Monday, January 16, 2012

Monkey Butt.

If you’ve remained alert during one of my recent speeches, you probably know that I consider pants to be the essential cultural bellwether. Here’s something you may not know, though: I have a thing for internet forums. To me, these primitive places are the real internet, where one ordinary person helps another ordinary person fix a toilet float, or convince her cat to eat dry kibble, or get chip dip stains out of a cummerbund. They’re the original social media, older than the web itself, the places where the communitarian voices of regular folks still rule. Whenever something new arrives at our house, the first thing I do is see if there’s a forum about it somewhere, and then lurk on it like an invisible tourist, soaking up the sounds and smells of a new place (I’m still a planner at heart). This year, it was a tractor that did it. And in my quest to unlock the mysteries of the three-point hitch on an agricultural equipment forum, I stumbled onto a thread entitled, “Which jeans do you use?” Irresistible. And not just because it involved pants. Irresistible because of the word “use.” The subject of pants was going to be argued by people who work with their hands, the culture that gave us blue jeans in the first place.

And that’s where I found the Duluth Trading Company. I’d never heard of it. Maybe you haven’t either, but I can tell you that there is a legion of people out there with dirt under their fingernails who, on this 11-page thread on this day, weighed in with conviction that they made the best pants for working in. Suddenly feeling like Cayce Pollard (except, you know, a guy. Bit older. Less neurotic. And real), I headed straight for their web site. And was charmed speechless.

Because here’s the thing: Yes, they have pants. Also shirts. Tool belts. Knee pads. And, um, t-shirts that cover your butt crack when you bend over. Pants that don’t squish your dangly bits when you crouch down (all the way up to 4XL). Non-chafing, odor-fighting underpants. Ointment for cracked hands. Sliver grippers. Powder to relieve monkey butt (don’t ask). And at about this point, it begins to dawn on you… the Duluth Trading Company doesn’t see itself in the business of making and selling things. It has picked a tribe of people with their own unique problems, and cheerfully gone looking for ways to solve every one of them. You look at what they sell, and you can see with absolute clarity the person whose life they want to make better (despite, rather brilliantly, a complete absence of photos of models, at least for the guy stuff). I might or might not get me some of those pants; to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve earned them. But it was a complete delight to see how lovable a brand can be when it defines itself by whom it serves. So I thought I’d share. I’m like that.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the writer said that maybe this whole idea of following our passions was bunk and destined to leave us feeling disappointed and directionless. Instead, he said, find a problem to solve. That will give you purpose, and purpose is the real secret to happiness. It seemed like good advice for a kid making decisions about her future. I think it might be even better advice for brands.

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