Streetwear drives Carhartt’s growth, but its marketing will always favor workers
Loved by rappers, skaters and millennial hipsters, the workwear maker doesn’t actually market itself to any of these groups – which is all part of its enduring success says brand boss Susan Hennike.
'History in the Making' campaign from Carhartt / Carhartt
Family-owned Carhartt has been making durable workwear for 135 years. It is the company’s DNA, says chief brand officer Susan Hennike. If people want to wear its clothing for other reasons, then great, she tells The Drum. But Carhartt isn’t going to change just to attract them.
“We love everybody who wears our brand, but we try to keep our marketing and our story to the worker. If people choose to wear it for other activities, we are very appreciative, but we believe this is because the brand feels genuine and because there is an authenticity about who we are.“
The Carhartt brand has grown exponentially in the past few decades. While it is a private company and not required to disclose finances, in 2020 it told CNBC that 2019’s annual revenue had been $1bn. It owes a large part of that to its adoption by streetwear culture, which has opened it up to an entirely new audience.
“We get a lot of requests, whether it be a collaboration or whether it be a marketing opportunity, to go after streetwear. But we are really focused on the hardworking people.”
It’s a strategy at odds with that of mountaineering brand The North Face, which found itself exploding on the streetwear scene so shifted strategies to lean into its new fans, catering to both audiences.
(It should be noted for non-North American readers, however, that in Europe and Asia, the brand is licensed to Carhartt Wip (Work in Progress), which sells to skate and streetwear customers, and although a licensee the two brands work closely, Carhartt having input into seasonal collections.)
‘History in the Making’ campaign
Hennike joined Carhartt a year ago having previously held roles at some of the biggest apparel brands, such as Adidas, Nike and, most recently, Champion. All these brands have in common decades of heritage – an aspect of brand marketing Hennike is very passionate about and she confesses to having been wooed by Carhartt’s long, family-run history.
“It has really kept to the mission of serving and protecting all hardworking people for 135 years. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Mark Valade (chief executive officer at Carhartt), who is a fourth-generation Carhartt family. That was the thing we talked about – that the brand has kept to its mission in some shape or form for over 135 years.”
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With Carhartt’s expanded demographic in the US, Hennike says the it needed to find ways to educate these new customers about the brand. “There are so many new consumers who have come into our funnel and now we need to tell them who we are as a lot of them don’t know. They love us but don’t know about the history of Carhartt.”
With this in mind, Hennike conceptualized the ‘History in the Making’ campaign as a way to explain Carhartt’s heritage to new customers. The 60-second ad features an array of American workers, from the ranches to the fishing boats, and uses historic-sounding audio blended with contemporary video to give the spot both heritage and a modern edge. The campaign shows the making of Carhartt’s clothing now and then, with photographs taken from its archives.
“With this exponential growth, we really needed to kind of go back and say, ‘Listen, we are the leaders in workwear, we have a really long-standing history and your products will stand up to the test of time.’”
Hennike has conducted a “consumer segmentation journey” to help her team understand at what point a consumer discovers the brand and why, then has built that into her marketing and media strategy, which as a result is focused on social and streaming.
Friends of Carhartt
To ensure its connection to tradespeople and manual laborers, Carhartt has a network of workers, ‘Friends of Carhartt,’ who it uses in its research and testing and also as influencers and models. Anyone featured in its marketing and communications must be a genuine worker and ‘History in the Making’ filmed real-life people doing their real-life jobs.
The company does do some paid social, but for the most part it relies on organic marketing through this Friends of Carhartt network.
Hennike’s three-year marketing plan
Hennike is in the midst of helping Carhartt build its three-year strategic roadmap. For this, she has three key priorities, the first of which she calls “workforce 2.0,” which is all about the evolution of work both from a product point of view and for discovering new audiences to market to. She gives examples of urban farmers or sustainable industries such as wind turbine workers that were featured in the ‘History in the Making’ ad.
Her second focus is on women, which she says is the fastest-growing segment of Carhartt’s direct-to-consumer business. “We’ve had a larger business with men’s workwear, but women in the trades have seen significant growth, so one strategic initiative is for us to really lean into women’s and build women’s product for trade skilled workers.”
The final tenant of Carhartt’s plans is to figure out ways to get customers to pass on their brand love to the next generation. For Carhartt, that means messaging that promotes how its clothing is so durable it can be passed down the generations.
On sustainability, Hennike leans into Carhartt’s durability as the “most natural sustainability message you could have out there.” The brand offers free repairs and has recently launched a re-sell website with the ambition of marketing Carhartt as having quality, lasting products that, in turn, make it a more sustainable purchase.
While Hennike loves working for heritage brands, she concludes that evolution is key to ensuring long-term survival. “It’s all about how we show we’ve evolved because we can’t just stay in our past. We have to look to our future.”