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Fruit of the Loom

The Secret History of Underoos

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Fruit of the Loom

It was 1977, and Larry Weiss was holding a check in his hand for $64,000. “A lot of money back then,” he tells mental_floss, and a lot of money at any other time. A licensing and marketing expert, he had been tasked with conceptualizing a new take on kids' underwear, traditionally as monotonous and boring a product category as grass seed.

His idea was to splash familiar emblems and characters from popular culture on the garments, creating a feeling of empowerment. Tighty whities did little for a child’s self-confidence. Put him in a pair of Batman shorts, however, and maybe he feels a couple of inches taller, a little broader in the shoulders.  

Weiss was confident it had appeal. But Hanes had passed on the idea. So did the Scott Paper Company, which spent a year in development before senior executives got cold feet. Though he began working on the project at the urging of an ad firm, Weiss had taken on the financial burden of licensing Marvel, DC, and other characters himself. When Scott backed out, Weiss had gotten them to agree to pay for the next year’s merchandising rights to Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and all the rest.

The money could buy another year of shopping the idea—but Weiss was broke. “I had my own $64,000 question,” he says. I was poor at the time. I get a check from Scott. I could take it and say, ‘Well, bad idea, but at least I got a little money,’ or I could move forward.”

Even though two companies had shown him the door, Weiss was sure his concept would be a success. He made the renewal payments to DC, Marvel, and the others, and hoped someone would share his enthusiasm—to understand that he wasn’t really selling underwear, but a secret identity, and that his Underoos were destined to become one of the biggest licensing success stories since Fruity Pebbles.

Weiss would know. He came up with that one, too.

Working as a product manager for Post Cereal in the late 1960s, Weiss was determined to crack the problem of kids running out of the house without eating breakfast. After speaking with licensing representatives from DC, Marvel, Archie, and Hanna-Barbera, he pitched the idea of re-branding Post’s flailing Sugar Rice Krinkles into a Flintstones tie-in product.

Fruity Pebbles was an immediate hit. “It was putting entertainment together with cereal,” he says. “Not just promotion, but interweaving mythology.” Instead of 30-second ad spots, Post suddenly had 30-minute cartoons that doubled as marketing tools.    

Though his planned Batman and Superman cereals didn’t make it to shelves, Weiss’s connections with the comics publishers wound up being invaluable. While working as a freelance research and development brain for hire in the late 1970s, he was approached by an advertising firm to see if he had any novel ideas for the underwear category.

Weiss sat down and sketched what was then a revolutionary concept for the market. Instead of selling packs of tops and bottoms separately, he imagined a combination shirt and underwear set—one to a pack—that traded boring white cotton for flashy replicas of comic hero costumes: Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, all part of the modern mythology revered by children. Weiss subverted the misery of buying or receiving underwear as a gift and turned it into a transformative experience.  

An early concept sketch for Fred Flintstone Underoos. Image courtesy of Larry Weiss.

After Hanes and Scott Paper passed, Fruit of the Loom asked if they could step in and take over the entire operation. (The company had originally planned to source apparel for Scott, which didn’t manufacture any of their own.) Weiss, who had put all his chips on the table, agreed. The parties decided to market under the name Underoos, which is what Weiss’s 9-year-old son had come up with after seeing his father’s sketches.  

But Weiss had grown to have some concerns of his own. Having flirted with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology at the University of Minnesota before shifting to business, he feared he knew just enough to hang himself. He consulted with a psychologist at Yale, showed her a bunch of Superman underwear, and asked if his idea might be too good—if it could prompt a kid to climb out of a third-story window and leap out.

No, she answered. No sane child would believe they could fly because of their brand of underwear.

“So that was that,” Weiss says. Not long after, millions of children spent the wind-ups to birthdays, holidays, or school shopping begging their parents for—of all things—underwear.  

The kids wanted Underoos.

Joseph Novak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was a good time to get into the fancy underwear business. When Underoos debuted in 1977, Star Wars had just reignited the idea of modern-day mythology; the following year, Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget attempt to translate the spectacle of a comic book onscreen.

“It kind of all happened together,” Weiss says. “The timing was just right.”

In market testing, Underoos were the only product Weiss had ever been involved with that garnered a 98 percent approval rating; while still exclusive to the Los Angeles and New York areas, they began appearing in other parts of the country. It was a form of underwear bootlegging, and it convinced Fruit of the Loom to roll out the line quickly.

Another Weiss conceit was to get rid of the standard blocky shrink-wrap and package Underoos in what looked like a record album sleeve, with enough room for key art. Huge kiosks stuffed with inventory began erupting all over the country.  

“For a time, it was the only non-Sears clothing product in Sears,” Weiss says. “J.C. Penney wanted to buy it outright, but I had a deal with Fruit of the Loom.”

Though companies like DC and Marvel rarely collaborated with one another, they allowed Weiss to feature both of their characters in the same ads.

Major attractions like Batman and Superman were best-sellers; to avoid shopper fatigue, Weiss advised Fruit of the Loom to cycle them out, with one being available for six months and then swapping places with the other. Spider-Woman, Pac-Man, and the Hulk eventually joined the rotation. (Fred Flintstone was not among the first offerings. An entire spool of leopard-skin fabric wasn’t practical.)

While it seemed Underoos could do no wrong, attempts to monetize Archie in the boy’s category proved futile. No one much cared for “America’s Favorite Teenager” appearing as a logo, and a bowtie didn’t make for much of a costume. (He did come in handy when executives wanted to keep white tops and bottoms as an option for parents who disliked the idea of colored apparel: Archie’s head was affixed to those.) Weiss also considered an Olympic-themed line, but athletic apparel was inconsistent and likely not as magical an experience as wearing Spider-Man’s costume under your shirt during dinner.  

In a testament to how completely Weiss had upended the market, a letter dated December 20, 1979, and published in the Wide County Messenger in Decatur, Texas read:

“Dear Santa, I’ve been a real good boy this month. Please bring me a Mr. Pibb jump car so I can drive it like the Duke boys do theirs and a play hand saw, a Silly Sammy seagull game, a Breyer bull and horse, and most of all—Captain America Underoos.”

Despite having created a money printing press, Weiss had some firm mandates when it came to expanding the line. He preferred characters that had stuck around for decades, proving their appeal across several generations. For that reason, Underoos based on the Dukes of Hazzard and even Star Wars didn’t sit well with him.

“I wouldn’t have done Star Wars until 1995,” Weiss says. “I wanted to see it work across multiple media before doing anything. Obviously, George Lucas really did tap into that mythological stream. But at the time, I thought doing Boba Fett was stupid. Who was going to want to dress up like an intergalactic bounty hunter?”

In a little over two years, Weiss’s royalties for Underoos amounted to enough that it kicked in a contractual sale of the line to Fruit of the Loom. He exited with a seven-figure payout, which answered any questions over the wisdom in gambling $64,000 years earlier.

Though Underoos would remain popular throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the increased availability of licensed merchandise would relegate them to just another product category. If a kid wanted to be Superman, he could do more than just wear the “S” under a shirt: there were video games, action figures, and cartoons to help complete the illusion.

Weiss also believes the perennial poison of any product—oversaturation—led to a decline in sales. “You can sell Daisy Duke Underoos, but they’re a fad,” he says. “You order more and they start to linger. Then stores don’t reorder Wonder Woman because they have too many Daisy Dukes.”

Fruit of the Loom currently licenses the Underoos brand to Bioworld Merchandising, which operates an e-commerce site and also sells the apparel in specialty and comic stores. Owing to the nostalgia factor, they now come in adult sizes; vintage sets can fetch upwards of $70 on eBay.    

Weiss continued in the research and development business, toying with various ideas (a bandana version of Underoos, NFL-themed underwear) and creating concepts for ATM banking. At 77, he has no plans to retire. “To retire is to say I’m through living,” he says.

In the end, the ingenuity of Underoos was not that Weiss upended a category. It’s that he essentially invented a new one. “Kids believe they are something other than what they appear on the surface. They’re forced into subservient roles in school,” he says. “But when you’ve got a superhero costume underneath your clothes and your teacher tells you to sit up straight, well, you’re Batman. And she doesn’t know it.”

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Here’s Why Bells Are Always Ringing in Trader Joe’s
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Trader Joe’s has attracted a devoted fan-base by doing things a little differently than your typical grocery store chain. But shoppers may not even realize that the company has done away with this ubiquitous supermarket feature.

As Business Insider recently noted, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use an intercom system. So instead of hearing “clean up in aisle 4” blaring overhead, customers shop to a soundtrack of ringing bells.

The nautical bells, which are situated at each register, are used by employees to communicate with one another. According to the company’s website, “blustery PA systems” didn’t fit the brand, so it borrowed inspiration from the maritime traders of a bygone era and developed its own Morse-like code.

If you hear one ring, that means an additional register needs to be opened. Two rings means that either a cashier or a customer has a question at checkout, and three signals a manager. The code isn’t exactly a secret as it’s available for anyone to find online, but memorizing it will definitely give you bit of intel most patrons don’t have. It can also be used to plan your shopping strategy. If you hear four bells, for instance, that means the store is getting crowded, so you should forget about grabbing that second bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and hustle to the checkout line.

[h/t Business Insider]

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13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants
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When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.

1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.

“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.

The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.

“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of the Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”

2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.

Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.

For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”

3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.

Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.

Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.

4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.

“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.

So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.

5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.

When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.

But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.

6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL

The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.

Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.

Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.

7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.

One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.

Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.

Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.

Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language.

8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.

Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”

9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.

Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.

Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.

Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”

10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.

“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”

To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.

11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.

The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish perimeters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.

Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.

As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.

12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”

13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.

Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.

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