A Ripening Economy, A Booming Industry: How the men’s underwear industry is the pulse of a livening economy

A Ripening Economy, A Booming Industry:
How the men’s underwear industry is the pulse of a livening economy
by Stephen J. Lucin

As a result of the slow upswing in various economies across the globe, there has never been a more opportune time for companies to market themselves to niche communities. These smaller market sectors have been known to help brands rebuild identities, cross lines of market demographics, and ultimately increase sales.

In one market sector in particular, the men’s underwear industry, companies have been following this strategy for some time now. And the results of these companies’ successes are reported to determine the health of the economy in its current state. More recently, these results of successful men’s underwear brands have given economists a positive outlook in regard to the US economy’s future.

According to a well-researched opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal entitled “From Bubble to Depression?” which was co-authored by 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics Vernon L. Smith,1 the effects of various “market bubbles” held either immediate or prolonged effects for the US economy. The opinion piece analyzed economic data from The Great Depression to the more current US market collapse, which according to the article, was cited as the arbiter of the greater global financial disaster that had its roots in 2006. But once the “bubble” burst, the effects were immediate and devastating - causing ripple effects in markets across the world and ultimately bankrupting States and governments.

Conversely, yet because of the recent upswing, companies have been looking to increase brand exposure largely and solely within the United States; giving the impression that the very country responsible for the events leading to the ultimate bankrupting of governments and corporations is now the same country being held responsible for the creation of new opportunities.

Reuters reported on April 4th that Latin American countries have been looking abroad for acquisitions by other, much larger corporations that mostly include those within the United States. Retailers and lenders alike developed multi-year plans to prepare for opportunities to come in from across the border. 2

But this is not only true for larger companies or multi-million dollar corporations. The men’s underwear market has been no exception to this strategy, with international underwear brands aiming to first reach their local markets, whether they be located in Pretoria, Santiago or any other city that may be local to a particular brand, before aiming to reach the largest market - the United States.

The market for men’s underwear in the US has witnessed a saturation of new brands in the first quarter of 2011; and a subsequent demand for product. It is one market segment that may seem quite obtuse in its role as an example, but a market segment that has, for the last two years, been the pulse of a livening economy.

Melissa Bristow, Managing Editor of Kiplinger, was quoted in various articles as saying that men’s underwear sales have been a great indicator of a stable return of the US economy. In a March 20th article published by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Bristow was quoted as saying:

“Essentially the theory is the rate at which men replace underwear is very stable. Indeed, they dropped by about 2.5 percent in 2009. They’ve leveled off now, but they have not really started to come back up. The fact that they’ve started to level off indicates that people are no longer worried as much.” 3

Of course, Ms. Bristow’s comments positively echo former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s theory that was once told to National Public Radio reporter Robert Krulwich. Greenspan was quoted as saying, “If you look at sales of male underpants it's just pretty much a flat line, it hardly ever changes. But on those few occasions where it dips that means that men are so pinched that they are deciding not to replace underpants.” He then went on to refer to the dip in underwear sales as “a prescient, forward impression that here comes trouble.”

But that trouble has long since passed with current US sales of men’s underwear completely stabilized. The economy now seems headed towards a recovery and many economists have been feeling confident to speculate on a positive and steady growth for the US, which should ultimately help foreign markets as well.

An article published in The Atlantic on March 25th justifies this claim of US market growth, as it revealed a cautionary 3.1% growth rate of US Gross Domestic Product for the fourth quarter of 2010. Timelines show a slow increase in the Nation’s GDP since 2009, and if the trend continues it could signal greater signs of an economic recovery. 5

However, since this stabilization of sales within the men’s underwear industry, businesses catering to this market have seen greater volumes of sales - and consumers have seen an increase in the selection of designer men’s underwear brands both online and on retailers’ shelves. The end result of this stabilization has been the creation of a fertile environment for much newer brands to vie for a piece of the same market. And by closely analyzing the men’s underwear industry itself, it can be concluded that success has been felt by newer brands and existing brands alike.

According to Alex Hernandez, Vice President of LA-based GO Softwear, an underwear brand  that is designed and made in the US, and which has seen success since its introduction to the market in 1996, this saturation of newer brands “is both good and bad.”

Hernandez argues that the benefit of having more brands on the market “gives consumers more options.” However, the downside is that with more options comes more potential for some newer brands to look closer at turning a profit rather than looking at how to provide customers with a quality product.

“The bad thing is that the market is flooded with companies getting into the men's underwear business with little or no experience for the sole purpose of making a quick buck,” Hernandez said, illustrating his point.

“But,” he concludes, “The future of the industry seems to be moving towards producing men's undergarments in  basic styles with innovation and quality.”

With brands such as GO Softwear, it’s easy to understand the growing concern of maintaining quality products on the market and getting them into the hands of consumers. Brands such as these have been around for well over a decade because they have provided their customers with quality designer products at affordable prices.

Over the last six months, however, countless underwear brands have surfaced in the US and have been made available for the American male consumer. The Internet has been greatly responsible for this over-saturation, as it allows underwear brands from all across the world to become available almost immediately. Currently, there are well near 200 (see Appendix 1) men’s underwear brands available online and in retail shops across the US.

That’s not to say that anyone can simply create a men’s underwear line. As with any business venture, a certain amount of capital must be made available to create and purchase product, shipment must be cost-effective and on-time, there must be a desire to provide quality products in order to maintain brand longevity, and Earned Media campaigns must be put into place to earn visibility and credibility from consumers.

Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, was recently featured in a March issue of The New Yorker where she explained that her predominantl female-oriented underwear company, which she started in October, 2000 with only $5,000, would soon be entering the US men’s underwear market with a new line of men’s undershirts and briefs aimed at reaching the mainstream male consumer. 6

According to the article, Blakely hopes to enter the market with something new - shapewear; even though shape-enhancing men’s underwear have been around for years, mastered by some brands such as Chile-based Ergowear and LA-based Andrew Christian. But this entrance by Spanx into the men’s underwear market adds but one more name to the list.

To clear through this over-saturation, however, many brands have turned to effectively communicating their unique messages via Earned Media and Public Relations campaigns, and  through Advertising and Marketing techniques - the strategies in these fields play a role in the speed at which a brand is introduced, and result in the likelihood of their longevity.

Earned Media is arguably the most effective marketing tool, as it is market exposure that has ‘earned’ credibility (i.e. a feature story in a magazine); that is, opposed to ‘paid’ media (i.e. a billboard) which is bought by a brand to forcefully gain visibility within a market. Earning media means earning the credibility of various media outlets through endorsements. A feature story in a magazine for example, such as Alexandra Jacobs’ feature of Sara Blakely and Spanx in The New Yorker, added more credibility to the brand than if Spanx had purchased an advertisement in the same publication. By featuring Spanx in an article, Ms. Jacobs endorsed Mrs. Blakely’s brand over its competitors, ultimately lending the credibility of The New Yorker to Spanx.

Similarly, some existing brands are re-entering the US men’s underwear market just as quickly and just as forcefully as some of their newer competitors through Earned Media efforts. As mentioned earlier, some brands have seen success in their home countries and are now looking to expand to a broader demographic where demand seems greater; in particular the US men’s market.

Unlike US brands that already have a domestic territorial lead on their international counterparts, these foreign underwear companies that have already seen success in their home countries often tend to additionally expand into the US market. By either hiring Earned Media firms local to the US, or by infiltrating the market through social and online media outlets and platforms, they capture new customers.

Bone Wear, an underwear brand from Pretoria, South Africa, utilizes online Earned Media techniques, and is consistently reviewed on men’s underwear blog sites that reach key demographics in terms of age, sexual orientation and geographic location. Bone Wear additionally maintains its online visibility within the US by engaging subscribers of its email newsletter to learn of new products while also offering special promotions.

Its website boasts, “Bone Wear is proud to be South Africa’s first and only international underwear label and strives to offer men a unique range of well designed and high quality underwear, gym wear and swim wear made from the best fabrics.”

Through these Earned Media strategies and by describing itself as a pioneer in its home country, Bone Wear is positioning itself in its domestic market while gaining visibility in the US, which could lead to greater success among one of the world’s largest markets.

Another example is Ergowear, an underwear and swimwear brand that is based out of Santiago, Chile. The unique qualities of Ergowear are that it is ergonomically designed “for an excellent fit to the male body,” according to its website. It is also the only ergonomically-designed underwear brand to offer the InCopper line, which includes a copper-based anti-microbial fabric available in some of its best-selling designs.

Ergowear has been on the market since 2003, offering men a variety of ranges in underwear and swimwear. It is distributed to various countries across the globe, predominantly the US where it is launching an aggressive media campaign in mid-2011. Its website is filled with information about products, and even offers customers the option of reading the site in one of six different languages.

“Ergowear has been very selective when it comes to establishing resellers in the US,” explains Ergowear Owner, Rodrigo Herzberg. “This has given us more of an exclusive profile, and therefore many guys don’t know about us yet. It’s like a well-kept secret that’s coming out now.”

In all of these efforts, a focus on reaching niche demographics is key. It’s also important to understand the power of smaller markets within a broader segment while simultaneously focusing on the overall goals of an Earned Media campaign.

Within the US men’s underwear industry, there is a huge market - nearly half of the existing adult US population (which includes men who are 18 years of age or older). Within that segment, there are smaller, niche markets that also deserve attention and which require unique marketing strategies in order to cater to their own sensibilities.

For example, the men’s underwear market can be split up into various segments (some examples include Latin-American, LGBT (gay), or African-American). The question of how a brand markets itself to the overall male demographic in addition to focusing on the needs of these individual niche markets is one that bears a single answer: it does so by staying on-message while including elements uniquely associated with these markets.

If an underwear brand wishes to reach the mainstream male market while also reaching a Latin-American base, it will have to create some additional market-specific materials such as photographs or brand descriptions that relate to the Latin-American community, while maintaining the overall message of the brand.

An April article in The Miami Herald illustrated this ideology by quoting Patricia Madueño, the Vice President for branding communications and licensing for Jarden Consumer Solutions International, which, according to its website, is “a leading global consumer products company.”

Madueño was quoted as saying, “The power of the brand is more important than in the developed world. . . and Latin Americans tend to have more of an emotional connection to brands.”

She goes on to say that “Jarden has found that once Latin Americans come to the United States they become ‘acculturated very fast’ and often gravitate toward products they couldn’t get in their homelands. . . They buy more expensive cars, are more likely to drink premium liquor brands and purchase more expensive clothes.” 7

In understanding such examples of particularities about the Latin-American niche market, companies, particularly underwear brands, will be able to create more effective Earned Media campaigns as part of their overall marketing strategies.

But then there is the new all-American-made, all-American-designed and all-American-inspired underwear brand that makes its debut domestically, and which witnesses a quick interest from both consumers and reviewers in the quality and style it provides because it has taken its time to develop a worthwhile marketing strategy to reach many niche demographics, along with the mainstream market, simultaneously.

One such brand is Jake Joseph. It’s a brand that was introduced to the market in the fourth quarter of 2010, and which has seen Earned Media placements and reviews in countless online media outlets and feature stories in magazines like Men’s Fitness and 944 Magazine. One of the brand’s first Earned Media placements described Jake Joseph as a luxury item equal to the reputation of a luxury automaker that has been in existence for well over a century.

“Taking the same approach to underwear that Mercedes has come to be known for in the automobile industry, Jake Joseph prides itself on being a quality-focused upscale underwear line,” writer Aimee Sherman wrote in her April 18, 2011 article, which was published in 944 Magazine. 8

In a recent interview, brand founder, 31-year old clothing designer Jake Joseph, was humbled at such early press. But he explained that he had taken two and a half years to research various men’s underwear brands so that he could create his own line of men’s underwear that was considered both quality and classic.

“I wanted to make a pair of underwear that’s awesome, and that can last,” he explained.

But what makes Jake Joseph unique among his competitors is that he is not afraid to reach niche communities. He embraces each Earned Media opportunity as one that will help his brand reach a greater number of loyal customers.

Recently, the Jake Joseph brand was featured in a daily newsletter for Gay List Daily, a popular blog among the ever-increasingly popular niche market - the LGBT (gay) community.

“We want to be known as the ‘everyone’ brand,” he said.

No matter what his demographic for underwear sales, Jake Joseph hopes to see an increase in loyal customers. He understands that this particular market consists of “dedicated users. And because men are very loyal to underwear brands, it’s important to make a quality product.”

Perhaps then, reporters such as Mark Landler who wrote in an April 13, 2008 New York Times article that the “collapse of the housing bubble in the United States is mutating into a global phenomenon. . .” 9 might agree with Mr. Greenspan that the stabilization of the men’s underwear market is signaling a market recovery, and, separately, that it too is mutating into a global phenomenon worthy of further study.

Providing a quality product has proven to ensure longevity and loyalty from consumers who may have found it easier to decipher whether an underwear brand has entered the market to quickly cash-in on a booming industry, or if it is in it for the long haul; the evidence is visible in the look, fit, comfort and style.

All in all, Alex Hernandez of GO Softwear and Jake Joseph of Jake Joseph Underwear may both see the men’s underwear market similarly, even though their brands share a difference in longevity within this market. And that similarity lies in providing customers with quality products. Though the recent market collapse created a meltdown of global economic proportions, the strengthening of the men’s underwear market is yet again showing signs of a slow but steady recovery. From this, other market sectors may begin to focus specifically on the quality of their product that so many men’s underwear brands strive for in creating loyalty among their consumer bases, which span the globe and spread across a wide range of niche demographics.

1 The Wall Street Journal, “From Bubble to Depression?”
April 6, 2009, by Steven Gjerstad and Vernon L. Smith
2 Reuters, “Analysis: Latin America Companies Look Abroad for Buyouts” April 4, 2011, by Tomas Sarmiento
3 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Freaky Forecasts: You Might Be Surprised By Indicators Used in Predictions”
March 20, 2011, by William Loeffler
4 The Huffington Post, “Men’s Underwear Sales Greenspan’s Economic Metric, Reveal Crisis”
April 8, 2009, by Sam Stein
5 The Atlantic, “4th Quarter U.S. GDP Revised Up to 3.1% Growth”
March 25, 2011, by Daniel Indiviglio
6 The New Yorker, “Annals of Retail: Smooth Moves, How Sarah Blakely Rehabilitated the Girdle”
March 28, 2011, by Alexandra Jacobs
7 The Miami Herald, “Reaching the Changing Latin American Market”
April 29, 2011, by Mimi Whitefield
8 944 Magazine, “Modern Approach to Classic Garments”
April 18, 2011, by Aimee Sherman

9 The New York Times, “U.S. Housing Collapse Spreads Overseas”
April 13, 2008, by Mark Landler

APPENDIX 1 - List of Underwear Brands

3G Actualwear
Adrian Bartol
Andrew Christian
Armani Exchange
Aware Soho
Boys and Their Hardwear
Big Boys
Bjorn Borg
Bon Bon
Bone Wear
Brief Underneath
Bruno Banani
Bum Chums
California Muscle
Craig Port
Danial Webster Design
Dick and Jane
Dirty Fukker
Ed Hardy
Emporio Armani
English Laundry
ES Collection
Ex Officio
Extreme Collection
Frank Dandy
Frankie Morello
Fruit of the Loom
G Storm
Ginch Gonch
GO Softwear
Gold Toe
Good Boy Gone Bad
Good Devil
Gregg Homme
Hanro of Switzerland
Hugo Boss
Jake Joseph
James Tudor
JM Underwear
Jocko Underwear
Joe Snyder
John Falocco
Junk Underjeans
L’Homme Invisible
Lazy Bum
Magic Silk
Male Basics
Male Power
Man Zone
McKillop U/W
N2N Bodywear
NDS Wear
New Balance
Olaf Benz
Ovbiously Underwear
parke & ronen
Perfectly Flawed
Piss & Vinegar
Pistol Pete
Polo Ralph Lauren
Priape Wear
Private Structure
Pull-In Underwear
Punto Blanco
Red Torpedo
Ristefsky Macheda
Score Underwear
Sly Underwear
Solar Tan Thru
Spanx for Men
STUD Underwear
Sweat Under Gear
Todd and Terry
Tommy Hilfiger
Tommy John
Tribe Underwear
Under Armour
Zakk Underwear


Jason said…
Some interesting points (a few of which I touched on in my book), but way too verbose for the outlet and topic.

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