New Era: The Cap With the Cred

Case Study: How Did a Decades-Old Hat Maker Gain So Much Urban Appeal?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Little more than a decade ago, New Era Cap was a closely held, Buffalo, N.Y.-based company known to the public, if at all, for supplying Major League Baseball players with their headgear. Today, though it's still controlled by the descendants of Ehrhardt Koch, the German immigrant who founded it in 1920, New Era is one of the fastest growing urban fashion brands, its 59Fifty caps omnipresent among hip-hop stars and the kids trying to emulate them.
Three of the top execs at Project 2050, New Era's agency for lifestyle marketing. (From l.) Matt Pressman, managing partner; Chris White, president; and Phil Colon, chairman.
Three of the top execs at Project 2050, New Era's agency for lifestyle marketing. (From l.) Matt Pressman, managing partner; Chris White, president; and Phil Colon, chairman. Credit: Darryl Estrine

Or, as Lil' Flip explains it:

Man, I keep my fitted cocked just to show my head line
But keep it down low when I'm out on the grind
It's gotta be New Era man no matter what they charge
But it's all good cuz I got my Lids card
Keep my tag on my brim just for stuntin' purpose only
Never rock no other brand cuz that shit's phony.

And that isn't even the most gushing part of the Houston rapper's three-minute ode to New Era, a rhyme so enthusiastic it makes Jay-Z's lyrical waxings about Patrón and Cristal seem almost half-hearted. Endorsements from Lil' Flip and bigger celebrities such as Usher, LL Cool J, Limp Bizkit and Spike Lee, have raised New Era up there with Red Bull, Nokia and Adidas in that cohort of mainstream brands that have found ways to bask in the glow of urban appeal. It's become impossible to miss designs that twist the official team version -- from the popular camouflage to limited-edition runs of diamond-crusted team logos -- with a flat brim often still bearing a gold sticker, proof positive the hat is a real New Era and not some knockoff.

"The size sticker is a perfect example of how a trend starts," said Dao-Yi Chow, creative director at Project 2050, New Era's agency for lifestyle marketing. "Some kid leaves them on his hat as an additional piece of branding, a personal touch to let everyone know he has an official New Era hat. And from there, other kids pick up on it and leave their sticker on."

No longer just caps
Mr. Chow, himself an owner of more than 100 New Era caps, and Project 2050 are at the center of New Era's biggest new effort, a move to extend into clothing -- a line of T-shirts and jackets sold in its flagship retail stores.

"We knew we wanted to create something that was as authentic as the caps," said Mr. Chow, once creative director at Sean John, Sean Combs' clothing line. "We knew right away which silhouettes we wanted to design -- classic and sportswear driven. Not too much fashion, but detail-oriented. We wanted to inject the sensibilities of sport but not overdo it. It had to be fresh, something you wanted to wear new sneakers with."

It's a big move for a company with ambitious growth plans. In December, CEO Christopher Koch, great-grandson of Ehrhardt, told The Buffalo News, "We plan to double the size of the company worldwide by 2010, and then plan to double it again. Our long-range plans are to try to double our size every four to five years."

Much of the expansion will take place in international markets, but the company feels it still has room to grow here in the States. That will hinge partly on the success of New Era Apparel but also on the company's ability to tap into the women's market and action sports and to continue to grow the collections of New Era devotees, some of whom have dozens or even hundreds of caps that often retail for more than $30.

Keepin' it real
Authenticity is a word that often comes up in urban marketing, where there's a tendency to substitute a "z" for an "s" or just do an endorsement deal with a big rapper (we're looking at you, Budweiser). New Era handled it differently.

"It's happened organically," said John DeWaal, VP-brand communications. "We didn't want to force it, and we still don't. We don't want to have a celebrity spokesman for the brand. We speak to various types of consumers in different ways."

The morph from manufacturer to brand got started back in 1996, when filmmaker and New Era fan Spike Lee asked the company for custom-made, red New York Yankees caps. It obliged, and Mr. Lee was seen wearing the cap at the 1996 World Series, in which the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves, helping initiate New Era's move into fashion and lifestyle.

"One of the key drivers of successful urban brands is authenticity or street cred," said Eric Robertson, a trendspotter at JWT. "Hip-hop celebrities have become an arbiter of what's authentic in many ways. And when you have a celebrity like Spike Lee in the '90s endorsing your product, it gives it a desirability factor needed to take it to the next level."

Including the customers
Mr. Lee recently directed New Era TV spots running on ESPN and other cable stations. But more in the spirit of New Era's participatory brand position, Project 2050 has begun collecting images of New Era fans via in-store kiosks and the company website, which it will combine into an online mosaic in the shape of the company's flag logo. Some of the images also will be used in print ads in magazines such as Complex, Stuff and XXL.

"What they've created is a platform around giving people the ability to express themselves, and that unifies and brings to life the New Era community," said Chris White, president of the agency. "Not too many brands can do that."
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