That was in part the question asked by Chicago Tribune business columnist Phil Rosenthal last Sunday. Dismayed at the decline in fabric quality and workmanship in his favorite CK undershirts, he asked Klein’s brand managers to answer for the multi-billion dollar conglomerate and their decision to move production to Haiti. When they blew him him off, he implored his readers to follow up.
No question that brand identity matters. As Rosenthal correctly points out, you can count on a Budweiser beer anywhere in the United States to taste the same. A Nike shoe is going to be durable and reliable. McDonald’s hamburgers, BMW automobiles, LL Bean sporting equipment, Apple computing products, and so on. You know the name, the product and service follows. It is precisely the effort required to build and maintain this goodwill that makes a trademark so valuable, and what forms the basis of federal trademark law
That (R) is powerful stuff, telling the world you own your name and fair warning to those who might consider casually (or not so casually) using it that you will haul their *** into court and make them stop. OK, maybe that is an extreme case, but ask any small business owner how they’d feel about someone using their name, and you will understand.
But maintaining a trademark, and the underlying brand, is long, hard work. It takes time to establish one’s reputation, for quality goods, services, or not so quality. According to Rosenthal, Calvin Klein himself no longer oversees quality control and brand management. This has been outsourced to Van Heusen, perhaps best known for outlet mall men’s sport clothing. Rosenthal for many years bought CK brand undershirt because they were originally made in Egypt. That is the source of the world’s finest, longest staple cottons, which, when knit, create the softest fabrics. They were thick and they were comfortable. Manufacturing was outsourced from Egypt to Thailand, where the quality of the fabric was reduced to 150 weight. Now it is made in Haiti and weighs 133. The v-neck opening is smaller.
Is Rosenthal unique in his complaint? How many of you even know the brand of your undershirt, or where it was made? Is there something special about a Calvin Klein-endorsed undershirt, something that authorizes the stamping of his name on the inside neckline? Calvin Klein’s brand manager certainly imply that. Maybe there is value to the cotton being lighter, or the neckhole being smaller? Maybe the shirt is cut a certain way, pretreated not to shrink, to absorb sweat? I don’t know
Or is Calvin Klein riding the coattails of his reputation as a world class designer to sell ordinary undershirts?