Rugged Bear celebrates 30th anniversary with new branding, stronger sales

Rugged Bear, a 30-year-old retailer and manufacturer of kids’ apparel, has suffered in the recession, but new leadership and an overhaul of its branding have the company feeling like a kid again.
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In October, Rugged Bear, a retailer and manufacturer of kids’ apparel, turned 30, opened its 30th store and announced that sales were up 10 percent compared to 2009. But just a year ago, the business was lagging due to the economy.

“The company, like all retailers, had taken it on the chin in the recession,” said Rugged Bear CEO Garr Larson, who joined the company in February.

Larson, who helped found Hot Topic and once led the Orvis international division, helped put a new spring in Rugged Bear’s step by improving the back end of the business and reinvigorating the brand image.

“The brand had customers who were still very loyal. But we needed to implement some industry best practices,” said Larson. This meant focusing more on controlling expenses, improving sourcing methods and closing three underperforming stores. “Moreover, we needed to reinvigorate the brand itself,” Larson told SNEWS®.

“There was this legendary brand, but it had no identifiable logo, and no tie-in between what the company’s DNA had been and what it should be in the future,” said Larson.

Brand DNA explored

Rediscovering that DNA was the first step in overhauling the brand image, he said. Through internal discussions and talks with customers, Rugged Bear leaders focused on promoting the idea that the company’s mission is to improve kids’ lives by helping them have fun outdoors. They realized that Rugged Bear should not only manufacture and sell durable, technical clothing, but also inspire kids to put down their electronics and lead more independent lives by playing outdoors.

As part of its re-branding effort, the company launched a marketing campaign this year called “I Am a Rugged Bear Kid.” It includes images of individual kids outdoors -- on a football field, on the beach, in a grassy field -- and the images are accompanied by inspirational copy. One ad reads: “Happiness will be the north of my compass. I will leave a great tree fort for the next wanderer. I am an adventurer.”

Larson said the campaign is intended to highlight that everybody has a child in his or her life and has visions of what that child can become. “And Rugged Bear wants to help them get there,” he said.

In addition to creating a fresh marketing campaign, Rugged Bear also overhauled its logo, adopted a new slogan -- Live Life Rugged -- and launched a new website (www.ruggedbear.com). The result? October 2010 sales improve 40 percent over a year earlier.

The company also tapped into social media to seek consumer feedback regarding the brand. “The social media side of the business has been great in helping us communicate with the customer,” said Larson. “It’s an amazing pipeline of information that wasn’t there even five or six years ago.”

Product mix fine-tuned

Beyond its branding work, the company has also focused great attention on honing its product mix to meet consumer demands.

“In this economy, people are very choosy,” said Larson. “But if they see something they think has value, they’ll buy it and love it.”

With this in mind, the company has expanded its offering of durable clothing. “People are buying clothes that can last one or two seasons, and be used for one or two kids,” said Larson. “This year, we made the conscious decision to throw everything and the kitchen sink into our coats, whereas some big national competition has been ripping things out of jackets to make more profit.”

Rugged Bear manufactures about three-quarters of the items it sells, while the remaining quarter -- particularly footwear -- is made by other companies, such as Keen and Merrell. Larson said a key strategy is to continue offering high-quality items that will prove durable over time.

“People aren’t going to have as much money to buy, but let’s give them the best jacket we can, so when the economy recovers, they’ll remember us as someone that really stuck by them and did them some good,” he said.

Now that the company is in a better financial position, Larson said another strategy will be to expand the business and possibly open stores beyond the Northeast, which is Rugged Bear’s traditional stronghold. “It’s pretty obvious that there are West Coast places that have perfect demographics for us,” said Larson. He added that Colorado, Washington and Oregon would also be suitable places to set up.

In the meantime, Rugged Bear will continue to hone its message that more kids need to explore the outdoors to lead healthier lives.

“It comes down to one simple line,” said Larson. “We live in an era where kids need to live balanced, playful lives.”

--Marcus Woolf

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