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The Forgotten Ingredient (Brand)


Grizzly Adams didn't need no phase change technology to talk to bears and shit.

There’s more than meets the eye in this little entry in the July 2002 issue of SNEWS.


It’s about the ‘Leader in Phase Change Technology’ Outlast and its corporate restructuring. First, an overview of corporate restructuring isn’t that unusual. However, this announcement reads more like a roster listing for a 53-person NFL team (69 counting the practice squad).


They’ve got new business development directors, Asia VPs, corporate counsels, customer service managers, and even a marketing coordinator! And let’s not forget the new address down to the floor number and zip code. But props to SNEWS for going deep. Today, you’re lucky to get the corporate headshot, title, and the typical ‘macro-economic forces,’ ‘so-and-so has left to pursue other opportunities,’ or the highly believable ‘to spend more time with their families.’


But more than the org chart shuffle, it’s the SNEWS View that caught my attention:

"All this is fine and dandy, but we still think Outlast desperately needs someone to actually explain and then proactively market to the broader consumer market - in terms a layman can understand - how Outlast works and why it is beneficial. We'll lay 10-to-1 odds that 99 percent of the consumer market - you know, the ones who you actually need to convince to buy a product before you make a profit - have no idea what Outlast is, does, or claims to do. Is that a problem? We think so."

To be fair, this statement could apply to technology makers anywhere in any category. But in terms of Outlast, it turned out to be pretty prescient.


For those that don’t know Outlast, and I suspect that’s many of you, Outlast Technologies was founded in 1990 by ex-fighter pilot Ed Payne and his brother-in-law Bernard Perry. The technology behind Outlast was originally developed by NASA to protect astronauts from extreme temperatures in space. At its core, Outlast uses phase-change materials (PCMs), which can absorb, store, and release heat. In the form of microcapsules, called Thermocules®, they can be embedded in fabrics and fibers to create products that adjust to body temperature, ensuring the wearer remains neither too hot nor too cold. Think of how ice absorbs heat to melt and keep a drink cold.


Pretty cool, huh? While they seemed to have all the makings of a credible force, Outlast was never really able to achieve escape velocity to reach the heights of a valued ingredient brand in the outdoor space. I don’t know if it was because the tech didn’t deliver as promised, the fact it took them over 13 years to get the cost of their PCMs down from $600 per pound to $5 per pound, or that microcapsules sound suspiciously like microplastic.

More likely, as SNEWS alluded to, it was an inability to communicate the value and need of their solution, a lack of focus, debt, private equity stewardship, yada yada… The usual suspects.


I mean, who wouldn’t have been delirious with hope and potential after having their Adaptive Comfort® Bedding named one of TIME magazine’s “Coolest Inventions” of 2002? Right alongside color therapy lamps, smart skis, and the Hy-Wire car. Or how they cultivated a stable of respectable, if short-term, brand partners like Adidas, Burton, Kenneth Cole, Lands’ End, Nordstrom, The North Face, Timberland, and General Motors. And who could forget the 2003 Outlast/Gold Toe ADC™ (All Day Comfort) and Gold Toe MAX™ sock lines, featuring New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera in an in-store promotion at Macy’s department stores? Even the most focused attention to strategy execution crumbles in the face of steakhouse dinners with Yankee legends and autographed baseballs for executives’ kids.


But the true apex of Outlast was when it was incorporated into the Coors Light “Cold Wrap” labels that change colors to indicate coldness. While certainly popular at Bay Area frat parties of future Silicon Valley titans, the product never really did resonate with consumers.

“The consumers don’t like added costs,” said an Outlast spokesperson. “If you added even an extra 25 cents, they’re going to notice.”


Somebody must have like the last of project, as Outlast was later acquired by Golden Equity Investments in 2012. GEI is a Colorado private equity firm that invests in businesses for the Coors family.


I wasn’t able to find out what Outlast is up to today. However, searches for their current headquarters list an address in Germany, and the main URL (www.outlast.com) takes you to a (mostly) German language website.


Which makes me wonder if we’ll see Outlast technology at Oktoberfest? Or do the microcapsules run afoul of the stringent German Reinheitsgebot? Questions definitely worth one more round.


-dk


The Life And Times Of Outdoor History, by Rock Fight Historian David Karstad is made possible by the fine folks at the Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive.

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