Fashion October 11, 2017

Carhartt's Refinement of Brand Expression

Rebranding Carhartt

For more than a century, Carhartt has outfitted workers and farmers with durable clothes designed to withstand the toughest conditions. And while Carhartt’s iconic overalls and canvas pants are certainly functional, no one would ever mistake them for being fashionable or forward-looking. That is, until now.

In December of 2016, actor Jason Momoa, of Game of Thrones and Conan the Barbarian fame, released a short film titled Canvas of My Life. In the film, Momoa narrates his story of being raised by a free-spirited single mom in rural Iowa, and then eventually raising his own kids with actress Lisa Bonet to be just as wild and free. Much of the film’s gauzy imagery is focused on Momoa’s seemingly endless supply of roughed-up and well-worn Carhartt gear.

Carhartt is redefining “the creative class for the millennial generation.”

Tony Ambroza, Carhartt’s senior vice president of marketing

The film was created in conjunction with Carhartt’s production company, Handmade Films, and Momoa’s project is just the beginning of a series of similarly personal pieces of branded online content. According to Carhartt’s website, Handmade Films’ mission is “simple”: “Discover people who live the Carhartt way of life. Help tell their story with artfulness and craftsmanship in hopes of inspiring others along the way.”

For a new generation of Carhartt’s consumers, this “way of life” doesn’t necessarily involve working at a steel mill or at a construction site, nor does it involve a blue-collar world made up of only men. Instead, it is more an all-encompassing vision of what we call “work” in the 21st century.

Detroit Work City

For generations, Detroit was the industrial heart of the American economy. Home to the Big Three automakers, the Detroit metro area is also home to Carhartt’s corporate offices, which are located in the nearby suburb of Dearborn, Michigan. Carhartt’s relationship to the auto industry has more history than simple proximity: Back in 1911, Carhartt actually attempted to get into the automobile business, but after a single year, in which very few models of the “Carhartt Car” were actually produced, the company returned to the workwear business.

For a new generation of Carhartt’s consumers, this “way of life” doesn’t necessarily involve working at a steel mill or at a construction site, nor does it involve a blue-collar world made up of only men.

Fast-forward a hundred or so years, and Detroit now finds itself in a very different position. Much has been made of the city’s urban decay, and the changing economics of the auto industry played a huge role in that decline. But recently, a new generation of workers has begun to rebuild the Motor City. According to WIRED magazine, “Detroit feels like the heart of the maker movement.”

Maker movement is a loosely defined term used to describe the new wave of independent artisans, inventors, and designers. While this movement may be amorphous in nature, it’s enough of a phenomenon to have inspired a new online zine called Make:, as well Maker Faires around the globe, some of which attract more than 100,000 people. What differentiates the maker movement from your average DIY culture is the entrepreneurial spirit with which these indie craftspeople market themselves. In many ways, the maker movement is Etsy taken to its logical conclusion.

Businesses have taken notice of the movement and put these makers to work. Levi’s has introduced a Levi’s Makers line at its boutique-style shops. General Electric introduced a program called GE Garages, which provides workspaces for aspiring inventors and tinkerers. And in Detroit, Carhartt has attempted to harness the maker movement’s energy by aligning its brand with what Tony Ambroza, Carhartt’s senior vice president of marketing, called “the creative class from the millennial generation.”

In an interview with Adweek, Ambroza went on to say, “Lots of diverse people are doing cool things like growing organic food and building furniture. ... While it sounds romantic, in reality these makers have to work unbelievably hard, and many know our products.”

During the summer and fall of 2014, Ambroza and Carhartt teamed up with New Holland Brewing Co., out of Holland, Michigan, for the Road Home to Craftsmanship Tour, which stretched all the way from Detroit to Denver. While part of the tour’s goal was to promote to new Carhartt Woodsman beer brewed by New Holland, it also had deeper branding goals. As Fred Bueltmann, New Holland’s VP of brand and lifestyle, said, the plan was to “hang in some great, hardworking towns, sit down with local craftspeople and tradespeople, and talk about something we’re all passionate about: what it is to live a craft life.”

And the diverse group of consumers who live that “craft life” is a new target audience for Carhartt. The company has even introduced slimmer silhouettes to appeal to the skinny-jeans crowd. Whenever Ambroza is interviewed, he is careful to reaffirm the company’s commitment to its core customers of blue-collar workers. However, his new, more expansive vision has the company looking forward to a future where what it means to “work” may be very different than how we conceive of that term today.

No Boys Allowed

Another part of Carhartt’s effort to grow its consumer base is Crafted in Carhartt, a branded blog sponsored by Carhartt that showcases “women who do amazing things.” Posts include “Women Who Weld,” which profiled an Oakland, California, welder who struck out on her own after years in the union and started a metal-fabrication company called DC Metal Work. Another post featured two women who work for a Chicago-area nonprofit agricultural organization that trains communities to grow their own food sustainably.

It’s also easy to see how this same girl might then forever associate women who pursue a career as a craftswoman or artisan with the Carhartt brand.

One post that encapsulates what Carhartt is trying to achieve with this blog is one from 2014 that profiled¬†Art Design Portland (ADX), a 12,000-square-foot workspace for local makers started by Kelley Roy. For a surprisingly small membership fee, makers of all trades and interests gain access to ADX’s metal shop, wood shop, and design lab. The post on Crafted in Carhartt features photographs of Yelena Prusakova, a young millennial woman who uses the woodshop at ADX for her poster-frame business. In all the photographs, Prusakova is dressed from head to toe in Carhartt, and at the bottom of the post there is a list of the specific pieces she’s wearing, just like there would be in a fashion magazine.

If representation really does define reality, it’s easy to see how reading this blog might open up a new world for a young girl with an interest in woodworking. Where else would she see someone who looks like her doing manual labor? It’s also easy to see how this same girl might then forever associate women who pursue a career in woodworking with the Carhartt brand.

As Tony Ambroza said about this post, “Because we are a brand for people who work with their hands, it made sense for us to feature Kelley and ADX. Kelley’s advancing the maker movement in her community, and we want to inspire women to create by reading about other women who are successfully doing that.”

Expand Your Brand

While Carhartt’s association with the maker movement is inspiring, it’s also very smart business. How Americans work is changing, and Carhartt is simply doing all it can to stay ahead of the curve. But a secondary benefit of this effort is that by associating itself with a more diverse and expansive notion of “work,” Carhartt has also transformed its brand meaning, especially for millennials. What started as a brand making bib overalls for railroad workers in the 19th century has expanded its vision. From a trendsetting Hollywood actor to craft-beer aficionados in Detroit to the female maker community in Portland, Carhartt is now a brand for Americans who care about craftsmanship, about doing things their own way, the right way. It’s hard to imagine any future where that brand message won’t appeal to, well, pretty much everyone.

Photos:, Shutterstock

What's Next?