MBPT Spotlight: Upstart Brand And1 Looks to Make Inroads Into a Category Dominated by Nike and adidas

And1 is the upstart brand that made some big noise about a decade ago in the sports apparel category before it was sold, then resold, then re-resold. In the latter years of that process, the company’s street-sense marketing message became muddled and the consumers who drove the brand’s success and were attracted to its brash attitude drifted off.

That was then, and the company is now trying to work its way back, having been given another life by Galaxy International, which acquired And1 in 2011. And1 apparel is being produced under the auspices of Galaxy licensee High Life Apparel. High Life also manufactures licensed apparel to the following brands: Team Vick (namely, NFL quarterback Michael Vick), Head USA (worn by the likes of Bode Miller, Andy Murray, Lindsey Vonn and Andre Agassi), Ecko and Protege (apparel and footwear sold exclusively in Kmart).

And1 was founded by Seth Berger and Jay Gilbert in 1993. Their initial foray into retail was a line of “trash-talking” tees, initially sold, according to the company’s website, out of the trunks of their cars, bearing messages such as: “Pass the ball and save yourself the embarrassment.” “Like your momma’s drawers, your game has a lot of holes.” “Your best defense is your breath.”

Basketball shoes helped And1 to make serious in-roads into the hoops landscape. At one point the brand claimed to have more than 90 NBA endorsers, including Stephon Marbury, Ben Wallace, Rafer Alston, Jason Williams and Kevin Garnett.

Perhaps more important to spreading the brand’s message was its Mixtape Tour, which featured live competition, weekly exposure on ESPN 2 and a series of videotapes and video games with top street-ball players from across the nation.

Beginning in 2005 the brand went through a series of ownership changes. American Sporting Goods acquired it from the original owners in 2005. In February 2011, Brown Shoe company acquired ASG, including And1. In October 2011, Brown sold the And1 brand to Galaxy International.

A key part of the brand’s reboot is a new version of the Mixtape Tour. The Summer Remix Tournament was held in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend in conjunction with IMG Worldwide.

Here, Maurice Levy, director of marketing for And1 and director of operations for High Life speaks to the pros, cons and challenges facing And1.

During its first life, And1 had a number of alliances with NBA players. Considering how much of the NBA market Nike and adidas have, and also that Under Armour recently signed Steven Curry and is building its own roster of players, can you rebuild that connection?
I believe we can. Lance Stephenson [shooting guard for the Indiana Pacers] did an incredible job for our brand last season, and we recently signed him to a three-year extension. [And1 last week also signed rookies Isaiah Canaan, second-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets, and Jamaal Franklin, second-round pick of the Memphis Grizzlies] We are in the midst of discussions with several other players. We hope to add more players this season and then build from there.

How realistic is it to get your shoes on the feet of NBA players considering that LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and other players of that stature are already signed to rival shoe deals?

We understand that it is important to get our product on the [NBA] court. But we also want to be strategic in who we sign. We want them to embrace our brand concept and attitude. Lance has been perfect for that. He was born ready to play basketball. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He took the streets by storm. He got his nickname, 'Born Ready,' at Rucker Park [in Harlem] while he was still in high school. Players dream about that. Now he’s going into his fourth season with the Pacers and he’s really establishing his presence.

What was it that Galaxy saw in the And1 property that inspired an investment, a new tour and marketing activation?

Through High Life, we have been producing And1 apparel since 1993. It’s a family-owned business. My father, Issac Levy, was the first licensee for And1. We maintained it through 2005. At that point we acquired the men’s license and in 2008 the kids license, and began to produce the men’s and kids’ lines simultaneously. We have a long history with the brand.

What is the advantage in that?
We’ve seen And1 go through its peaks and valleys. We’ve seen all the things that And1 did in marketing. Actually, we’ve been very fortunate over the past two years that we were able to be part of the group that acquired the brand. The driving force behind the decision was knowing that we had a lot of the integral pieces in place, which helped to bring And1 to its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The graphic artist who helped to establish And1’s look and feel with the players and the trash tees is now head of our graphic design. One of the designers who produced all of our kids’ designs is now our director of design, and she’s heading up both the men’s and kids’ lines.

Is there a push to bring back former customers?
The people who were buying the clothing in the late 1990s and early 2000s and were the target demographic of the kids’ lines back then are now out in the marketplace buying the men’s clothing. So we do have a continuity and a relationship with them. That is what we saw from a business perspective. From a brand and marketing standpoint, we saw a lot of recent trends where the 1990s are retro and back in style. A lot of people are trying to reach back to touch things that were popular in the 1990s. TV shows that were popular in the 1990s are being aired on TV today to a new audience and also to attract the people who originally watched those shows.

Was there any marketing research done to support that?
Yes. A lot of the market research that we did before buying the brand pointed in that direction. And1 was a culturally relevant brand in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not just in basketball but in a lifestyle. You were a hip-hop fan. You had an attitude. We were part of a culture. Now, we find a lot of people who tell us that they loved the brand in the 1990s and 2000s. They loved the T-shirts, the And1 Mixtape Tour and what it represented.

Is that carrying over to the young consumers you now are trying to attract?
It is. We are finding a lot of brand recognition with the young generation of 2013. They heard about the brand and the lifestyle from their dads or their older brothers. Even though these 14-18-year-olds and even many of the 19-24-year-olds weren’t involved with the brand during its peak, they still related to the brand [via our market research]. We see a great opportunity there, which is a major reason why we brought it back.

Since you know what was done right and wrong, can you avoid the negatives and accent the positives for your 2013 strategy and beyond?
Absolutely. Part of the reason we feel that And1 fell off the map was that in 2005, the family owners who founded the company sold their equity to American Sporting Goods. What the original owners did was to treat the brand with kid gloves. They put their hearts and souls into the brand. These were guys who made T-shirts and sold them out of the trunks of their cars for the first three or four years. And that was the way they promoted the brand. The group that acquired And1, through no real fault, treated it like a corporate brand. Customers liked the brand because they felt it was so in touch with the grassroots aspects of basketball and so in touch with them. They felt as if they had a dialogue going with And1. But they felt, with the new owners, as if it had been put on corporate auto-pilot. So they faded away as consumers.

Was there an attempt by those owners to maintain the brand’s street attitude?
And1 went through several owners in a short time. Each new team had their own ideas on how to market it. So the vision and direction of And1 kept changing. There was no momentum. It wasn’t necessarily handled improperly, it was more that there was no consistency.

Do you see And1 returning to the original grassroots feel and dialogue that initially made it popular?
Back in its heyday, And1 knew its customer, knew what they liked and knew what they wanted. And they kept in communication with those customers. So we’ve taken that into 2013 and built our website as a social platform. We are interacting with our customers and fans. It is always evolving. There are constant updates, news and videos. And that is important. I think And1 had the first viral video before viral videos became common. The Mixtapes were being passed around; they were all over the place. And this was before YouTube. That’s our heritage and that is a big part of what we are bringing back.

How do you see the bottom line message and attitude changing?
Back in the 1990s, it was okay for And1 to be brash and outspoken. Now, as a society, we have moved forward. We’re more about anti-bullying and standing up for the right things. We will still be 'street' and we will still have attitude. But we are trying to channel a more positive energy from the brand, a more never-give-up attitude. If you are playing basketball in your neighborhood park, or you are not in a major NCAA Division 1 school, it is your passion and energy that keeps you going. You can be the best on your court.

What has been the initial feedback?
I feel that we have reinvigorated a fan base that is still searching for a basketball brand. A lot of our competition stands for a lot of different things in a lot of different sports. It gets generic. It gets too corporate. No one has filled the void that we held for so long. And we see customers responding to that.

Can you take advantage of and stand apart in social media even though it us so prevalent among your competitors?

Yes. We are a 20-year-old brand, but we had what would be called social media back in the 1990s. Now we’ve evolved and our social media has evolved.

How has using street-ball players evolved?
And1 has always provided an opportunity for kids to see how someone like 'Skip 2 My Lou'—Rafer Alston—went from playing street ball to the NBA through his dedication, his hard work and getting on a national stage with the Mixtape Tour. We’re still trying to spin it a little bit in that direction. You won’t be hearing ‘Your game is as ugly as your girlfriend.’ That was good for the time. But society has matured and we are going in that same direction.

The original Mixtape Tours really put And1 on the map. What has been the initial reaction to the new version?
It’s been very good. We see this as the foundation and jumping-off point for our reintroduction. The Tour actually never stopped. Even with the changes in ownership, the Tour kept running. But we now are putting renewed energy and efforts into expanding it globally, to find new brand sponsorship partners to help build And1 and to find new talent. We have had success overseas in places such as Africa and South America.

What about domestically?
In the U.S., because of the changes in ownership, it became a traveling team that went into the neighborhoods, in high schools and AAU locations, as opposed to venues like Madison Square Garden. It engaged with kids, which is always a strong part of the Tour, putting on clinics and doing outreach work in the local neighborhoods. But now that we’ve re-established our ownership of the brand and reinvested in it, we want to move it back into the spotlight. Over Labor Day weekend we conducted the And1 Summer Remix, which was a 12-team tournament in Philadelphia that awarded $100,000 to the first-place team [Born Ready] and $10,000 for the best dunk [won by Guy DuPry]. Moving forward, we will have the And1 Mixtape Tour play the best team that each city has to offer. The talent is there. What comes out of it comes out of it.

Have the Mixtape Tour legends been involved at all?
Some of them have, because like any good organization, you want the veterans to help groom the next generation. Hot Sauce still runs with the team. Silk and Helicopter have participated. But we have newer players, such as Werm, who has developed his own following. And we expect that some of the other guys will create their own legends just as the guys on the first Mixtape Tour did.

You know that a brand will live and die based on how consumers view the quality of the product. How are you addressing that key issue with consumers?
We have an excellent production team based out of Long Beach, Calif., many of whom have been with the brand since 2005, 2006. In apparel, we know our competition. We want to give consumers a quality product that is more affordable, and is better and nicer than what is currently on the shelf. We want to provide a product that is 25%-30% better than our competition. And we want to do it at a 20%-30% lower price point. We want to give our customers much more value. And1 always did that really well. They were never a $150 sneaker. They were always in the $80-$100 price range.

Where would you like to be with And1 in a year, five years, ten years?
I would like to say that we are talking about And1 the way we had been at its peak: A brand that is engaged with its consumer base, that is authentic, that is real and that has reestablished itself as a strong competitor in the retail marketplace. How we get there, given the speed at which trends and the tools available such as social media, apps, marketing technology change, makes that a very interesting challenge, but one that we’re looking forward to facing head-on.

This interview was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.