Can the Clothes Make the Brand?

By Gerry Khermouch

As I write this column, summer is easing off and soon it will be time to stow the t-shirts away. (At least it will be for those of you for whom t-shirts don’t qualify yet as year-round “business casual” attire.) So I thought it might be fun to riff on t-shirts, given their inextricable role in the beverage business. After all, folks’ reception to t-shirts can be a great gauge of brand health, particularly in image-driven categories like beer and energy drinks. As mini-billboards, they also seem to be a handy double-check on how well thought out the branding of new entries has been from a graphics standpoint, and how intriguing the messaging is to consumers. (As a corollary to that thought, one might guess that someone coming out of the t-shirt business would have a leg up in crafting arresting imagery for a new beverage brand, and that does seem to be true for the cool pickup truck emblem that t-shirt veteran Steve Prato crafted for his Joe Tea line.)

Here in New York, I always keep an eye on where a given brand’s t-shirts end up within the hierarchy at informally run stores like delis and bodegas. A few years back, for instance, I knew Guinness was lost in the woods when I’d see its shirts sported by the poor grunts schlepping cases up the stairs from the basement. You knew that the shirt had been given to the store owner or manager, who must have turned their noses up at it until it descended down the hierarchy to the guy in the cellar. Not a good sign! (Happily, I don’t see Guinness shirts landing there any more.) I’ve tracked the same progression with once-relevant brands like Rolling Rock and Mistic, and it troubles me that I saw a basement grunt wearing a Sam Adams shirt the other day. Say it ain’t so!

I like to think that the reactions I get to a t-shirt I’m wearing can reveal how evolved a city’s beer culture has become. Take my shirt for New Belgium’s 1554 Enlightened Black Ale, a favorite obscurity of mine. I’m not surprised that it garners no recognition during my perambulations around New York – after all, New Belgium isn’t available here. But it’s drawn occasional comments in places like Chicago and Washington, DC. And wearing it recently in Austin, I was shocked to hear not one, not two, but three strangers in one day tell me it’s their favorite beer. OK, one was a beer geek at a craft bar. But the others were a youthful greeter at the University of Texas co-op store and a checkout clerk at Whole Foods. That struck me as impressive, both for Austin and for New Belgium.

Anticipating the shirt preferences of my teenage kids has always been more mysterious to me. Neither my daughter (now 22) nor son (17) ever displayed the slightest hint of interest in trendy apparel brands like Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch, yet that doesn’t mean they didn’t have emphatic opinions on beverage shirts I might try to foist on them. Both were happy to wear Sweet Leaf Tea-shirts that came my way in that brand’s earlier days, but wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an Honest Tea-shirt – even though both kids purchased considerably more Honest Tea than Sweet Leaf. Could Honest Tea’s self-proclaimed “we’re honest” pose have been the turnoff? I never could get an explanation. Nor for their aversion to Vitaminwater t-shirts. I’m guessing that brand, in its Coke era, may have become just too ubiquitous, both in people’s hands and on the airwaves.

Then there’s Monster Beverage. The masters of branding there obviously have struck gold with Monster Energy’s in-your-face claw emblem, which consumers not only sport on t-shirts but often tattoo on their bodies. But in launching their canned Peace Tea line, they were savvy enough to switch gears, devising artsy graphic motifs in keeping with the peace-and-love ethos they’d cooked up for the brand, but at the same time keeping the brand name itself quite subtle. Both my kids immediately gravitated to the Peace Tea-shirts, and there may be a lesson there for marketers. Sometimes less is more, branding-wise.

One of my favorite beers is the tasty and unique Texas Pecan Porter from Austin’s (512) Brewing, and I often wear the burnt-orange t-shirt I bought at the brewery a year and a half ago. Of course, that shade is as identified with the University of Texas as the school’s Longhorns symbol. (Interestingly, the brewery’s founder, Kevin Brand, told me he initially resisted using such a predictable hue, until others convinced him that as a self-respecting Austin brewer he couldn’t not use it.) I’ve found it’s impossible to go out in that shirt in New York without somebody accosting me on the street to tell me they’ve had a (512) beer or that they’re a UT grad or they’re a past or present Austin resident. Boy, there seem to be a lot of those people colonizing the city these days. It’s enough to make me wonder whether that brand, still available only in Texas, might travel well to New York. True, I realize that reactions to a t-shirt are not the same as a research-backed launch plan. Then again, I’ve seen distributors go on a lot less in deciding to pick up a brand!