A recent article in The New York Times Magazine talks about apparel manufacturer Marc “Ecko”. Although he may not realize it, his Ecko Unlimited has all the marks of a primal brand.
Ecko is the nom de pop of Marc Milecofsky from Lakewood, New Jersey. His company, Marc Ecko Enterprises, as the TNYTM article points out, cuts a major swathe in the branded hip-hop apparel market. Not only does he sell his widely popular Ecko clothing line (his own Ecko stores enjoy retail sales of about $550 million), but he also has a skateboard line, the obligatory trend-ready magazine, a low-end apparel line which sells at J.C Penney’s and Kohl’s called Avirex, and a deal to private label 50-Cent’s G-Unit rack of apparel.
But it wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, Marc and partner Seth Gerszberg were creating popular t-shirt designs and faced losses of over $6 million.
Yanking victory from the jaws of defeat, Marc (the design half of the team) came upon the now-famous rhinoceros logomark. The rhino is not a trendy creature. Unlike the sleek Polo pony, the rhino is big, brash, it knocks down whatever gets in its way. It plays perfectly to the thud thud hip-hop downbeat of mall ganstas from New Jersey to Fontana, California.
Ecko clothing, if you’re not already aware, is crossover gear (the fact that they have an article in The New York Times Magazine alone is testimony to this). For establishement mall stores like Bloomingdale’s, inner city gansta couture is tricky stuff. Who knows how it might play in, say, Wichita. Yet counter culture is fresh culture. And fresh green over-the-counter sales cannot be ignored even by major department store chains under the Federated umbrella. (Federated owns mall-wise stores like Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and former regional chains like Rich’s and Burdines.)
Back to story. Armed with his now-famous rhinoceros icon (apparently inspired by his father’s collection of wooden rhino figurines), Marc Ecko’s clothing line jumped from $15 million to $36 million in a single year. Phat.
Primal brands, remember, carry the primal code: seven ingredients including a creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers, and a leader.
The sudden survival and growth of Ecko can be attributed to the transition from an apparel line, to a line of branded apparel.
The TNYTM article is clearly a PR push touting Ecko’s creation story and establishing Marc Ecko nee Milecofsky as leader of the brand. These two elements have been missing from Ecko’s primal construct, and now round out the brand.
Ecko’s anti-establishment credo of graffiti and hip-hop couture culture is not dissimilar from many other lines of clothing trying to rub off on rap. (Like Phat Farm, Fubu and, of course, Hilfiger.) Only when the creed was surrounded by other elements of the primal code—and the iconic signature that ultimately became “The World-Famous Rhino Brand”, did the brand (and sales) start to sort itself out.
Rituals surrounding fashion are focused on fashion shows, spotting trendy wear on celebs in paparazzi shots and in music videos. Ecko is no different. His rhino became a recognizable icon on the street and in videos. Trying on the clothes at the mall is another ritual. And, of course, the most important rite of passage of all is sporting the fashions along the most critical fashion strip of all—up and down the air conditioned corridors of mall America.
Sacred words include the entirely created “Ecko”, even the visual language of urban fashion with its oversized pant legs, cocked baseball cap and shiny bling defines who belongs to this urban cum mall culture, and who does not.
The nonbelievers, or pagans, are the well-bred uptown set wearing their regimental ties. The stuffy conformistas.
Initially, the leadership was invisible, relying on the clothing to merchandise itself rather than building a brand. Profit, and the boys, suffered accordingly.
What Marc is discovering, like others before him, is the difference between well-designed merchandise and a well-designed brand. Merchandise is transitory. Brands carry weight. Brands carry power. Even through tough times, brands carry the day. The brands that take off, are brands invested with the seven pieces of primal code.
Nowadays, Marc is out in front of his brand. On the Ecko website, visitors are treated to “Marco Ecko’s Getting Up”, a video game soon to be released by Atari. The web screen is divided in half between Marc Ecko, personality brand, and The Company. A full-page photo of Marc in TNYTM, shows the stocking-capped Ecko standing sternly with arms crossed in front of a fieldstone Georgian mansion with two Sphinxes standing guard. You wonder if the Sphinxes could have been rhinos instead, but the photo leaves no doubt about who is in charge.
Today, Ecko Unltd. is a fully loaded primal brand. And as Marc ventures from clothing into the other arts, let’s hope he doesn’t forget what Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren knew from the beginning. If it’s your name on the door (or on the label), you’d better have a story and you’d better shout it. As the article in TNYTM demonstrates, Ecko’s story is finally being told.
[Primal Branding is a construct that lets you engineer a belief system that attracts communities of people who want to believe. Primal brands contain the seven pieces of primal code: a creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader. The word “brand” is an imperfect word. For purposes here, “brand” is considered to be any product, service, personality, organization, social cause, political ideology, religion, movement, or other entity searching for popular appeal.]