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BRAND BUILDING
USING YOUR HEAD TO BUILD BRANDS
Caps are common pieces of a farmer's wardrobe, making them trditional promotional items and branding tools.
American Identity, the Kansas City, Mo.-based distributor of logoed merchandise, got its big break in the agriculture market in the mid-1960s. At the time, American Identity's K-Products brand was primarily known for corporate uniforms. But when an agriculture client requested that its corporate logo be applied to headwear, the phenomena of "farm caps" began.

Today, American Identity is a leading provider of promotional products - including headwear - in the agriculture industry. "Headwear has evolved as a primary branding tool," says Mark VantHul, vice president of sales support.

"More and more, companies are accepting the use of logoed products, commonly called promotional products, as part of the mainstream brand strategies. They don't consider headwear an unimportant piece of marketing; they now use it to support their messages," VantHul explains. "Companies use the caps as an easy and cost-effective way to get their themes out into the market - the same themes that are used in their ads and trade shows through an integrated marketing campaign."

WHY IT WORKS

We have all seen and heard of the massive collections of caps that farmers, and even marketers, have acquired, which raises the question: why do caps work so well in agriculture? VantHul says there are four factors that really support the use of headwear in agriculture branding and marketing campaigns:

1. Functionality - The cap serves a purpose for both the corporation and the farmer;

2. Economics - Historically, caps have served as a very affordable promotional piece;

3. Visibility - The logo or message is seen by an unlimited number when worn by farmers; and

4. Acceptance - Logoed headwear has gained tremendous acceptance in agriculture, as demonstrated by caps' popularity as collectible items.

Another reason that cap marketing has been so successful is that it "ties into the daily wardrobe," VantHul says. "For example, in the banking industry, caps are not daily items that complement the wardrobe. But, for producers in the field, a cap serves as a protector," he continues.

The ways that agricultural marketers can use promotional items such as caps are truly limitless, but VantHul names several ways clients have incorporated headwear into campaigns. A few examples are state and county fair giveaways, frequent buyer programs, sales achievement awards, trade-in days where a customer trades in a competitor's cap for one from the sponsoring company, purchase incentives, grand opening events and various new product introductions.

Also, these promotional items can work well in tight marketing budgets. "It is commonly felt that cost per impression for headwear is much less than other forms of advertising," says Howard Trilling, vice president of marketing for American Identity. "Let's say the cost to produce and run an ad that is seen by 25,000 people is $1,000. The cost to produce a cap is $5, and 25,000 people may see the cap in its lifetime. That is one of the reasons why these giveaways have become so popular; the visibility makes headwear a very cost-effective part of promotional plans."

"When using headgear, every time someone wears it, they're promoting your product." John Kermicle, AgriGold Hybrids
John Kermicle, general manager for AgriGold Hybrids, St. Francisville, Ill., says the largest component of the regional seed company's marketing plan is making its logo visible through the distribution of caps, jackets and signs. "The way we look at it, you can spend the same amount of money for different types of advertising, but some of those are forgotten," he says. "But when using headgear, every time someone wears it, they're promoting your product. We think it is the best investment for strengthening our brand."

AgriGold Hybrids uses caps in two ways. First, caps are distributed through the company's incentive program. Secondly, Kermicle uses them as a customer recruitment strategy. "Caps are an easy way to get our logo into a new area quickly and efficiently," he explains.

VantHul offers a unique example of the infinite visibility that one cap might have. He explains that while calling on an agriculture client, he noticed a framed magazine cover hanging in the lobby. On the cover photo was a successful farmer who was wearing the client's cap, proving that there is no end to the impressions that one cap could create.

TRENDS AND CHANGES

Although the popularity of caps has remained constant, several things have changed over the years in headwear promotion, including the ability to individualize promotional items. "Decoration really adds value to a piece," VantHul says. "We can design caps that appeal to the end user who may farm, hunt and enjoy NASCAR racing." He says that decoration enables American Identity and its clients to create a cap that identifies with the end user. This gives clients' brands "strong individuality" and supports the brand promise, VantHul says.

An American Identity customer for more than 20 years, Kermicle says the company has "really stepped up to the plate" in the way it individualizes its products. "We used to order standard caps, but now American Identity is customizing the caps to meet our needs," he says. "This is a big benefit because everyone wants an item that is unique."

Trends in headwear have evolved over the years not only in fabric and style but also in the way caps are distributed and sold. First, in aesthetics, caps have gone from a few colors in the '50s with polka dot and striped patterns to camouflage and sophisticated fabrics such as twills and chinos in today's product offerings. In addition, a sign of quality in headwear has turned from sewn-on emblems or patches to direct embroidery of logos, which companies feel is a more stylish look for the brand or image.

In addition to changes in style and materials, American Identity is seeing the growing trend in handling its products in a more modern, high-tech fashion. The company is now offering value-added services for clients, providing total fulfillment of offers, creating solutions through marketing plans, building Web sites for clients, and providing catalog and 800 number support.

"We're seeing a sea of change in our market. In the last 20 years, the main way we sold products was through catalog pages," Trilling says. "Today, most major clients have asked us to provide the Internet as marketing support for their dealers and employees to access. Some started out slow, but the trend to use them [the sites] is growing, and our investment is paying off."

The company hosts about 170 e-stores for its various clients - 16 of those are ag clients. The way the e-stores work is simple for the client or its dealers. First, the client selects the promotional items and American Identity designs them. Next, the products are photographed and placed on the dealer's Web site. Behind the scenes, American Identity manages the inventory needed by the client, as orders come in via the Web, phone and catalog. Finally, the company processes the orders and drop ships the items wherever the client specifies. Trilling calls this a "turnkey service" for American Identity's clients.

A POWERFUL BRAND

John Deere is one of the most recognizable brands in agriculture and, quite possibly, America. Sally Lang, licensing manager, Dealer Channel, for John Deere, Moline, Ill., says caps are an integral part of displaying that famous brand. "When you think of John Deere, you think of a baseball cap," Lang says. "Next to toy replicas, caps are the biggest-selling product category that we have."

American Identity, whose core value is to support dealer networks of different companies, is a licensed seller of the John Deere brand to dealers in the United States. "American Identity is integral in providing product for our dealers to further enhance the brand," Lang says.

She also feels certain that American Identity creates quality products that reflect the image of the John Deere brand. This is extremely important to a company such as John Deere that is often a victim of "pirates," those who are not licensed sellers of promotional products bearing the John Deere logo. "I see a ton of junk that just doesn't enhance our brand," Lang explains. "But American Identity's products represent our brand and are a tremendous value."

Lang says the business of promotional items is changing for John Deere; what once was a free giveaway is now a collector's item that people will pay for. "People covet the caps," she says.

These days you can bet on seeing John Deere caps not only in rural America but also in popular culture. In fact, Ashton Kutcher, star of "That '70s Show," has been spotted wearing a high-crown, green and white John Deere cap on MTV. Wearing John Deere logo caps has become just as popular with young, urban adults as it is with generations of farm families.

Now, that's a branding tactic worth its investment. AM


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