The CMO Interview

Cotton Defends Relevance With Legacy, Innovation

Ric Hendee Hypes Advances in Face of Economic, Competitive Threats

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Ric Hendee is passionate about cotton, right down to his shirtsleeves. And he's harnessing a mix of traditional and digital tools to champion the natural fiber. But you won't find him tweeting for cotton -- not yet, at least. "People will talk about a brand, but cotton being so generic -- it's in all of our lives, but it's not exactly a newsworthy thing to be Twittering about. We have to understand our obstacles as well as our opportunities."

Ric Hendee
Ric Hendee
While a Twitter account may be in the offing, rain-resistant denim and perspiration-wicking athletic wear are more the sort of opportunities Cotton Inc. is throwing its marketing weight behind right now. "We need to communicate the benefits of cotton. My job as a marketer is to make you believe that you'd rather have cotton than a mystery fabric," said Mr. Hendee, VP-marketing services at Cotton Inc., the research and marketing company for U.S. cotton growers and importers. "We're trying to talk about these new benefits of cotton: It can be fade-resistant, shrink-resistant, stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant."

Mr. Hendee, 61, spent 20 years at agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, before joining Cotton Inc. in 1993 as senior director-marketing services. In that time, he's witnessed big changes in the market. "We are now doing a lot of work in China to generate increased interest in cotton products there. This wasn't happening 10 years ago. Environmental messages and developing opportunities to promote cotton as a sustainable source of fiber have become major parts of our overall communications program. Our ad campaigns and internet initiatives hold on to important pieces of Cotton's creative legacy, but are constantly being renewed and updated."

In April, Cotton Inc. reintroduced the "Fabric of Our Lives" campaign, conceived by Ogilvy & Mather in 1989, after a five-year hiatus. The new iteration, handled by Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide New York and Mindshare, features actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, country singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert and R&B talent Jazmine Sullivan. A key campaign component is, a microsite hosted on

Reporting to President-CEO J. Berrye Worsham, Mr. Hendee is responsible for an annual marketing budget of about $20 million -- "a dime and a nickel," he called it; about 75% of that is spent on TV spots and online pre-roll ads.

While it doesn't sell directly to consumers, Cotton Inc. makes its money from retailers, brands and American cotton-growers. So it, too, has felt the sting of the recession.

In an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Hendee detailed Cotton Inc.'s online-marketing strategy, its efforts to reach 18- to 34-year-old women and why it could have synthetic-fiber-makers sweating.

Ad Age: You brought back "The Fabric of Our Lives" song last spring. Why?

Mr. Hendee: Legacy, it's all legacy. We owned something. Even people in their teens and twenties would somehow know this song, this line, this music. It's trying to take a legacy and make it contemporary, using new music and young celebrities that appeal to this audience, rather that just inventing something from scratch.

Ad Age: Why did you drop it in 2001 in the first place?

Mr. Hendee: Because everybody knew it and everybody knew it meant cotton is comfortable. And we needed to break away from just that image and communicate to a young audience that cotton is also contemporary -- cotton is, in fact, bridal, that denim is a fashion item. We came back to it to take advantage of the fact that people still fondly remembered it and to say there are new things about cotton.

Ad Age: What have been the biggest changes in terms of what marketing strategy works and what doesn't?

Mr. Hendee: We are always experimenting, broadening our efforts since cotton is in practically every textile product category. But Cotton Inc. doesn't actually sell anything ourselves; we have no sales data to track against our marketing efforts. We depend upon a variety of tracking and behavioral research methodologies, but none are as accurate as sales data would be in defining what works and what doesn't. So judgment plays a huge role in decision-making here.

Ad Age: So what's your biggest opportunity?

Mr. Hendee: Mainly it's the womenswear market: That's the biggest opportunity and that's where the biggest challenge is. Clearly our main goal is to communicate to women that cotton is fashionable and contemporary. That's why we're doing the celebrity campaign with the new music.

Ad Age: How do you keep Cotton relevant going into the next five, 10 years?

Mr. Hendee: One of Cotton Inc.'s primary roles is in identifying and developing new opportunities for our fiber and then moving these new technologies into the supply chain. Wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton dress-shirts is now a big business at retail thanks to new cotton technologies. Our research teams are finding ways to help denim manufacturers reduce their environmental footprint while also introducing denim innovations for consumers. One example is Storm Denim, a process that allows denim products to stay dry in wet weather. In the high-performance sportswear area, Cotton Inc. has recognized the threat from polyester-based uniforms and active wear and created new moisture-management technologies for cotton products that wick away moisture (perspiration) from the wearer's body.

Ad Age: How has a focus on sustainability affected Cotton's strength as a brand and product?

Mr. Hendee: In any developing economy where people have a choice, there's a natural tendency to select a natural fiber. Cotton has always had that cachet, and people know it's a plant and that plants are green. The reason we had to do all of our sustainability marketing was that organic cotton was saying there were a lot of pesticides and chemicals on regular cotton; we had to say that cotton is an environmentally friendly fiber. We've done a number of things to help the industry share with the broader consumer and media world that cotton is a responsible fiber.

Ad Age: How has the recession affected Cotton's strength as a brand? As a product?

Mr. Hendee: Budgets have suffered as America's retailers have slowed their order flow and cotton growers have reduced their acreage. We are working through the cutbacks as effectively as we can. The emphasis on using young singers-celebrities to refresh our Cotton Song is one significant tactic to maximize the buzz we can generate on a relatively small budget.

Ad Age: Explain your social-media and digital strategy.

Mr. Hendee: We have a Facebook page; we have applications, including the Fab Finds widget. [We involved celebrities in our latest campaign] hoping there would be an internet component. We promoted to get people communicating relative to new fashions in denim. The real internet opportunity for consumer advertising is to augment TV. So a big chunk of our money is going into [online preroll ads]. We have done research that consumers love our commercials, but we're trying to build as big an audience as we can; everyone knows you can't turn your back on TV, but why not augment TV -- which has these limitations -- with the internet, if you can find a cost-effective way to do it and build your reach?

Ad Age: What are you wearing right now?

Mr. Hendee: I'm wearing a Brooks Brothers no-wrinkle 100% cotton shirt, and I will admit, I'm wearing wool trousers. The rest is cotton.

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