Dearborn's Carhartt takes their rugged brand to a worldwide audience

Around Metro Detroit, Carhartt is a company that wears two hats — hard hats, let's say. Sure, it's an internationally recognized brand with 4,900 employees worldwide. But at the same time, Carhartt is a local business founded 126 years ago in Detroit that is still headquartered in Dearborn, still privately held by the Carhartt family and remains inexorably connected to the hard-working, blue-collar Michigan image. 

Here's another way the local/global company works overtime: While being a long-established brand with a committed consumer base, it's also growing. Carhartt has been opening new retail locations, rolling out new products and reaching a brand new audience of young consumers who have never stepped foot on a construction site or driven a combine. 

How is Dearborn's own centennial brand still growing, locally and internationally, in the 21st century? By changing how they explain that the company has never changed. 

New audience, same brand values

"We've been staying true to what Carhartt is and what we've always stood for, and what we're finding is that more and more people are gravitating toward those age-old, 125-year-old ideals," says Senior Vice President of Marketing for Carhartt, Tony Ambroza.

"The difference between five years ago and today is that we've been promoting and advertising [those ideals] more so that folks would be aware of them." 

What Carhartt has found is — lucky for them — the coveted millennial market is flush with consumers focused on a return to craftsmanship. To tap into that market, the company didn't need to change a thing about their brand, they just had to make the connection clear to younger audiences. 

"Word of mouth drove a lot of awareness for Carhartt for many years," says Ambroza. "A good number of people knew about Carhartt, but they didn't know us really well."

Meaning, just because they may not have been raised in blue collar households or work blue collar jobs, doesn't mean the brand so closely associated with that work has nothing to offer them. So Carhartt started explaining this to them, one story at a time.

Selling through storytelling

Carhartt isn't connecting with a new generation of hard workers with the last generation's marketing techniques. Rather than simply telling their new audience the story of Carhartt, the company is introducing the brand through the stories of the hard working people who represent what Carhartt is all about. 

"All we've really been doing over the last four years is increasing the volume level around our ability to tell stories," Ambroza says. 

That includes video, such as their mini-documentaries on craftspeople across Michigan, the owner of The Grange Kitchen & Bar in Ann Arbor, a craftsmanship-themed road trip taken in partnership with Holland's New Holland Brewing Company  and more. The Crafted in Carhartt blog shares the stories of "women who do amazing things," from a Maine seaweed grower to a craft distiller at Corktown's Two James.

"If you look at all of our marketing materials, 100 percent of them feature real, hard working people — craftsman and artisans," says Ambroza. "Those are people we're representing. We like to tell their stories and promote their businesses."

More gear for more hard workers

Reaching new audiences isn't only about marketing. In addition to reaching out to new consumers, Carhartt has expanded their offerings to include a wider range of products, including lighter weight gear for those hard workers who craft indoors or in warmer temperatures, and more waterproof gear, such as hoodies for those who use them as outerwear. 

"Every step of the way, our distribution has grown as we've been sharing our story and more and more consumers are gravitating toward products that offer more than just fashion, but provide a function as well," Ambroza says. 

That includes the expansion of Carhartt's Work In Progress label, which has been active in Europe for 25 years and has only recently made an appearance in select U.S. retailers. Originally developed to appeal to Europeans, the label groups the crafters of music, art and photography into the category of Carhartt workers. 

"Carhartt Work in Progress has always been a really strong translation of the values and ideals of Carhartt," says Ambroza. "It's workwear reshaped, re-tailored and reimagined." 

That doesn't mean the global company that is Carhartt is getting any less Michiganian as it reaches new audiences. 

"When you see go to the most rugged corners of the U.S., you'll see a lot of people relying on Carhartt to help them make it through their lives, on the job or off the job, Ambroza says.  Thankfully, Michigan is a pretty rugged corner. The lasting toughness of Detroit has a lasting impression on the Carhartt brand."

That means Carhartt's Dearborn home, Detroit roots and more than 400 local employees are set to be as much a part of the promising future as they've been the backbone of its long history.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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