How Carhartt Found Its Groove With Fixers and Hipsters

Brand's top marketer on going from boots to beer

Tony Ambroza and the Maker Movement arrived at the Dearborn, Mich., offices of Carhartt about the same time four years ago. With stints at Nike and Under Armour under his belt, Ambroza decided to welcome young craftsmakers, artisans and Brooklyn hipsters to the Carhartt brand, known for sturdy canvas work clothes. The svp of marketing–the brand's top marketing post–obviously relates to makers "with blue-collar DNA" who create things with their hands instead of an app.

At the same time, Carhartt, with $600 million in revenue, has to keep close to its core consumers–carpenters, electricians and tradesmen. It's a delicate balance for Ambroza, taking him on a marketing road trip across the Midwest last month that ended at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. We rang him up to see how it's going.

Carhartt is called "an unlikely fashion darling." How does a brand go from outfitting plumbers to dressing ironic hipsters?
Hipsters seem to like what we stand for and that they can't find our clothes at mass-market retailers. But we intentionally don't seek them out. My approach is to market to the few to reach the many. Of course it's great to be embraced by people who buy our clothes for daily wear, and we added some close-to-the-body fits in our lineup for that audience. 

Jacket: Alan Davidson; Ambroza: Dan Lobraco

With Carhartt being a Detroit-area institution, you're getting a ground-level view of the changes in Motor City. Any surprises?
Detroit has become a magnet for the creative class from the millennial generation. I'm most amazed at the powerful sense of community among these young entrepreneurs and craftsmakers. They don't keep their work secret; they always seem to be on the lookout for how they can help each other.

As part of your summer road trip, you launched a beer with New Holland Brewery. What's the connection between craft beer and canvas jackets?
We support craft beer because it embodies the craft movement–the resurgence of goods that are handmade with care. Lots of diverse people are doing cool things like growing organic food and building furniture. These are not their jobs, but their passions, and they look at you like you're crazy if you ask what they would rather be doing. While it sounds romantic, in reality these makers have to work unbelievably hard, and many know our products. Then there is our core market of construction workers and other tradesmen. Our branded smooth-drinking beer is a way to introduce them to something more flavorful than the Budweiser or Pabst Blue Ribbon that they are used to.

Who made a big impression on you from the tour?
Two come to mind. One was a scientist who left his job, started a hog and cattle ranch and loves it. The other is a man who has taken as his life's work to teach military veterans how to play and repair guitars. For them it's not all about email and text messaging.

Are you a white-collar professional with blue-collar DNA? Is that what led you here after working at Under Armour?
Yes, as a kid I spent summers bailing hay, and later I worked construction jobs to pay for college. Now I'm very much a weekend warrior when it comes to working on my land. We have four wooded acres outside of Ann Arbor, and I do all the outdoors work myself.<