117. Timberland & Carhartt. A Tale of Two Brands.
Aug 29, 2007 at 10:35AM

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.

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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