BKI Brand Study: A Tale of Two (Carhartt) Brands

BKI Brand Study: A Tale of Two (Carhartt) Brands

Founded in 1889, in Dearborn, MI, Carhartt occupies a place in American culture few brands can lay claim to. On the one hand, they are a ubiquitous symbol of the working class, the favorite garment of farmhands, laborers and outdoor lovers.

But they also play a major role in the history of communities like hip-hop, extreme sports and “streetwear.”

So how does one brand manage to appeal to two groups of consumers who likely don’t overlap anywhere else?

Our latest Brand Study explores this tale of two brands.

Rough & Rugged

Carhartt is best known for its no-nonsense approach to workwear. Its iconic duck canvas jacket has been worn for generations, largely in their signature “Carhartt Brown” color.

Whether it is lumberjacks felling trees in the pacific northwest or auto workers in the assembly lines of Detroit, Carhartt’s customers have remained fiercely loyal.

This despite the company’s refusal to ever sell their garments at a premium or in discount stores like Wal-Mart or Kmart.

Carhartt has been used as a political symbol, too. It’s been deployed by politicians across the spectrum to evoke a connection to the so-called “everyman.”

Barack Obama was photographed wearing it during a 2015 trip to Alaska, while the state’s most famous politician, Sarah Palin, has a well-documented love of the brand.

Much like what kind of beer a politician prefers (Domestic? Imported? Craft?) has become a talking point during each election cycle, so, too has wearing Carhartt been seen by some as an attempt to connect with blue-collar workers.

Urban Trendsetters

While Carhartt has spent the last 130 years in the company of the working class, it has also been the favorite of “streetwear” enthusiasts since the mid-1980s.

The brand’s superstar status in this community began somewhat nefariously, having been described by the New York Times in 1990 as the favorite choice of drug dealers who loved Carhartt’s deep pockets.

Fashionable youth took notice, and the famous chore coats soon began popping up in the burgeoning hip-hop communities of New York and Los Angeles.

Carhartt received another boost of street cred from the seminal hip-hop label, Tommy Boy, who gave away dozens of custom-made Carhartt jackets to tastemakers and industry influencers.

The New York Times’ 1990 feature on the Carhartt Chore Coat.

It was during this period that Carhartt caught the eye of two European denim designers, Edwin and Salomée Faeh.

While their original agreement was to import and sell original pieces across Europe, they soon gained enough trust from Carhartt’s founding family to branch out into designing their own fashion-forward interpretations of the brand.

This project, called Work In Progress (WIP), has evolved into what some have deemed “the most important brand in streetwear.”

While much of WIP’s reflects Carhartt’s no frills aesthetic, it also has the elasticity to veer off into much more experimental territory.

A typical WIP launch might include subtle updates to the famous blue Michigan Chore Coat alongside a varsity jacket in technicolor purple or highlighter green. The WIP lines are also typically geared towards a more tailored, skinny cut, whereas the original Carhartt line retains its “working man’s fit.”

Many will also note the significant increase in price across the two brands, but Carhartt and Work In Progress are not selling to the same audiences — they are two distinct yet intertwined brands.

A (Fashion) House Divided Can Stand

So how exactly did Carhartt manage to find itself in the enviable position of appealing to such a wide audience? According to Esquire magazine, “Carhartt couldn’t tell you how it’s marketed to such a diverse group because it hasn’t. The company has followed working class America for 128 years and this is just where it wound up.”

In fact, Carhartt has never employed an outside agency (sad face) for any of their marketing or advertising needs. This is a rarity for a brand of its size, especially considering their proximity to The Big 3 auto companies of Detroit, who for decades were the proverbial “white whale” of the advertising industry.

Work In Progress uses familiar tones in new applications.

It would appear that Carhartt largely cemented its place in the world by simply being themselves. It would’ve surely felt forced had the brand tried to create something like Work In Progress in order to proactively chase the urban youth demographic.

Instead, they recognized that they had been adopted by this group of trendsetting skateboarders, graffiti artists and rappers and allowed their brand to evolve to speak directly to that audience without sacrificing their integrity.

As WGSN’s Senior Menswear Trend Forecaster Brian Trunzo puts it, “Carhartt represents everybody. It represents the right and the left. It represents the fashion folks and the non-fashion folks. It’s a brand folks can rally around. Everything they do is real.”

The word “authenticity” gets thrown around a lot these days, but brands like Carhartt are a great example of what that actually looks like. They stay true to their core mission but allow themselves the flexibility to explore opportunities when they arise. So whether it’s on a ranch in Montana or a skatepark in Los Angeles, you know that gold “C” stands for quality, durability and dependability. And that is some seriously enviable brand equity.

BKI Brand Study: How Patagonia Builds Brand Loyalty

BKI Brand Study: How Patagonia Builds Brand Loyalty

In an era where positive news can seem hard to come by, and the smallest incident can severely harm a brand’s reputation, the importance of humble bragging is next-to-none. But how do you promote your company’s good deeds in a way that’s noticeable enough to build goodwill without looking egotistical?

Make it a part of your brand’s mission.

Patagonia, an American outdoor clothing company, has always been at the forefront of social activism. In fact, the company recently updated their mission to clearly define their intentions: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”

Although the mission is quite lofty, Patagonia seems to be rising to meet the challenge. A few weeks ago, the company announced they were donating $10 million received through tax cuts in 2017 to support grassroots environmental organizations. “Instead of putting the money back into our business, we’re responding by putting $10 million back into the planet,” Rose Marcario, the company’s CEO, wrote in a statement published to LinkedIn .

And while this generous act is certainly a big win for the great outdoors, it’s also a big public relations win for Patagonia itself.

When done correctly, charitable initiatives such as this one can go a long way in helping brands build a positive public image (one of the main goals of PR) — especially with today’s consumers. According to a study conducted by Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR, when deciding between two brands matched in quality and price, 90% of consumers supported the brand that was aligned with a charitable cause. Patagonia’s commitment to support those who support the environment is seen and appreciated by consumers and can make them more likely to choose this brand in the future.

Philanthropic efforts can also help humanize large, wealthy companies like Patagonia, especially when the cause they are supporting is relevant to the brand. Patagonia’s significant financial contribution comes at a time where there are rising concerns for the current and future health of our planet. As a company that promotes outdoor activities, worldly exploration and more, this issue directly affects their brand.

When deciding between two equally matched brands, 90% of consumers supported the brand that was aligned with a charitable cause.

Taking a stance on current issues that relate to their mission and using their platform to do good helps Patagonia position itself as a company that cares. And it also helps portray itself as having its finger on the pulse of current events and issues — another aspect often appreciated by consumers (and not to mention, something that makes organizations look good). Patagonia’s $10 million contribution was dispersed among several grassroots organizations that vary in size, scope and goals. Ultimately, this will create an impact on both a small and large scale.

Patagonia’s success can be attributed to remaining committed to their mission and being authentic in their approach to making a difference. Because the company specializes in outdoor apparel, their consumers will feel the direct impact of their contributions to creating a cleaner, healthier planet. Marcario closed her statement by writing, “In this season of giving, we are giving away this tax cut to the planet, our only home, which needs it now more than ever.”

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