely educational survival skills course to one of a challenging adventure.

Outward Bound also identified the perception of its courses as a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a concern. Alumni did not come back in large numbers. The marketing strategy included tailoring more expeditions to specific age groups and promoting them as ongoing education, not single-event rites of passage. "Essentially, the campaign was designed to suggest that OB will take you outside the boundaries of your everyday life," Scully said. "Rather than put forth the rational argument that OB is an educational encounter, we believed that the emotional approach is of greater interest and a more powerful motivator to get people to contact OB for more information."

Besides changing perceptions the campaign sought to enlarge Outward Bound's media reach and presence. Previously the nonprofit's ads had only appeared in print publications. Creating versions of the ads for websites opened a new marketing channel rich with people in Outward Bound's target market.



Shaw, John. "The Duke of Edinburgh's Award: Building Character by Stretching Endurance to the Limit." Daily Telegraph London, March 3, 1995, p. 1.

Pereira, Joseph. "Outward Bound's Enrollment Plunges: Wilderness-Trek Competitors Gaining On Pioneer in Outdoor-Adventure Field." Denver Post, July 27, 1997, p. B7.

                                            Chris John Amorosino