Earlier this year at South by Southwest, an interactive media conference and music festival in Austin, Tex., a man walked onto a stage wearing only his T-shirt, underwear and socks. An exchange between the man and a panel of comedians ensued.
This story first appeared in the April 27, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“My name is Mack Weldon,” said comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who spent the next eight minutes explaining why Mack Weldon products are great as the half-dressed man awkwardly posed.
“After wearing these underwear, would you ever go back to wearing any other underwear?” asked Tompkins. “No, I would not,” the model responded.
The exchange was actually an ad, which took place in front of an audience that came to see a live airing of the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast. Tompkins played the chief executive officer of Mack Weldon, a real men’s underwear brand, and the guy wearing the underwear was Collin Willardson, a real marketing manager at Mack Weldon.
This is one of the many ways underwear brands are attempting to capture the attention of men. Traditionally, putting a muscular model or athlete on a billboard wearing underwear was standard, but as more men are actually buying their own boxers and briefs — according to the NPD Group, the amount of women purchasing underwear for men has decreased from 75 to 25 percent over the past few years — brands are speaking to men in a more relatable way and ensuring that their shopping experience, whether it’s online or in-store, is less convoluted.
“Consumers have become more and more desensitized to ads,” said Brian Berger, founder and ceo of Mack Weldon. “Showing the product on a model in a typical way isn’t really engaging. We are always trying to figure out how we can engage and inform people and entertain them as well.”
According to Berger, Mack Weldon devotes 25 percent of its ad spend to comedy-centric podcasts — and it has paid off. Berger said that when a podcast sponsored by Mack Weldon goes live — the podcast host narrates the ad — the company sees increased traffic and sales on the site with impressive conversion rates ranging from 20 to 30 percent.
Podcasts and live ads have also worked well for MeUndies, a California-based men’s and women’s underwear brand that launched in 2012. The brand provided rapper Lil’ Dicky with underwear throughout his tour and during his set he stripped down to reveal his MeUndies underpants. Bryan Lalezarian, the brand’s ceo, said podcasts are its second highest referrer — its first is friend referrals — and conversion rates are between 15 and 20 percent.
“There is something about the audio version versus physically seeing a model in the underwear that’s working,” said Tom Patterson, the founder of men’s underwear brand Tommy John, which also advertises on podcasts and radio. Howard Stern, Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg of ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” are cited as Tommy John wearers. “Our approach is to build a relatable brand. We aren’t aligning with a European tennis or soccer player. Our guy wants to be spoken to like he’s a real guy.”
Tommy John did align with a former NFL player, Steve Weatherford, for its new Men of Substance campaign. But instead of highlighting Weatherford’s athletic prowess — he is shot fully clothed and either lounging on his sofa or standing in his bathroom — the campaign focuses on Weatherford’s integrity and will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from the former New York Giants player’s favorite pair of underwear to the Steve Weatherford World Champion foundation, a nonprofit that helps young people overcome adversity.
Before that, the brand released The Big Adjustment campaign, a commercial that featured men in various scenarios — a police officer writing a ticket and a soldier at combat — animatedly struggling to adjust their underwear. Tommy John believes its underwear eliminates those issues.
Marketing to men in a more relatable and inclusive way has trickled up to bigger brands including Axe and Dove+Men Care, which are starting to promote various facets of masculinity. This year Aerie, American Eagle’s innerwear line, jumped on the trend with a lighthearted campaign, #AerieMan, which featured real men wearing its new line of men’s underwear. The brand later revealed on April Fools’ Day that the campaign was a joke, but the decision to not retouch men in future campaigns was real.
Randy Feltis, vice president of Isaco, which manufactures underwear, hosiery and loungewear for brands including Papi and Equip, has noticed these marketing shifts and is incorporating them into the relaunch of Perry Ellis men’s underwear. The campaign’s tag line is: “It’s what’s underneath that counts.”
“We like it because it’s not as serious,” said Feltis. “Is the guy good-looking? Yes. But he’s not over the top like the models some of the brands use.”
In addition to speaking to men in a different way, brands are also focused on improving the shopping experience to make it more seamless and solution-driven.
Related Garments, which was started last year by brothers David and Mike Appel, sells matching sets of underwear and socks in one package that’s covered in affirmations including “confidence through coordination” and “undress to impress.” It also sells underwear bundles — the weekend package and the weekday package, for example — and groomsman packages that can be customized for wedding parties and come with a garment wash bag to prevent missing socks or underwear.
“The apps that are coming out like Uber or Airbnb are making people’s experience with shopping and their daily routines easier,” said Mike. “We try to model our socks and underwear the same way. It’s going to be an easy solution to that congested drawer and all those random socks.”
Related Garments is hoping to reach the convenience-hungry customer in unconventional ways. The brand is partnering with Dream Hotel on a capsule collection of underwear that will be available to purchase in hotel rooms and has partnered with Washio, a dry cleaning and laundry services app, to offer a Related Garments discount to its customers.
MeUndies is reaching men on monthly basis with its subscription service. Every 30 days the men’s and women’s underwear brand sends out a new pair of underwear to subscribers, which are 68 percent men.
Lalezarian said the subscription service, which costs $18 a month, makes up 30 percent of sales and is growing faster than its non-subscription service.
“The subscribers are very sticky customers,” Lalezarian said.
On the sales floor, this added level of convenience translates into a more streamlined product assortment and easy-to-digest messaging on packaging.
Feltis said for the relaunch of Perry Ellis men’s underwear, only two fabrications were used, cotton and cotton stretch, and performance qualities were incorporated into the entire range instead of creating a separate performance line.
“We abided to a 15-second guideline. We wanted to make sure the customer sees our product and is able to know how it’s different from other brands within 15 seconds,” said Feltis. “Department stores are in edit mode with underwear. They are lowering stockkeeping unit counts to be more productive.”
Tommy John, which is sold on its e-commerce site and at Bloomingdale’s, DIllards and Nordstrom, relies on a hanging program in-store.
“We think guys want to look at the product and not another guy wearing it,” said Patterson. “Their attention span and how much time you have for them to focus has never been worse. You get their attention in five seconds and you have an elevator pitch mentality with the consumer.”