The big idea: Shep and Ian Murray started selling neckties out of their Jeep on Martha’s Vineyard in 1998. After selling 800 ties in one weekend, the brothers knew they had an idea worth pursuing. By 2014, their company, Vineyard Vines, had 55 clothing stores in the United States and had partnered with more than 600 licensed retailers. Traditional preppy brands such as L.L. Bean were struggling to remain relevant in comparison. Since its inception, Vineyard Vines had featured consumer-generated content in its catalogues and on its website, showing the authenticity of the brand and the people who wore it and reinforcing its “Every day should feel this good” slogan. The rise of social media further enabled customers and fans to submit content, and the Murray brothers wanted to leverage this in a meaningful way.
The scenario: Vineyard Vines had built a strong online presence, but reaching younger consumers required cutting-edge digital marketing. If done well, social media could catapult the brand — and its revenue — higher. The question: How?
The resolution: In the spring of 2014, some Davidson College buddies attended a horse race, and one wore “alarmingly” bright orange pants. The pants were then borrowed without permission and traded among many friends. Each pursued increasingly adventurous activities while wearing them and sent photos to the owner. They called themselves “The Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants,” a reference to the popular teen novel and movie “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” To prolong the joke, they created a dedicated Instagram account to chronicle the journey.
The Brotherhood contacted Vineyard Vines, the maker of the pants, to see whether the company would trade additional pairs for marketing material posted on its Instagram account.
The social-media team loved the idea and asked the Brotherhood to be part of its marketing campaign for the summer of 2014. The Brotherhood agreed under the condition that Vineyard Vines assist them in completing the last leg of the John Frankel Memorial Scholarship, established in honor of a friend from Davidson. The friends needed $23,000 more to endow the $250,000 scholarship.
The Brotherhood continued to post pictures to the @brotherhoodofthetravelingpants Instagram account that showed the friends wearing Vineyard Vines pants while water-skiing, golfing, fishing and surfing. The social-media team featured its favorite pictures on Vineyard Vines’ Instagram account, tagging @brotherhoodofthetravelingpants in the pictures and comments. By the end of the summer, Vineyard Vines saw increased Instagram traction and a 300 percent boost in men’s pants sales year over year. Vineyard Vines donated custom ties for the Brotherhood to sell for $85 apiece, which closed the scholarship funding gap.
The lesson: Many social-media platforms represent relatively low-cost ways to build a community with customers. This Instagram effort allowed Vineyard Vines to associate the brand in customers’ minds with areas of interest tangentially related to the pair of critter pants or the bluefish tie that a customer might buy. Customers experienced relatable content through the Brotherhood’s Instagram account. And the association with a memorial scholarship endeavor kept the brand authentic.
This valuable partnership also benefited the Brotherhood. In one summer, @brotherhoodofthetravelingpants gained “influencer” status, at 10,000 followers. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore a guy in bright blue pants barefoot water-skiing. One member of the Brotherhood, when asked whether there had been any downside to the project, replied, “Well, sometimes it would be nice to wear shorts.”
Murray, who is not related to the founders of Vineyard Vines, is a digital marketing consultant and an adjunct instructor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.