The American West of the 1800’s was a land filled with promise – not just of hope and great opportunity – but also the promise of diverse dangers and hard living. For one young man in his twenties, John – born and raised in Orange, New Jersey – the west held the promise of improved health. Having been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he headed west in the hopes that the open skies and clean air would afford his body the chance to heal.
Ending up in St. Joseph, Missouri, he labored at – then became part owner of – a brickyard. The west was hard country – the brickyard was lost to flood and fire – so, in the 1860’s, John moved on to join an expedition to Pikes Peak. The mountain cold and sudden rains weren’t helping his illness and he took action. He had seen how beaver’s pelts repelled water, so he trapped several – his purpose being to create protection from the weather. He came from a family whose business was literally called The No Name Hat Company. His father, a hatter, had taught him how to make felt and with that knowledge he made a felt tent from the beaver’s fur and slept warm and dry.
He then combined his hat making knowledge with his experience of living in the west. John made himself a hat with a brim wide enough to shield his face and neck from both sun and rain. The crown was made tall to harness the warmth that would result from a large pocket of air between the hat and his head. Water was essential to survival – John made the inside of his hat waterproof so that he could haul water as needed. His new hat was both effective and distinctive. Eventually, he accepted a five dollar gold piece from an old-timer in exchange for the hat.
With his health restored and the reality that he wasn’t going to strike it rich in the West, he headed back east, settling in Philadelphia. With $100.00 – some of which was a loan from his sister – he rented a small room and began making hats. It was a time when every man wore a hat – so the competition was stout. John decided to focus on the style hat he had created out West and sent a hat, and an order form to a dozen or so store owners he had met during his travels. The response was positively resounding as he received orders from virtually all of them. The hat was named the “Boss of the Plains” and its practicality and durability fit ideally the needs of those in the west. Additionally, the felt hats could be shaped to suit the individuality those in the west embraced.
Sales were strong enough that John abandoned his one small room and opened a factory in 1870. His hats were made of the highest quality – each one with his family name embossed in gold on the inside – a mark which would become synonymous with fine craftsmanship. The “Boss” was slow to catch on in the east but eventually it did, as did dozens of other styles – all known for their top quality and style. Their popularity grew such that 1877 saw the first international orders. By 1886, John’s hats became so popular that his Philadelphia hat factory had become the largest hat producer in the world.
The company received honors for industrial innovation at both the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial and at the Paris Expositions in each of the next three decades. The company also innovated in employee benefits providing free health care, incentives for performance, Christmas bonuses and equity to key performers. John’s contributions to the University of Deland near his Florida vacation home were such that the school changed its name to honor him. His efforts led construction of a hospital in Philadelphia. By the time John died, 1906, the company was producing over 2,000,000 hats per year.
It’s not the results that define a brand. Rather, John Stetson built a fearless brand when he created the Boss of the Plains – which would become simply known by his family name – the Stetson.
Fearless Brands are timeless and represent more than a mere product
Today, Stetson hats are produced under license – along with several other products including fragrance, apparel, eye-wear, foot-wear, luggage, belts and bourbon. While each of those products has a purpose, they exist based on the power of the Stetson brand name – and that name was built by the “Boss of the Plains”.
What’s now known more commonly as a Stetson cowboy hat – or merely a Stetson, was worn by the everyday cowboy and by some of the most well-known names of the time. “Buffalo” Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Will Rogers, “Calamity” Jane, Tom Mix and The Lone Ranger all wore Stetsons. Legend is that General George Custer rode into the Little Big Horn wearing a Stetson.
Now celebrating its 150th year anniversary, the Stetson cowboy hat continues to have appeal and generate an emotional connection. Many visitors to the U.S. want a Stetson. Check out the hat worn by Tim Olyphant’s character, Raylan Givens, in the hit FX series Justified (a must see show) – that style is now a big seller.
The Stetson is an American icon. Stetson – the hat, the products – the brand – conjures up all of the imagery and romance of the American West, the American cowboy – independent, rugged, hard-working and proud.
There is much to learn from Stetson as you build your own fearless brand – be it a company, product, service or your personal brand.
Start with quality and relevance – “The Boss” and all Stetson hats were known for high quality, quality in every detail. The original Stetson hat filled many practical needs – it was an umbrella, a bucket, a shield – even a weapon at times. It could be styled in countless ways, shape, color, hat band, it was a personal statement. If your brand is to last for the long-term, quality, and purpose are a must. The more personalized it can be – the more appeal it will have.
Create an emotional connection – That’s what every successful brand does – evokes an emotional connection. The key is to make it a positive emotion. All human decisions are based on at least a modicum of emotion, make yours powerful.
Your brand is a ‘badge’ – When someone wears a Stetson, it is like they are wearing a badge that says – “I’m an independent, hard-working, quality-loving, rugged American.” What statement does your brand make? Do your customers want to ‘wear your brand’s badge’?
Fearless brands are timeless – but need to be managed – The Stetson name has been licensed to many products in a variety of categories. Many are related – but several have different audiences. Stetson cologne users, mostly younger, don’t all understand the heritage and meaning of the brand name. They might grow up with a disparate take on the brand. Product diversity can be powerful, a brand’s meaning – and value – may be negatively affected if the message becomes splintered.
Your brand may not be able to capture a historical era and evoke images of the Wild West – but it can certainly be built on quality and relevance – yours can be a fearless brand.