Is Fruit Of The Loom Held Back By Legacy?
It’s easy to think of brands as very precise tools, designed with a specific function in mind that can be wielded by marketers, brand managers, designers, and even customer-facing teams to help build connections and grow a business.
But in reality, brands are a reflection of the business they represent. So, more often than not, they can be messy organic things, characterized by offshoots and hand-me-downs — built upon a mixture of old and new ideas. Even rebrands won’t completely wipe the slate clean, as long as there are consumers who can remember your old identity, those memories may still inform their perceptions of your current brand!
This is certainly the case for older brands that have changed hands over the course of generations, crossed paths with countless consumers, and provided a face for a business that has gone through numerous iterations, each fueled by diverging strategies.
But what lessons can we learn from brands like these?
In this brand deep dive, we’re going to take a look at apparel manufacturer, Fruit Of The Loom, a brand that is as messy as it is iconic, charting how it has survived and thrived since its founding way back in the mid-19th century, where it stands to today, and break down what it can teach us about branding.
The Story of Fruit Of The Loom
Fruit Of The Loom is one of the most recognized brands in America, well known for creating underwear and casualwear and for supplying clothing for imprint — meaning that even if you’ve never bought an item of their clothing before, you’ve likely worn one as a uniform for school or work or as a sports kit.
With more than 28,000 employees worldwide, the brand commands a unique position in the apparel marketplace, a rare example of a really well-known heritage brand that actually has very little presence in the consumer landscape.
But in order to tell the story of the Fruit Of The Loom properly, we need to go right back to the beginning. All the way back to 1851 when the brand was founded by the brothers, Robert and Benjamin Knight. They were mill owners from Warwick, Rhode Island who sold cotton cloth. When one of their products, a muslin cloth emblazoned with apples became particularly popular, the brothers Knight decided to make it their logo, a perfect match for their new trade name “Fruit Of The Loom.”
Just one year after the US established its trademark laws, the Fruit Of The Loom brand was legally established, being one of the first 500 brands to be registered. Back then there was big business in supplying fabric for homemade clothes, and Fruit Of The Loom became a leading brand within this sector. However, as manufactured clothing became increasingly popular, the market for consumer fabrics shrank, and by the late 1920s, adapting to these changes, Fruit Of The Loom began licensing the use of its brand to clothing manufacturers.
In 1938, one such license was sold to the Union Underwear Company, a popular manufacturer of men’s underwear, particularly well-known for its union suits. Helmed by its founder Jacob Goldfarb, the company helped grow the Fruit Of The Loom brand as its underwear became more and more popular. The brand supplied millions of pairs of boxer shorts to the US army during WWII and, in the late 1940s, started a new, lasting trend for how men’s underwear was sold by packaging multiple pairs within a single cellophane bag rather than selling them separately.
The success of this licensee had huge implications for Fruit of the Loom’s brand, as consumers now associated the name with underwear rather than fabric, and, by the 1950s, Union Underwear had actually grown to become a larger, more profitable business than the one that technically owned its most valuable brand. To secure the future use of this essential asset, the owners of the Union Underwear Company acquired the Fruit of The Loom trademark in 1961.
In the 70s, Union Underwear had success with “Underoos” — “decorated underwear for boys and girls” and also expanded into the business of selling unbranded garments for imprint, a part of the business which continues to thrive to this day.
Finally, in the mid-80s, the Union Underwear Company was renamed Fruit of the Loom, Inc. uniting the business and brand at last. It was also a time of change for the brand, as it phased out its iconic “Fruit Of The Loom Guys “ for a new advertising campaign entitled “We Fit America Like We Never Did Before”. This advertising push included the first ever commercial to feature a woman in a pair of underwear on network television.
By the 90s, the company entered into troubling times, struggling under a huge debt burden it had acquired during the 80s. In 1999, it filed for bankruptcy, only to be rescued by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Company, which owns it to this day.
The Fruit Of The Loom brand still carries weight and is recognized by consumers across the globe, but the world of apparel and fashion has changed a lot in the last 30 years, with the advent of online shopping shaking up the industry and new brands arriving on the scene with identities and products that speak to modern consumers.
Is there still a future for a brand like Fruit Of The Loom?
What Can You Learn From Fruit Of The Loom?
1. Brand Understanding Is Vital
The history of Fruit Of The Loom isn’t straightforward. A producer of fabrics that licensed its brand to other manufacturers, only to be bought out by one of its licensees, it’s a brand that’s known in different markets for different reasons — whether that be its historic dominance of the underwear category or its clothing for imprint.
So while you might have heard of Fruit Of The Loom, your understanding of the brand might diverge depending on who you are and how you’ve interacted with it in the past. But this can lead to problems.
Imagine you are a consumer looking to purchase some comfortable, well-made but affordable clothing. You’ve heard of the Fruit Of The Loom brand, but do they even have stores? Are they a consumer-facing brand or a B2B outfitter? Don’t they just sell clothing for school and work uniforms? As a consumer, are you prepared to go to the extra effort to answer these questions?
If consumers don’t recognize what your brand’s services are, then all of your brand awareness counts for nothing. Brand understanding is a vital KPI that’s used to measure the health of your brand that goes beyond whether consumers can recognize your name, logo, and identity — and tracks whether they can correctly identify what it is your business does.
Fruit Of The Loom demonstrates that, while having multiple aspects of your business that each serve different markets or provide different services might make sense for your bottom line, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for your brand.
If you can delineate your businesses’ disparate parts you should, and you should ensure that your branding campaigns don’t just hammer home your brand name, but that they make strides towards educating consumers about your unique brand proposition too.
2. Know Your Strengths And Leverage Them
Understanding how your brand is perceived can help you carve out a strategy that plays to the perceived strengths of your offering. Fruit Of The Loom offers a strong example of a brand that, while not the height of fashion, understands how it can leverage the positive associations it does hold in order to take a slice of the market.
The brand’s 2022 Fruitism campaigns perfectly embody this strategy. These short video-based campaigns are designed to encapsulate and promote the brand’s key selling points: Affordable, comfortable, and available in a wide variety of sizes.
Bryse Yonts, Fruit Of The Loom’s director of brand communications, explains that “ We’re a 170-year-old brand, so top-of-mind awareness isn’t a problem …But we were looking for ways to showcase the breadth of our product, for both adults and kids.”
If your brand has already earned positive associations, it might make more sense to mold your campaigns around these, rather than keep pursuing associations that you aspire for your brand to hold. In essence, knowing what your brand is and what its strengths are can be valuable, allowing you to identify selling points that resonate better with your target audience.
A good example of another brand that works this way is Birkenstock. Essentially synonymous with sandals, the brand has ridden numerous waves of popularity over its lifespan but its brand is grounded in self-confidence that comes from knowing what values tie it together.
Yes, on occasion, the fashionistas come knocking and Birkenstocks enjoy periods of huge popularity but this is driven partly by the brand’s devotion to quality, staying true to an original iconic look, and prioritizing comfort and flexibility in its brand messages.
In short, it knows what its strengths are and that allows it to leverage them to maximum effect.
3. Heritage Isn’t Always An Asset
Marketers and brand managers looking after younger, newer brands may often find themselves envious of more established brands that can use their heritage and brand legacy as part of their brand identity.
Being well-known for a particular service or product can be an extremely valuable asset when it is leveraged correctly. However, it isn’t a silver bullet and it can have its downsides, especially when it draws to mind people’s old and outdated associations with your brand.
The brand’s long history, defined by iconic advertisements from the 70s and 80s as well as huge success in providing garments for imprint, may mean that, without a drastic rebrand, its latest campaigns may fail to break through old associations and, as a result, may not achieve their intended purpose.
Brand managers need to stay on top of consumer perceptions and know when to take their brand in a new direction. Tracking a range of brand-health KPIs is essential in capturing a full picture of how your brand is faring. Brand awareness might be high, but if brand consideration or preference is low, you need to work out what’s turning consumers off.
Evaluating brand associations is a good strategy that could highlight which aspects of your brand are holding you back. For older brands, this might mean you need to re-evaluate how you leverage your brand’s heritage and, with a careful rebrand, you could ditch the elements that aren’t working while preserving those that are.
Fruit Of The Loom is certainly a unique brand that stands out in the modern apparel industry as somewhat anachronistic, and yet it continues to thrive. Its strong brand legacy is undoubtedly an asset, but that asset is a double-edged sword.
And there’s a strong case to be made that without a rebrand, Fruits Of The Loom is doomed to always be associated with its past — unable to form new associations and develop new connections with consumers.
Originally published at https://latana.com.