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Duluth Trading's radical form of marketing: honesty

The cozy little direct-mail catalog operation, which sells merchandise aimed solely at the American working class, is stepping out of its self-imposed obscurity with some regional test marketing.

February 09, 2010|Dan Neil

The weeks leading up to the Super Bowl loosed a poisoned fog of hype upon the land. Who's in (Hyundai), who's out (Ford). Which of GoDaddy.com's racy ads would be a no-go? Clydesdales or no Clydesdales? Would Electronics Arts' spot for its Dante's Inferno video game really tell viewers to "Go to Hell"?

I love advertising -- it is in many ways the poetry of capitalism -- but by kickoff, even I'd had enough. The whole thing was a farrago, a welter. I'm sick of the sound of jackhammers trying to separate me from my wallet.

How about something completely different? Something quieter. Something wholesome. Something beautiful.

Meet Duluth Trading, a cozy little direct-mail catalog operation based outside Madison, Wis., which is nowhere near Madison Avenue. Founded in 1989 by a couple of rough-handed tradesmen who invented the Bucket Boss (a kind of tool organizer), Duluth Trading is now nothing less than the J. Peterman for the working class.

Duluth Trading practices a radical form of marketing known as honesty. It designs and home-spins nearly all its own marketing. All the catalog copy -- a kind of ornery, no-nonsense guy-speak -- is written by DT's in-house team led by Al Shackelford, formerly of Land's End. The charming and often hilariously folksy illustrations are all by Minnesotan Rick Kollath, who is the only artist the company has ever used.

The merchandise is aimed solely at working Joes and Janes: heavy-duty boots and insulated snowsuits, side-clip suspenders and jeans made from "fire-hose" cotton twill. The company's breakout product in 2002 was the Longtail T, which "solved the age-old, notorious and much feared problem known as Plumber's Butt," says the catalog. "Now thousands of guys who have to bend over when they work can stay in the good graces of their clients and fellow tradesmen."

Another signature product is the work pants with the extra large gusset in the crotch, sold as "Ballroom jeans." Nice.

The company's team of sportsmen and contractors -- the "Trades Panel" -- tests the gear in the field and consults on the copy in the catalog.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Duluth Trading is precisely the sort of company uber-marketer Alex Bogusky described in last year's "Baked In": The product guys work with the marketing guys (no silos).

The company constantly innovates around the customer. It is so tuned in to the clientele it even knows where people read the catalog. "Ninety percent of the catalogs are read in the . . . " well, lavatory, says chief marketing officer Suzanne Harms.

That must have been some marketing survey.

For most of Duluth Trading's two decades in business, the catalog has been the sole means of outreach. This week, however, the company will step out of its self-imposed obscurity with some regional test marketing in Minneapolis, Madison and Denver.

The company is buying radio time and billboard space. In Minneapolis it will experiment with local TV advertising with a series of strangely naive 30-second spots, animated with stick figures. These spots have been holding court on YouTube for the last year. Wherever "slick" is on the dial, these spots are 180 degrees away.

"It's a quiet little test," Harms says. "The brand has always had a great cult following, and we don't want to leave that, but I think we also need to increase awareness."

Still, she says, DT cannot position itself as a mass-market brand. "We're really not comfortable beating our chests."

Hallelujah. The truth is, nothing is stopping Duluth Trading from attempting to become another American Apparel, or Ed Hardy, or Juicy Couture, or a hundred other soulless mall brands. The merchandise is cool and distinctive. It would take nothing to establish DT as lunch-bucket chic. It even makes a nice logo. Throw in a splashy debut on Wall Street, celebrity endorsements, product placements in the next Bruce Willis movie. The marketing plan writes itself.

But for the restraint of its management, Duluth Trading would soar like J. Peterman before falling down the same rathole of greed. Eddie Bauer was once as authentic an American brand as Lincoln's beard. Now what is it? Another wobbly retailer hanging on in bankruptcy at the end of the shopping plaza. Here's to DT's sense of sustainability.

Other reasons to celebrate DT:

* The call center and distribution operation are still in the Midwest, and not in Bangalore. Also, prodded by its customers, the company now has a push on to find more American suppliers for its products.

* The company is committed to servicing the American working class, an audience that is economically besieged and often condescended to in advertising created in Hollywood or New York.

* The company is committed to its own identity. The owner and chief executive, Steve Schlecht, who bought the company in 2001, "fell in love with the catalog and the voice," Harms says. Which means this charming and singular document will be with us for a while.

"It's all about stupid, simple solutions. It's about understanding your audience. Everybody knows a Duluth Trading kind of guy," Harms says.

Not only that -- thumbing through the catalog, with its portraits of get-'er-done self-reliance and prairie manhood, I aspire to be one.

It's not a big company, and it will never drop $3 million on a Super Bowl spot, but Duluth Trading is a refreshing reminder that advertising doesn't have to a sneering, cynical plot, an empty lie, an earwig boring into your money-spending brain center. It can be a simple, honorable expression of brand, of a good company that just wants to sell you value. That's a business worth patronizing.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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