January 3, 2011
Over the holidays I decided to check out the True Religion store in Chicago. I was looking for something fun for my daughters featuring the brand’s telltale insignia, like a tee shirt. Though they did have one specialty item for kids (some sort of gift pack), TR really isn’t appropriate for children. That’s part of what makes the brand so cool. True Religion gets $200 to $400 for a pair of blue jeans by cultivating an “R” rating, flirting with trendy young adults, celebrities and the urban hip hop crowd. I’m guessing they get their share of poseurs as well. Anyone who lays out that much green for tricked-out denim is compensating for something.
Anyway, I walk in the store and it was like I entered a creepy scene from a Tarantino movie. This was the stage set: Three blinged-out black dudes checking out denim and five feet away a big-ass white guy staring them down. The “security guard” had a serious looking revolver strapped to his waist. Though no crime was taking place, the tableau had entirely too much edge for my liking. For Christ’s sake, I’m Christmas shopping in Lincoln Park not looking for crack on the west side! Seemingly indifferent, the pierced hipster working the counter cheerfully asked me if I needed any help. Briefly, I feigned interest in some doodad and then got the hell out of there.
Later, I mentioned the episode to a nearby shopkeeper and he was completely unsurprised. “Oh yeah,” he said. “True Religion gets robbed all the time. Thieves steal the jeans and sell them on the street for a hundred bucks a pair. The guard is an off-duty Chicago policeman.” He laughed. “They don’t even try to blend in.”
I don’t know why I was so non-plussed. I grew up in the city, in a shitty neighborhood. I know what time it is. I recall the same sort of fervor over Nike’s Air Jordan basketball shoes -kids in the ghetto killing other boys for their shoes. For a time we were told not to wear them to school. In addition, I’m an ad guy. I know certain brands cultivate a bad-boy image to stimulate demand: Harley Davidson, Grand Theft Auto, etc… As a matter of fact, I’ve worked on such brands. Depending on the category, we called it “dark marketing.” It’s particularly common in the beverage and spirits arena. Four Loco, anyone?
But a marketing case study is academic and benign. In Power Point, we see only clever schemes and boffo results. When you walk into a situation like I did your perspective alters. You experience the brand’s power head on and feel its energy. It may be impressive but it’s not always pretty.