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117. Timberland & Carhartt. A Tale of Two Brands.

carhartt.jpgBoth of these companies have been making quality, blue-collar 'work' clothes for many years - Carhartt for over 115 years and Timberland for over 55 years. This outdoor gear has been the foundation and backbone for both companies, their profits, their personality and their brands throughout this time. Though not exactly the same brand; Timberland leans more towards an outdoor (camping) lifestyle and Carhartt more towards the cowboy ethic; they are very similar in that they have always been perceived as a supplier of long-lasting, well-made gear worthy of all the demands of manual labor and the great outdoors. Similarly, both brands have recently (using this term very loosely, and with perspective to both company's histories) had the good fortune of gaining a new demographic that was quite different than their core customers.

As everyone knows, during the nineties, Timberland became the must-have boot within hip-hop culture. They were an urban fashion statement. They were being worn by people that were more likely to hike down to the club than to hike up the Appalachian trail. Almost despite their outdoorsy marketing, they had become an urban player in the fashion industry. This forced the company to make a decision - do they acknowledge this newly-found customer base at the risk of alienating their core customers and long-time brand values or do they stick to what got them there, happy to have an expanded audience and the sales that go along with it? As late as 2003, the company was conducting research to figure out how it could strike up a dialog with this new audience without losing the credibility it already had. For the most part Timberland decided to stick with their core audience and product attributes that made them what they were. It seemed like they were unaware of how to talk to this new urban market and wisely focused on their products while occasionally acknowledging their new customers by buying media in urban centers. They didn't reject their new base (that wouldn't do anyone any good) but they also didn't patronize them either. From an excerpt in Outside Magazine, Jan. 2006 - "If someone wants our three-layer Gore-Tex jacket or our backpacking boots," says Jay Steere, Timberland's vice president of global product management, "and instead of going up Katahdin this weekend they're using them in downtown New York, more power to them." It's a fortunate situation to be in, having two large and diverse types of customers who think highly of your product and Timberland has generally been able to weather that unique storm without losing much of their credibility. Let's not underestimate how difficult this must have been.

Now, fast forward to even more recent fashion trends and you find Carhartt facing the same situation. For the last five or six years (maybe even longer if you are really cool) they have been enjoying success in the - for the lack of better descriptors - the skateboarding and punk rock scenes. Just as many Green-Day concert goers and X-game event spectators wear Carhartt as do carpenters, farmers and construction workers. So once again you have two diverse demographics who have found something in your products that they like. The newer demo developing without any justifiable credit belonging to the marketing department. Carthartt finds themselves in the same position in 2005/6/7 as Timberland of 1993/4/5. But, I don't think that they are handling it in quite the same sophisticated way. It seems like they have decided to market directly to this new demographic at the risk of confusing or ostracizing their core market. Check out their new website: Carhartt Streetwear. It looks a lot like what you might expect from Element, Independent (Love the guy giving the middle finger. That's sooo cool,) Hurley and the like. I can just imagine a logger from Portland running into some emo skatepunk from Seattle and noticing the Carhartt logo on his pants and figuring it out. And that's if any of these new urban customers are going to be fooled and actually continue to buy them. Because the clothes have changed. Though some products are loosely based on the sandpaper tough pants and stiff canvas jackets that Carhartt is famous for, they are largely marketing to their new-found money machine the graphic tees and button-down shirts that you already see in the skateparks across the country. In my opinion, they are patronizing their new audience and sacrificing their brand's reputation. Why wasn't it enough to keep to what they do best and just buy some media that this new generation of carthartt buyers would be more likely to see. Why not do something authentic like acknowledge the BMX riders in some way while NOT changing their clothing recipe? Or have Carhartt-wearing construction workers build a few skateparks and promote that? Why not create a subbrand of Carhartt that could be used to promote a new line of products based largely on their old stuff?

I believe this short-sighted opportunistic approach will backfire and ten years from now Carhartt will be trying to lure back their blue collar customers. The skateboarding set is cynical enough and will have no trouble seeing through the charade. Instead of striking a balance between tough and cool that Timberland managed, Carhartt is risking the tradition and authenticity of their brand for a few quick bucks. And it's too bad because I think they make some of the best clothing around and I'm a little sad about it.

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  • Response
    Response: rush essays
    Timberland and Carhartt playing an important role in the fashion world they introduce many fashions both companies fashion design is unique. Timberland is my favorite shoes brand and Carhartt jacket design is awesome I love this.
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Reader Comments (4)

Actually, you're a bit off on your discussion of Carhartt streetwear. That's a European-only line produced by a different company under license and not available at retail in the U.S. It's also been around since the late 1980s under various incarnations, it's not some cash-in-on-the-trend-of-the-moment decision on Carhartt's part.

Admittedly, the decision to license the Carhartt brand was different in the late 80's because you could do regional brands without the Internet instantly globalizing them, but Streetwear has been very successful in its market and our core consumers in the U.S. don't even know it exists. There's little to no chance that we'd ever bring that line into the U.S. for exactly the reasons you discuss -- we're a workwear company, and we serve those consumers.

If anything, in Europe our branding challenge is that we're launching our core Workwear line there this year, and we're dealing with the fact that the dominant Carhartt brand in that marketplace is streetwear, not workwear.

If you do want to look at what Carhartt's doing from a brand perspective to change with the times, it might be more informative to look at how we're evolving to serve the new workwear consumers in the marketplace. As the Baby Boomers retire, the core blue-collar consumer is changing. There's more women, more younger workers and significantly more Hispanic workers in the North American marketplace. That's why we've launched our Carhartt for Women line of women's workwear this year, why we're doing more with nylon outerwear and other technical fabrics aimed at younger workers, and why we're developing product and marketing and retail campaigns for the Hispanic market in the U.S.

John Mozena
Carhartt PR guy
September 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Mozena
Thanks for writing and clearing a few things up, John. I try not to edit the comments that come in, even if they bring to light a mistake on my part.

I guess it's a little confusing to a few brand loyalists (I'll toss my hat in that ring) to see this logo on streetwear; especially when in the US there is a also a following in that demo already. The internet does make the world much smaller and that begs another guestion besides, "how will you balance the two vastly different groups in the US" but also "What do you do when your brand means one thing in country A, and another in country B?" Given that online there is no longer much regard for geographic borders.The thing I would question is whether it's smart to license your brand to other manufacturers with less of an interest in your history/integrity, and whether or not the parent company has any control over quality, warranty and other manufacturing variables like fair wages.

Clearly, you've had this discussion internally and know how difficult the answers are to come by.

The Women's line seems dead-on right. And definitely an intuitive step for Carhartt. Can't wait to see where that goes, and I hope the marketing/advertising/design is up to par with the reputation of the brand.

Anything else you'd like to address? I don't want to misrepresent your company - which I have always rather liked.

September 5, 2007 | Registered Commenterjj
I actually thought that the main point of your original post was right on, that brands that have a core of existing brand loyalists need to be wary of abandoning those loyalists to chase the trend of the moment. (My only disagreement was using us as the "Bad! Bad brand managers!" example...)

One of our more interesting brand management issues is less the workwear-vs-streetwear postioning and more, in our core North American market, the perception of Carhartt in many markets as lifestyle outdoor clothing, for hunters, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and the like. Everything we do in North America is designed for workwear functionality, but it's been embraced by many consumers as outdoor recreation wear. Generally, our position is that as long as people are buying our clothes for the quality and functionality that we build into them, we're happy with that perception of our brand whether the clothes will be worn on a job site or on a campsite. (I was blown away, for example, to find that our old-school double-front canvas dungarees are a favorite of hardcore recreational rock and ice climbers. It's a basic durability issue with them when compared to the more technical and better-known outdoor brands.)

As for the women's line, we didn't "shrink it and pink it," as the industry slang goes, we took the core of our men's line and used the same fabrics and quality standards, even same production lines, just in women's fits and sizes. We also went out and tested it in the real world with real working women, in partnership with organizations such as the National Association of Women in Construction. Again, from a brand standpoint, we did have to make some decisions on to what degree we'd do some more feminine colors that would be new and different for Carhartt, but were being requested by our potential women workwear consumers. (You'd be blown away by how many requests we've gotten for pink Carhartt jackets and bib overalls...)


- John
September 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Mozena
I wanted to research this subject and write a paper. Your post what a thousand words would not. Nice job.
September 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAllotomycle

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