Brand Strategy: Build An Icon, Not A Fad

Mark RitsonAugust 9, 20083 min

When 15-year-old Kenny Howard finished pinstriping his first bike in 1944, he knew he had found his calling. Pinstriping, the painting of decorative patterns onto automobiles, was a dying art, but by 1958 Kenny had single-handedly reinvented it. He moved on to pinstriping cars, and soon his striking designs had garnered a dedicated following across the US.

Howard was an unpleasant and obstinate man, renowned for being ‘as stubborn as a Dutchman’. He hated both the fame and the money that had started to follow him, and in an attempt to dodge both (and a rumored manslaughter rap) he went underground in 1958. By the time he resurfaced 10 years later in Arizona, with a drinking problem and two kids, his designs had made him a cult figure. A xenophobe to the last, his dying words in 1992 were allegedly ‘Heil Hitler’.

Howard died a 20th-century footnote, but his most famous design, the ‘Flying Eyeball’, and his artistic signature, ‘Von Dutch’, were about to become a big part of the early 21st-century brandscape. Four years after his death, his daughters sold the Von Dutch name and by 2000, Danish entrepreneur Tonny Sorensen was chief executive of Von Dutch Originals. The perilous descent down the fashion cycle had begun. It started with those who hate fashion the most: a handful of LA bikers and motor-heads looking for something uncommercial and unaffected.

Nothing stays secret in LA for long, however, and the magical iconography that Howard created half a century earlier was about to weave its magic all over again.

First, the genuinely cool alpha-consumers co-opted the authentic look of the biker brand into their outfits. Then came the celebrities. In 2002, Justin Timberlake made headlines at the Grammys after-party while sporting a Von Dutch cap. Paris Hilton adopted the brand. Britney even got married, first time round, in Von Dutch. In 2003, sales rocketed. From nowhere, the brand turned over $33m (£17.6m).

Chief executive Sorensen announced ambitious plans to extend the brand to cosmetics, shoes, sunglasses and haute couture. Production increased.

Distribution expanded. Sales continued to grow. The brand began to die.

Just when it needed to be focused and protected, the brand was stretched and diluted. 2004 was the year we learned that Von Dutch wasn’t being run by marketers, just people who thought they were.

Today, the bikers who once loved Von Dutch are long gone. The celebrities who flaunted it on MTV wouldn’t be seen dead (without a million-dollar endorsement deal) wearing it. Instead, they’ve been replaced by eight-year-old girls, hairdressers from Grimsby and Slovakian tourists.

We’re at the end of the fashion cycle. Next come deep discounts, Oxfam and, finally, silence.

Twenty years from now, Von Dutch will make a brief return as retro gear for daughters that are, as yet, just a proverbial glint in the eye.

There’s a difference between sales and marketing. It’s the difference between having 10% of the market forever and 60% for 18 months. It’s the difference between using your distribution, communication, design and pricing to attract as many customers as possible or using it to repel those who don’t fit your target profile. It’s the difference between your brand becoming a passing fad or an enduring icon.

It’s the reason Sorensen has seen his sales go south. And it’s also the reason that the ghost of Howard, the great Von Dutch, is laughing his ass off …


– In the late 1950s, customers drove from all over the US in the hope of having their car ‘Dutched’ by Kenny Howard. Car owners were never allowed to dictate the style of the pinstriping they required and were limited to specifying the amount of time they wanted to purchase from Dutch. The rest was up to him. Occasionally, when he was in a sour mood or if he had taken a dislike to a particular customer, he would vastly over-inflate his fee, usually to no avail.

– Despite his popularity and potential riches, Dutch eschewed the celebrity lifestyle. ‘I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty,’ he once declared. ‘I don’t mess around with unnecessary stuff, so I don’t need much money.’

– The backlash against Von Dutch is already on the internet. Black market T-shirts bearing the logos ‘Von Douche’ and ‘Von Chav’ are selling online.

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