Mark’s knows what works

With a new name, tagline and store design, the 33-year-old retailer is staying in the game and reaffirming its commitment to product innovation.

Imagine if your shirts stayed perfectly pressed without ironing, or if your dress pants were designed to repel pet hair and lint. Mark’s is way ahead of you. And wouldn’t it be handy if your winter boots were electrically heated with an embedded battery, so you could charge them just like you do your iPhone? Mark’s is introducing Thermalectric heated boots this fall.
With this kind of retail innovation, it’s no wonder Mark’s is the number one menswear retailer in Canada, and now number five in womenswear, with 99% brand awareness for adults between 30 and 55, and 75% of that group shopping the store at least once a year.
But the product line isn’t the only thing Mark’s is keeping fresh. This year, the brand elected to drop the “Work Wearhouse” from its name and replace the “Clothes that work” tagline (introduced in 2000) with “Smart clothes. Everyday living.” Customer research had confirmed that the word “work” no longer captured the essence of the store or the innovation housed inside. It no longer captured the market, either – the current clothing and footwear industry is valued at $24 billion in Canada, but workwear and work footwear only accounts for $600 million.
Although the public campaign for the new name and tagline only launched in mid-September, 29 stores were rebranded earlier this year, with new facades, new interiors and a new name above the door. The shift is reflective of the careful brand evolution that’s kept Mark’s in the game for over three decades.
When Mark Blumes opened the first Mark’s Work Wearhouse in a Calgary strip mall in 1977, he had a simple vision: to sell quality clothing, footwear and work accessories to a blue-collar worker at good value. He believed that such clothing was too often relegated to dimly lit department store basements, and wanted to bring it into a friendlier, brighter, dedicated retail environment.
 “When we look back, it sounds rudimentary,” says Michael Strachan, SVP, merchandising and marketing, who’s been with the company for 13 years and leads a Calgary-based marketing team of 18. “But back in those days, there really was no retailer that brought all these things under one roof.”
Blumes launched the first location with the assistance of an in-house marketer (but without any ad agency help). He used newspaper ads to generate publicity, and in case that wasn’t enough to grab the attention of blue-collar workers, he also brought a few Playboy bunnies into the store. “It was a different time,” says Strachan, laughing. “Think of the demographic.”
Mark’s enlisted Cooper Hayes as its first agency in 1985. By its 13th birthday in 1990, the business had grown to 150 stores across Canada, with most of the marketing plan focused on radio and newspaper ads.
While Mark’s had become a strong contender in work apparel and footwear, it was increasingly clear that the industrial sector only represented a small slice of the retail pie. Careful not to alienate its industrial customers, the brand began to expand its focus, adding casual clothing like Polo shirts and khakis – catering to a different kind of worker. This is roughly when Mark’s began working with its current agency partners, Calgary-based Watermark Advertising (for national) and Montreal-based Mediavation
(for Quebec). 
The brand doubled in size when it bought its main competitor, Work World, in 1996, turning its 150 stores into Mark’s Work Wearhouse locations four years later. By then, it was time for another re-evaluation. A year’s worth of customer research and internal discussion led to the “Clothes that work” brand proposition and the decision to focus intently on product comfort, quality and innovation. When Canadian Tire bought Mark’s in late 2001, it meant more resources were available to fuel this innovation.
Next came womenswear. Although women’s basics had started to appear on Mark’s shelves in 1995, the real push wasn’t until 2003, when the brand started creating female-specific marketing programs, including its Mark’s Is For Me website and ads in women’s magazines. The womenswear was also moved to the front pages of store flyers.
This increased focus on women has been bolstered by clothing technologies like Mark’s Curve-Tech shape enhancement clothing (with built-in bras and tummy-control panels) and the Perfect Fit Panty.
The retailer saw explosive growth from 2002 to 2008, and while sales slowed during the recession, market share continued to grow.
“Mark’s has been very focused, intense and consistent on their brand promise of clothes that work,” says John Torella, senior partner at J.C. Williams Group. “They’ve built an awareness and understanding of that concept and built it into every touch point and every piece of communications. That’s a daunting challenge and I think they’ve been up to it and delivered it.”
As of 2010, Mark’s has 378 stores across Canada, its weekly flyer goes out to nine million homes and its commitment to innovation has never been stronger, notes Strachan. 
“Innovation is the way that we differentiate ourselves,” he says. “If you look at the market, it’s becoming more and more dominated by inexpensive disposable clothing. And, yet, there are a lot of Canadians who still want quality clothing with innovation and comfort inside – that’s where we reign supreme.”
Mark’s boasts 63 different points of innovation, many of them proprietary, and its new store design has been developed to show off these features. The “experiential” focus of the updated stores was inspired by learning from a 27,000-square-foot Edmonton flagship, which opened last fall. Created by the Mark’s store design team with input from a few consultants, the flagship earned the brand a 2010 Excellence in Retail award from the Retail Council of Canada, in the category of “retail store design – large chain.”
Last winter, the Edmonton store debuted a “Winter Simulation” walk-in freezer that allowed consumers to test out winter coats in temperatures as low as -40ºC. Although the freezers are too large to add to most store locations, they’ve been rolled out in a few. The new stores also feature a ramp that lets consumers test out the grip of Mark’s Tarantula Anti-Slip technology (used in both industrial and everyday footwear, and developed with the help of the University of Calgary) on different surfaces, from stainless steel to rocks. Touch-screen monitors have also been introduced in the revitalized stores, giving customers instant access to extensive product-technology information. 
Mark’s currently has 17 TV spots in market promoting its product innovation. Toronto-based High Road Communications – which took over the PR account from Elevator Communications (national) and Nata Productions (Quebec) earlier this year – has also been doing some blogger outreach to publicize the rebrand and generate buzz around the store’s womenswear.
A September “Mark’s Over” event held at revamped stores in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton treated a select group of influential mommy bloggers and journalists to personalized makeovers. A team of stylists did their hair, makeup and wardrobe (selected from Mark’s Fall/Winter 2010 line), sending them home with free clothes and
Mark’s-branded glamour shots. Within a day, many of the bloggers had posted their photos online, sharing what they’d learned.
“I’ve always thought of Mark’s Work Wearhouse as a place to get basics like plain Ts, khaki pants and winter gear,” writes one blogger, in an open love letter to Mark’s. “But you’ve really reinvented your women’s fashion lines and I’m curious to try some of your innovations like Perfectly Pressed shirts (no ironing!) and the 50-Wash T-shirts.”
 The brand is also testing out a new retail concept: vending machines. After two years of development work, Mark’s has got two first-generation machines in market. One housed in the Toronto GO Train station dispenses gloves, umbrellas and scarves, while another in a Brampton, ON., hospital contains socks, loungewear and other items. Although there’s no plan to expand the program right now, Strachan says he’s paying close attention to public reaction.
“We’ve put the vending machines out there and we’re learning lots,” he says. “For all I know, we could end up with 500 of them if the customers react well.”
Hey, whatever works.

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