Carhartt: One brand, two universes

Thanks to my OG Detroit upbringing, I've been familiar with Carhartt clothing for a long time. About 5 years ago I started wearing their dungarees (their term for "work pants") because they fit me better, were a classic design and put me in closer touch with my internal frustrated proletarian laborer. Plus, they look badass. In the US, they're still workers' clothing for the most part: farmers, mechanics, welders, and (in much smaller quantities) greasy Burning Man artists. But in Europe, they've become super chic techno clothing, the physical manifestation of a Roland 303 bassline (all the more appropriate since Carhartt is a Detroit brand, and Detroit's place in the techno mythology of Berlin is huge). After noticing that a lot of their clothing was being shipped to boutiques in Europe and Japan and that it was used as the official hoodie for the last Tricky tour, it looks like someone at Carhartt figured it out and decided to license the name.

Now, knowing that, check out the differences in experience in these two sites:

The US site
The German site

There's even a boutique in one of the hippest parts of Berlin, complete with graffiti and a Carhartt-branded trick bicycle in the window. Many of my friends there wear Carhartt clothing, but it's nothing like the clothing that the US brand makes.

At first, this seems to be good branding strategy: capitalize on reputation in a market that doesn't provide a lot of revenue by licensing your name to a local. It certainly makes more sense than calling your mayo different names depending on which side of the Mississippi it's being sold on (cf: Hellman's vs. Best Foods; also King Dons vs. Ding Dongs, and snicker if you want to).

Now here's the problem: with such a radical difference, is Carhartt endangering their brand? The coolness of the European brand depends on the stodgy solidity of the US brand, since it's based totally on reference and myth, but the US brand is the bread and butter of the company. Say the European licensee does something stupid, like make a really low-quality product (how good can that bicycle be?) and their name gets trashed in world media. Is that going to completely cause the house of cards to fall, creating confusion among the cash cow US market? Brand resilience isn't infinite. Moreover, fashion being what it is, today's Carhartt is tomorrow's Tommy Gear and next week's Cross Colours. Would being super-duper uncool spill over to the US and if it did, would that be a problem?

I don't know, but it's an interesting question and a good example of brand strategy caught in the wild.

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Europe and USA are still very different. The do not harm eachother, really. The brands are only perceived differently. What's wrong with that? Carhartt is still selling workwear in Europe.
Another question. What do you think of Dickies?

merely another example of vile bourgeois stealing and defiling the working mans identity.

"what will be interesting is when i come back to windsor for a visit with my new carhartt camo jacket"

Right! My point exactly. I don't have a problem with them expanding their brand in Europe in ways that go against the brand identity in the US, I just wonder if it harms the US brand in some way.

For example, say they decided to sponsor a Jake and Dinos Chapman exhibit and images of that art were shown in the US on a news story about scanalous art (which the Chapman's art often ends up being). Now say, based on this, conservative Wal-Mart decided they would no longer carry Carhartt (assuming Wal-Mart carries Carhartt). As with just about every brand, Wal-Mart is probably Carhartt's largest retailer. If they did that, how would it affect Carhartt's bottom line and would that be compensated-for by their European licensing deal. I don't know, but that's the question.

i am a born and bred windsorite and by location am totally familar with carhartt, however i find myself in london uk and rediscovering the brand. recently, carhartt sponsored an exhibition of my photos at their covent garden store. this was a fabtastic opportunity for me since they fronted the cash and what better place to exhibit than a busy retail store during xmas?

in terms of their quality i would say that it is still a very high standard. it is quite trendy over here as a result of it's urba appeal however as long as the quality is consistent i think that it will be a safe move for them in europe. what will be interesting is when i come back to windsor for a visit with my new carhartt camo jacket...

My biggest bummer about Carhartt dungarees (when I am fancying myself a greasy Burning Man artist), is that they don't sell my size. I guess there aren't a lot of farmers and mechanics out there that wear a 30W 34L. Largely for that reason I usually end up back at the Levi's store, where they have evolved their own brand in fits and starts over the years, not always to my liking.




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This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on November 29, 2004 4:54 PM.

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