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Would You Wear That Company’s T-Shirt in Public?

A client recently told me that he knew it was time to leave his previous job when he was no longer proud to wear the company’s T-shirt in…

Would You Wear That Company’s T-Shirt in Public?


A client recently told me that he knew it was time to leave his previous job when he was no longer proud to wear the company’s T-shirt in public. His comment is telling. The seemingly simple and innocuous act of wearing a company’s T-shirt is actually a very personal and public endorsement that carries a degree of social risk.

My client’s T-shirt problem reminded me of the time when I was working for Reebok’s ad agency in the early 1990s.

During this time Reebok and Nike were blood rivals and neck and neck for the number one position in the market. A few years earlier, Reebok had come out of nowhere to outsell Nike with a soft, glove-leather shoe called the Freestyle. With the Freestyle, Reebok had identified a market that Nike had completely missed— women’s aerobics. Sales really took off when Cybill Shepherd wore a pair to the 1985 Emmys. But by the early 90s, Reebok was having a tough time building on top of this success, and they began looking for their next hit.

Back at the No. 2 spot, Reebok tried to develop a credible rival to Nike’s “air” technology — the Energy Return System, a group of shock-absorbent tubes under the midsole of its shoes, and The Pump, an inflation device that provided personalized fit and cushioning. While each technology bumped sales, something was still missing. Reebok was doing a poor job of articulating a higher-order mission, a story that would help people understand what its brand meant, a story that set itself apart from Nike.

Nike had a rich and authentic connection to high performance athletics, which began when legendary running coach Bill Bowerman made his first experimental soles using the waffle iron in his kitchen and CEO Phil Knight sold shoes at local track meets out of the trunk of his car. Nike was a company of, by, and for athletes. Because of this rich heritage, people knew what Nike meant, in addition to what Nike made.

The average consumer’s relationship with Reebok was much shallower. Sure, Reebok had a story (Cybill Shepherd wore them to the Emmys!), but that story didn’t amount to anything substantial or meaningful. Despite its strong sales, the Reebok brand lacked meaning.

To get that story point across to Reebok, we devised a simple test that we called, “The T-shirt Test.” We put two stacks of identical gray T-shirts on a folding table on a Manhattan sidewalk. The only difference between the two stacks was the logo on the shirts: the Nike logo was on one stack, Reebok the other. We put a sign on the table, “Free T-Shirts, One Per Customer,” and retreated to a safe distance to film the result. One by one, as pedestrians saw the sign, stopped, and examined the T-shirts, they went for the Nike stack. When those were all gone, the Reebok shirts went, too.

People didn’t hate Reebok. But when given a choice, they were quick to show their allegiance to Nike because its story was clearer, and therefore more useful for helping people express themselves and their beliefs. A Nike T-shirt signaled membership in the Nike tribe — a tribe that believed in something bigger than shoes or apparel. Nike was fast becoming a religion. Reebok was just a shoe company.

The lesson has never been more relevant. Today, we are awash in customer data of all kinds, but first-hand observations of real people in the real world (outside of a focus group room and outside of social media) are more important than ever; they can be an invaluable reminder of how clear and compelling (or confusing and boring) your story actually is.

The most important data you need to pay attention to is how well your customers understand your story and how they are using your story to advance their own. The story of your business can be as vital to your customers as air or water. It can help them navigate the complexities of their social world (and their social-media world). All the data in the world won’t help you if you don’t have a clear understanding of the story you are telling.

Know your story.


Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2013 Ty Montague. All rights reserved.