We recently had the opportunity to work with Red Wing Shoes — a great work boot brand that has traditionally targeted the Blue Collar male. Naturally, we wanted to better understand this Blue Collar guy a bit better so we set out to do a number of deep learning groups across the country, followed up with a robust segmentation study of guys who need work boots for their jobs. We were in for a bit of a surprise.
It seems that the best place to find the typical Blue Collar guy today is in the truck commercials saturating NFL games. Changing social mores and tectonic shifts in the economy have conspired to almost wipe out this stalwart archetype.
Let’s start with the obvious changes in our economy. The manufacturing base in this country has been devastated because most companies now make things in China and other low-wage countries. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek 95% of men in their prime (25-54) had jobs in 1969. Today that number is 81%. Much of that decrease has come at the expense of the classic Blue Collar laborer. If you think about the classic picture of the Blue Collar guy, he is most-often working in a manufacturing plant.
It may seem strange in this environment that sales are strong at Red Wing. So who is wearing real work boots on the job today? If a guy still needs work boots for his job today, he is more likely to be working in a data center or applying a craft that needs to be done on-site, i.e. something that can’t be out-sourced. It turns out that the image of the guy who turns the same bolt all day on an assembly line is an out-dated caricature.
The jobs these working guys have now require brains and brawn. The working men we talked to take great pride in their ability to figure out solutions to problems. They face different challenges every day. This is true of electricians, IT guys, carpenters, oil workers and transport guys.
That leads to the social side of this story. The term Blue Collar is never used when these guys describe themselves. When we asked directly about whether “Blue Collar” described them, they said that they didn’t relate to that term at all. The word that seemed to fit them best was “Craftsmen.” (See the terrific book Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford for more on why this term is aspirational.) Moreover, many of these guys were multi-dimensional, with interests in art or music that defined them as much as their jobs do. Almost all were confident with technology. And their interests were far more expansive than the football, girls and beer stereotype associated with the classic Blue Collar male.
Young guys who have physical jobs are very different than they were in 1972. But take a look back at advertising aimed at Blue Collar guys in 1972, and aside from the mustaches and hair, the guys depicted are pretty much the same as the ones we see today in Blue Collar-targeted advertising. Imagine if we depicted women in the same way now as we did in 1972? It would be unconscionable. But for some reason, this mythic Blue Collar male is frozen in time. According to the ad agencies, he hasn’t evolved at all in 40 years.
Why don’t most marketers get this? Maybe it’s because today’s Craftsmen need to be prodded a bit to talk about masculinity and what it means to be a man these days. Unlike women from my mother’s generation who revolted against female stereotypes, they hesitate to fight masculine Blue Collar stereotypes in overt ways. That’s because no one has clearly articulated another option for them. Until you can paint them a solidly masculine new world to inhabit, they reluctantly cling to those worn 70’s anchors of manhood.
And that smells like a big opportunity for the right brand to create a fresh, masculine, up-to-date badge for today’s Craftsman. Though diminished in sheer volume, he is still out there in a new form that is worthwhile understanding.