On his way to a recent fly-fishing trip with his fellow executives in Miramichi, a town of roughly 17,000 in northern New Brunswick, FGL Sports/Mark’s chief marketing officer Duncan Fulton and his guide Floyd passed by a Canadian Tire store with a Mark’s store attached.
Always keen to gather market intelligence Fulton asked the guide (who was unaware of his company affiliation) what he thought of Mark’s. Floyd pointed to his pants and shirt, and said he had bought both at Mark’s. “I love Mark’s,” he said.
His response may have been gratifying, but it also underscored a business conundrum for Mark’s: The retail chain – for which Fulton took over marketing duties earlier this year – is enormously popular among rural Canadians 50-60, who appreciate its unfussy, high-quality products, but is not a go-to destination for younger (30-49) urban males.
Mark’s will take a step towards changing that perception this weekend, with a new brand positioning and tagline (“Ready for this”) developed by Sid Lee that will be formally introduced during Sunday’s Emmy Awards telecast.
“The brand has trended towards being more rural and a slightly older demographic, and the big question for us was what kind of brand surgery would be required to make it relevant to a 40-year-old urban dad,” said Fulton.
Fulton says the repositioning is a logical next step in the evolution of the former Mark’s Work Wearhouse. It also marks something of a retreat from the company’s recent efforts to woo women.
After being acquired by Canadian Tire Corporation (CTC) in 2002, Mark’s had enjoyed what Fulton called “incredible” top-line growth, growing to more than 350 stores across the country. But when the economy soured in 2008, it didn’t rebound as quickly as some of CTC’s other business units.
Realizing that nearly half of its customers were women shopping for their boyfriends and husbands, Mark’s executives decided in 2009 to target that market more explicitly. In 2010, the “Work Wearhouse” was dropped and the banner shortened to just Mark’s.
Today women’s clothing accounts for an estimated 17% of Mark’s annual sales, but its introduction also represented a significant shift from its core strength of casual menswear and work-wear.
“The problem with being a retailer with large size like a Mark’s is that you can sell anything you want,” said Fulton.
“It doesn’t mean it’s on brand, and it doesn’t mean it’s the right decision,” he continued. Fulton said there is a role for a “convenience” line of women’s products like yoga pants and hoodies, but that it deviates from Mark’s core brand promise.
Extensive customer surveys conducted earlier this year suggested that Mark’s efforts would be better focused on growing its urban customer base, with a specific focus on 35-year-old males.
The new Mark’s, said Fulton, will be active but not sporty like Sport-Chek, outdoorsy without being the bearded, plaid shirt-clad L.L. Bean man. It will be perceived as the place to buy a hoodie dad can wear when taking the dog for a walk, or the T-shirt and sweater he puts on when taking his kids to hockey practice.
“They want a brand that stands for the place where you can buy quality clothes that you trust, for every day life in Canada,” said Fulton.
While work-wear remains a cornerstone of the business, Mark’s also plans to bolster both its casual wear and footwear assortments. The look and feel of its new products will be younger, but not “hip” said Fulton.
“It’s okay to sell a sweater that a 40-year-old urban dad and a 60-year-old urban grandfather would love,” he said. “You will see an update to the look and feel [of our products] without alienating the core customer.”
Mark’s will continue to stock women’s apparel, but it is now viewed as a “convenience” business that is not fundamental to its business plans, said Fulton.
“Our core value proposition is to be Canada’s most famous menswear store,” he said.
Mark’s did conduct some research into selling nothing but menswear, but found more than 75% of its male customers wanted them to keep some women’s products. Why? Because it gave their wife/girlfriend a place to browse while they made their clothing selections.
The new 60-second anthem spot (above) from Montreal’s Sid Lee is reminiscent of its corporate sibling Canadian Tire, although Fulton said that wasn’t the original intention.
“When we were done it was pretty close to the Canadian Tire value proposition, but at the end of the day that’s why Canadian Tire bought Mark’s in 2002 – because the customer base was extremely similar.”
Future spots will tell the story of Mark’s hoodies and its denim, but will be 65% brand focused and 35% product focused.
Fulton said that Mark’s plans to shift its media approach to focus more on urban markets like Toronto and Vancouver, both of which will feature transit shelter ads in October and digital billboards in November. Mark’s had traditionally invested heavily in local marketing, sometimes at the expense of the major markets, he said.
“You never want to alienate the customer that’s made you famous, so obviously our buys still have to reach rural Canada, but you’re also going to see buys on [channels like] CTV and Global and TSN and Sportsnet instead of just our traditional CTV and CBC.”