How Two Chicago Ad Guys Created That (Other) Most Interesting Man in the World

The Duke Cannon line is a provocative (and funny) blend of unconventional marketing, an old-school manly-man vibe, and smart, laser targeting. And men are buying it.

via Duke Cannon Supply Co. “We field test everything with active-duty soldiers," said Anthony Albanese, co-owner of Duke Cannon Supply Co. Their products are currently in over 100 Army and Air Force bases through the official exchanges (AAFES). The soap is milled at a plant in Memphis which was the original supplier to the military. Part of the proceeds are funneled to veteran's causes.  

When bad boy Don Draper stripped down to a white undershirt to fix a busted kitchen pipe in a tantalizing Mad Men episode, Time magazine columnist Joel Stein was so moved by this strange retro-masculine ability he said (with minimal snark) it was time for men to rediscover their inner Draper

There's definitely some 'there' there. Inside that steamy, symbolic scene lay clues to the throw-back appeal of the counter-culture brand Duke Cannon, a new line of products beamed at guys who, instead of telling Siri to call a mechanic, will pick up a wrench, a hammer, a drill. (Or at least respect the option.)

It's a bit of delicious symmetry that the startup is the brainchild of two Chicago ad men. Anthony Albanese and partner Sam Swartz spent over 11 years as brand managers for PepsiCo before chucking that gig in 2011 to jump into a men’s grooming space dominated by the marketing machine of brands like Unilever's Axe (which found a foothold catering to angsty teenage boys with promises of perpetual conquest) or high-end “metrosexual” products such as Anthony Logistics and Jet Black. These two corporate brand pros found a gaping hole in a personal care sector projected to command over $33 billion globally by 2015, according to data compiled by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. There was nothing out there for the mainstream guy. A guy's guy. 

Courtesy Duke Cannon Supply Co.

To get around slim capitalization reserves, they boot-strapped research at the street-level, starting with an "intercept" at a Chicago Target store. “I see this guy pick up this Axe body wash," recounts Albanese, a strapping 6'3" ex-full back. "And I say, Hey, why’d you get that?  And he said, 'I knew somebody was gonna call me out.'" This was their first insight: guys were embarrassed by their purchase and it was usually followed by a wave of complaints: There aren't any bar soaps for me. They’re all for women. They smell too much. They’re too small.

Soap became their first gateway product. A huge brick of soap -- three times the size of “feminine" bars -- with a shower-life six-to-eight weeks long, and, according to the packaging, smells like “accomplishment” or “productivity” or “victory” or "naval supremacy." Add the cool factor, with type-face and designs inspired by Korean War-era industrial catalogs and vintage boxing posters. But it was an ingenious creation that put them on the map: Duke Cannon, the product’s “character” and company namesake. You know this guy. Everybody knows this guy. He played a little minor league ball back in the day, once bowled a 260, grills meat, drinks beer. His hilarious Facebook page is read by a loyal, fierce, devoted following.

It's not just ramped up testosterone wrapped in a clever gimmick. This was true demand. Check the stats:  they sold out inventory in two weeks. Impressed, Belleville, Wis.-based Duluth Trading Company (of the witty tongue-in-cheek plumber’s butt and Ballroom Jeans ads) signed on as their first distributor, a coup that signaled to the founders to stick with their instincts. 

According to Swartz, the company is tactically charting its product expansion. This past November they launched a 2-in-1 hair care product (it both cleans and conditions and the bottle resembles a quart of motor oil). A rich vintage shaving cream (in a tube not an aerosol can and works better with a brush) is tagged for release. 

They've aced originality. Or, as Duke Cannon might say, "Son, these products aren’t for clowns." 

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