Piggybacking on a personality
One of the big youth fashion brands to spring up in recent times has been 'Von Dutch'. It's not well known in India, though you might occasionally see an MTV veejay sporting a Von Dutch t shirt. You really can't miss that distinctive, 'flaming' logo.
Chris Detert, the marketing director of Von Dutch Originals, says: "We have created a clothing line and lifestyle brand with an edgy, rebellious spirit - a brand that many people, from all walks of life, can relate to."
How did they do this? By piggybacking on the personality of a strange man named 'Von Dutch'. And then further embellishing and propogating the legend.
Who was Von Dutch?
Von Dutch is not Dutch at all. He was a mechanic called Kenny Howard who achieved pop cult status in America in the 1950s by painting and 'pinstriping' cars and bikes. Since he used the name 'Von Dutch' cars customised by him came to be known as 'dutched'. His most famour 'creation' was a logo - the 'flaming eyeball with wings'.
As an article by Bob Burns on the man notes
When a car owner came to him, he didn't tell Dutch what he wanted, he just told him how much 'time' he wanted to purchase. The designs were up to Dutch, and many of them were created way down deep in the recesses of his eccentric imagination.
He was subsequently imitated by many others such as Shakey Jake, The Barris Brothers, Tweetie, Slimbo, Big Daddy Ed Roth.
But essentially the guy was a very niche hero, somebody biker circles looked upto. How did he spawn a major mainstream fashion brand?
Well, the answer is - he didn't. The chap died in 1992 - paranoid, alcoholic and penniless. His daughters later sold the rights to reproduce their father's imagery to Michael Cassell, a maker of surfer clothing who established 'Von Dutch Originals' in 1999 with one single store.
Cassell had his eyes on the niche market of bikers (the "hot rod" set) but his partners (who'd worked with brands like Diesel and Fiorucci) believed they could appeal to a wider, fashion audience.
As an article titled the "Ad Nuseam Marketing of Von Dutch" notes
"It took insight, luck or both to see that Von Dutch could be, well, exploitable. Celebrities such as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher showed up wearing the logo caps....The whole appeal of course was explaining who Von Dutch was."
The story of Von Dutch - a man who was an individualist and rebel - gave a unique coolness and personality to the brand. Something that conventional advertising could never have achieved!
The Trucker Hat Phenomenon
The "killer" product was the trucker hat (so called because it was favoured by truckers and tractor drivers). It became so popular that the company had to limit its production to 'maintain' exclusivity and yet hope that the 'followers' would be willing to wait to buy the product even as the trendsetters moved on to the Next Cool Thing.
And the strategy seems to have worked. By 2003, the company was doing $33 million in sales and for 2004 revenues were in the $100 million region.
Of course, there has also been some backlash. Those who got into the trend early and shelled out $ 75 for a hat and felt good about it started resenting the logo being all over the place.
Companies producing 'Von Sucks' and 'Von Done' hats and clothing sprung up. Meanwhile some folks discovered that Von Dutch was, in addition to being a creative genius, also 'not such a nice man' (racist, alcoholic etc). And the members of the counterculture who had 'owned' Von Dutch also felt betrayed at the commercialisation of their hero.
Von Dutch will eventually start declining in popularity. Maybe the founders will have to find another original, another counter culture icon to tap into and commercialise.
The point simply is that a good 'story' can lend character and resonance to a brand.
Many brands take their names from their designers - who are living personalities. Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Pierre Cardin etc etc.
But a youth marketer with vision can also tap into the prevailing counter culture - something very niche - and commercialise it.
It can happen in India
The runaway success of the 'Osho' slipper (the chataai base chappal with the velvet straps) is a good example. The slippers were originally sold outside the Osho ashram in Pune's Koregaon Park.
A few young people discovered they were really comfortable to wear and the next thing you knew, everyone wanted to have a pair. I remember about 4 years ago, a guy who worked in my office and went home to Pune every weekend found himself flooded with requests for 'Osho slippers' - they cost about Rs 200 at the time.
Soon enough the chaps who're always looking for the next big trend - the ones who sell your stuff on Colaba Causeway and Janpath - realised there was a huge potential in this product. They started manufacturing it on a mass scale and you can now buy Oshos for just about Rs 70 a pair.
Meanwhile, they even introduced new designs, straps, embellishments like shells, sequins. There's a variation for men with square toes and an upturned front.
The 'Osho' - even two years after it went mainstream - continues to be one of the biggest fashion fads to have hit the Indian youth.
Oshos have worked at two levels:
a) The 'Osho' connection lends it personality and 'coolness'. I can bet the Osho slippers would NEVER have taken off in such a big way had they just been called 'bamboo chappals'.
b) At a practical level Oshos are comfortable and affordable. They fit in with the current attitude which is to 'dress down' to college as opposed to dressing up - which is something only for kids who've just joined college - completely wannabe!
Can Osho go the Von Dutch way?
I see no reason why some clever marketing can't turn 'Osho' slippers into a worldwide phenomenon like the trucker hat. And, like Von Dutch, metamorphose into a lifestyle brand. Of course, it would be something the Osho ashram itself would have to endorse (which it is unlikely to).
What the Osho brand would represent to young people is:
a) Indian spirituality, mysticism
The Appeal: the search for inner peace, tranquility is something universal - and a current worldwide obsession.
The Appeal: Osho lived his life the way he wanted to, something most of us will probably never be able to do.
c) 'Free Sex'
The Appeal: Something uniquely Osho, and very aspirational. Again, we will never actually get to do it but we can buy into the philosophy by buying into the brand!
Conclusion: Tap into the 'counter culture' for ideas if you're a youth marketer. Then, walk the thin line between cool and crass while attempting to commercialise it. If you get it right, you will find the rewards simply amazing!
More on counter culture ideas from India that could go mainstream - in future posts.