suited for every body
Brooks Brothers is on the losing side of a cultural divide. For decades, the Brooks Brothers aesthetic has been a pop culture shorthand for "asshole."
But, at its best, wearing Brooks Brothers told the world that you appreciated quality, that you were comfortable - at home in your body - wherever you found yourself.
The world still needs the sense of quality, comfort and belonging that Brooks Brothers clothing offers, but, to survive, Brooks needs to radically reimagine who belongs in their clothing.
Fellow strategist Anari Fleming and I developed the Suited for Every Body strategy and comms plan for a fictional rebrand of Brooks Brothers."Quite possibly the best presentation I saw all year," raved Kevin Rothermel, Brandcenter professor. (See the deck.)
The Fall of the House of Brooks
Brooks Brothers is the oldest clothing company in the United States, and it was once the most iconic. They've dressed 39 of the 45 presidents of the United States. In 2020, after declaring bankruptcy, Brooks Brothers was sold for $300m, a fraction of what it was once worth. The narrative emerged that Brooks was an early casualty of work-from-home culture, but they had been looking for a buyer long before Covid-19.
Brooks Brothers' client base had been eroding for decades. In the 80s and 90s, the likes of Ralph Lauren (a former Brooks sales associate) and Tommy Hilfiger chipped away at Brooks’ market, selling sexier versions of Brooks’ classic Ivy League image. In the 2010s, an armada of startups (e.g., Bonobos, Charles Tyrwhitt, Southern Tides) boasting better fitting DTC clothing intercepted the Milennials who would have become Brooks customers in previous centuries.
Not Another Teen Movie
Really, Brooks’ biggest problem wasn't getting caught sleeping on the shift towards business casual and athleisure. Brooks' biggest problem was getting caught on the wrong side of a cultural divide. For 50 years, Brooks Brothers' aesthetic has been a shorthand in pop culture for "asshole"; movies and TV shows used the Ivy League style to show a certain type of white, privileged cluelessness.
The good news is, that’s not about not the clothes, that’s about who’s wearing the clothes. And if you look to places where the Ivy League style doesn’t carry the same cultural baggage, like Japan, you’ll see that the Brooks Brothers style can look timeless and stylish without coming off like the bad guy's dad in that one teen movie.
If Brooks Brothers wants to survive the next century, even the next decade, they need a radical reboot, not of the clothing – which are quality, timeless basics – but of who’s wearing the clothing.
Telling the Untold History
But it won’t work to just hire a diverse cast of models and hope Brooks Brothers can become United Colors of Benetton. Brooks is already trying that.
Brooks needs to invest deeply in a new vision – which we see signs it's beginning to do – and be sure to draw on actual brand equities. Because there's a lot more to Brooks Brothers than the stuffy Ivy League whiteness its become synonymous with, an untold history.
Founded in 1818
by Jewish Americans
The supposedly WASP-iest of all clothing brands was actually founded by Jewish Americans: the Brooks family, who ran the company for 128 years.
Quality work clothes
innovators and originators
Brooks Brothers invented the ready-to-wear suit, the button collar, and the no-iron shirt. And their influence extends beyond practical innovations: Brooks introduced the pink dress shirt as a fashion statement 75 years ago.
Created the Ivy League Style
influenced by the Black Ivy League
In the 1960s, the Black Ivy League - schools like Morehouse/Spelman and Howard University - mixed in jeans and other clothing traditionally seen as blue collar with Brooks’ wardrobe, further expanding what it meant to look comfortable wherever you found yourself. Brooks took notice and began to draw inspiration from the Black Ivy League, selling jeans for the first time in history.
always androgynous style
Brooks Brothers started making women’s clothing in the 1970s, but women had been buying Brooks Brothers long before that, in part because their silhouettes have always androgynous -- the Ivy League style tends to favor looser, more modest cuts.
Brooks Brothers has timeless garments but the brand has not evolved with the times. But their new CEO is beginning that evolution.
"One of the first things I did when I joined the company is we graded all the product down to extra small because I wanted an entry point for everyone. [This kind of sizing is really helpful for trans men.] I also think that there’s something happening with unisex dressing, where things are more genderless, and I think Brooks plays perfectly into that." Ken Ohashi, CEO, speaking to the Articles of Interest podcast in 2021 (American Ivy, Episode 7)
We're ready to 'yes and' Ken's vision for Brooks Brothers.
suited / ˈsuː.t̬ɪd / right or appropriate for a particular person, purpose, or situation.
Strategy: Suited for Every Body.
The role of comms:
Broaden who belongs in Brooks Brothers' apparel.
The three goals of comms:
Reintroduce: tell the untold story
Reinforce: do the work
Reimagine: inspire creativity
Comms Calendar & Influencer Campaign
The influencers we sought out were diverse in just about every conceivable way. We even have one white guy. The uniting thread is that everyone looks good in a suit.
We developed a comms calendar, organized by each goal. We want to show people the version of Brooks Brothers they haven't seen before, but is part of its untold history (reintroduce); do the work to earn our place in these new/new-ish spaces (reinforce); and then inspire people to use Brooks Brothers' clothing as a canvas to express themselves (reimagine).
We didn't think the classic marketing funnel (awareness/consideration/conversion) was right for this campaign, but we have those bases covered. Even and especially in a campaign that's focused on changing audience perception, it's important to pay attention to how we get folks to run their credit cards at the end of the process (e.g., links to purchase items featured in influencer briefs and dry cleaner pop-up shops*).
*Also, Anari and I would like it to be known that we presented the dry cleaner pop-up shops idea before Denim Tears did the same in summer 2023, but we feel super validated by having the same idea.
Why This Will Work
Answering Some Questions You Might Have
The supposedly stuffiest, WASP-iest clothing brand in the United States showing up for trans and queer folks, for black and brown Americans, for the new faces of this country, will make headlines, win new customers, and win back those who had written Brooks Brothers off.
The obvious question is, "Do you really think Brooks Brothers would go for this?" We think they're already taking steps in this direction: specifically their CEO making sizing more inclusive of trans men, and an increase in diversity of their models. But we'd love to help them find the courage to go much further. People aren't noticing the gentle pivot.
And then there's the question, "What about their existing client base?" Older, white, maybe right of center. But this country is not "changing." This country has changed. If Brooks tries to double down on Brooks customers of yore, they'll be out of business in a decade.
But the answer that should win the day is that Brooks Brothers has so much to offer. They already dress bodies of all types, with seven different cuts in sizes from XS to 6XL. They have a rich history of creativity. And, most importantly, they have an opportunity to extend their brand of quality, comfort and belonging to folks it would really, truly look good on.
suited for every body