What started in 1935 with two mountaineers looking for a better and cheaper ice axe sparked what we know today as Recreational Equipment International, or simply REI(REI, 2016). It is for this reason that everytime one enters an REI store, they grasp and pull on an ice axe to open the door…they must, after all they are the door handles. Have you ever realized that the door handles of all REI stores are ice axes? Some do, and some don’t. In fact it took me a number of visits to realize the presence of this iconic brand element.

Buying power and better availability


Back when the company started, there was no easy way to get specialized equipment like ice axes, so two guys pooled their money and cut out the middleman. Quickly, others saw the value in this and a co-op was started that allowed for increased buying power and better availability of specialty outdoor equipment. REI still operates as a co-op to this day, with a small twenty dollar lifetime membership fee(REI, 2016). With the history out of the way, let’s take a look at the ice axe door handles and put them to the test against Keller’s six criteria, shall we?



Memorability is a necessary characteristic of a brand element. Per Keller; “brand elements that promote that goal are inherently memorable and attention getting and therefore facilitate recall(2013)”. The ice axe door handles are attention getting by the fact that they’re not your normal door handles, and that they’re solid and heavy. When one grasps these door handles they can feel the history of REI in their hands.


When it comes to a brand element being meaningful, I would have to say that the ice axe and its deep history and roots within REI as a company are clearly meaningful. After all, the ice axe is what sparked the beginning of this company, and every time you enter their stores you’re grasping on one.



When Keller addresses likability, he states; “Do customers find the brand element aesthetically appealing? Is it likable visually, verbally, and in other ways?”(2013). Given the fact that those who shop at REI are in search of outdoor equipment that is of a high quality and top notch workmanship, they can surely appreciate the heavy, wooden and brass ice axes that grace the doors of REI.  


The question of is the ice axe transferable can be answered in its symbolism. The ice axe represents quality equipment at a fair price, the buying power of groups, and in some cases the products REI sells(I bought an ice axe from them just last year). Essentially, when applied in the manner in which Keller defines it, the ice axe; “adds to the brand equity for new products or in new markets for the brand(2013)”.


Given the fact that the ice axe is at the core of REI’s roots, it’s clear to see the fact that it is quite adaptable as a brand element. Simply put, it represents quality, buying power, and the outdoor spirit…all of which are central to the theme of REI as a company. In fact, while REI has grown and adapted some of their elements to remain contemporary and relevant, the one thing that has stayed constant is the ice axe.


Considering the fact that the ice axe is so iconic to the roots of REI as a company, it is quite easy to surmise that it is a rather protected element of the company’s brand. Essentially, the ice axe represents the fact that REI is first as a co-op and a leader in the industry.

Final Thoughts

The roots of REI as a company and their co-op business model is on display(literally) to anyone who walks through their heavy wood doors. While many brands depend on logos, slogans, or spokespeople to convey their brand, REI has chosen a simple, yet powerful tool that is representative of who they are as a company and culture.


What do you think? Did REI choose correctly when they decided to eschew simple door handles for heavy ice axes in an effort to brand themselves effectively?



Keller, K. L. (2013). Strategic brand management: Building, measuring, and managing brand equity. Prentice Hall.

Staff, R. (2016, December 06). REI History: It Started With An Ice Axe. Retrieved from https://www.rei.com/blog/camp/rei-history-it-started-with-an-ice-axe


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