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Richard Bussey, vice president of accessories for Fender guitars, could probably fake some enthusiasm for his work—but he doesn’t have to. The man loves six strings and everything to do with them. Bussey spent half a decade as merchandise director at Guitar Center prior to joining Fender. If you head over to his Instagram page, you’ll see Bussey strumming, singing and looking very happy with his limited-edition Fender Parallel Universe.
“I eat, sleep and breathe guitar accessories—it’s my passion,” Bussey told Adweek. “I’m always thinking about new products and innovations.”
So when Bussey found himself in a meeting with the marketing people at Wrangler—the denim brand that’s been putting jeans on cowboys and wanna-be cowboys since 1946—he was at no loss for ideas.
Fender and Wrangler had already issued a co-branded apparel collection in 2022, an assortment of flared jeans, cutoff vests and flannels “built around the defining black and blue lived-in denim uniform worn by guitarists for decades,” as Wrangler’s corporate explained it.
That line had been well received, so the brands decided to do a second one. It, too, would contain plenty of denim jackets, vests and graphic t-shirts.
But “when we figured that we [could] get denim, we’re like, okay—let’s make a [guitar] case wrapped in denim,” Bussey said.
Without quite seeing it as such, the product teams at the two brands were not only about to create a limited-edition product, but they also raised the bar on co-branded merchandise.
New products, old idea
Brands partnering up to release capsule collections is a venerated idea in the marketing bible. Cosmetics brand Bonne Bell, for instance, released a Coca-Cola flavored lip balm back in 1975. Nike’s Air Jordan line has been delivering the goods since Michael Jordan signed on the dotted line in 1984. And Lego struck co-branding gold in 1999 when its first Star Wars themed building set hit store shelves.
But partnerships like these invariably yield products that stay within predicable parameters—usually one brand’s signature product with a dollop of the partner brand’s intellectual property: its name, its colors or just its name recognition.
When Dairy Queen partnered with the Girl Scouts in 2008, for instance, the result was simply a Blizzard shake flavored with Thin Mint cookies. And when Vans got together with Harry Potter in 2019, the special collection consisted of standard Vans sneakers adorned with the colors and crests of the four Hogwarts schools (Ravenclaw, Gryffindor and so on.)
What distinguishes the guitar case (and the matching guitar straps) in the most recent Wrangler x Fender collection is that, when it comes to the legacies of both brands, this stuff … strikes all the right chords. The case especially stands out from the usual co-branded merch because it’s a costly item (retail price: $249) that was not easy to make.
Music and denim
The idea for the collaboration between the two brands originated when Wrangler’s marketing department was planning around a milestone approaching in 2022.
“As part of our 75th anniversary, we had a couple of activations that we did with Live Nation,” Wrangler’s vp of global brand marketing Holly Wheeler recalled. “And then [we thought], ‘Hey, if we’re going to talk about music, we’re going to talk about rock and roll—and what’s the most iconic guitar in rock and roll? It’s a Fender. So that’s kind of where it started.”
The Fender collaboration—both the 2022 apparel collection and the current one—taps into a somewhat lesser-known part of Wrangler’s music legacy. While country music fans have seen Wranglers on stage for years (Dwight Yoakam and George Strait are among the brand’s many loyal wearers), a host of music legends in other genres have worn Wrangler, too—Bob Marley, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Blondie, to name a few.
When Queen front man Freddie Mercury took the stage at Live Aid in 1985—performing before a global audience of 1.9 billion people—he wore Wrangler jeans.
This sort of history elevates a merchandise line above a garden-variety cross licensing deal, Bussey said: “It felt like a natural partnership because of the legacy of artists who wore Wrangler.”
The case for the case
Inspiration for the apparel came from sifting through photos from Fender’s archives, including old advertising. Gradually, the visuals “started to inspire the design team,” Wheeler said. “You’ve got these really cool ’80s wash trends, lace-up denim and fringe—all of those things work from both a rock and roll and a Fender perspective.”
Guitar accessories like paisley-print straps and tortoise shell picks grew naturally from these sessions, too. But Bussey was determined to create a marquee item.
“We thought, ‘What is cool about a guitar case? It holds a guitar. What is cool about Wrangler? All the accoutrements of it.’ We can smear the two together. I always like to make peanut butter and jelly ideas,” Bussey said.
But making a guitar case take on the personality of jeans turned out to be harder than making a sandwich.
“It turns out is there’s a lot that goes into a pair of Wrangler denim,” Bussey said. “What we found out was, you can do this authentically—it’s just a lot of work.”
Accessories product manager Jordan Gruver took on the task sourcing every component that normally goes into a pair of jeans and then figure out how to assemble a guitar case from them. Since hard-shell cases are usually made of plastic, it was no small feat to literally stitch one together. Cotton denim—the same used to make pants—underwent the requisite washings until the color fade was right. Then factory technicians stretched it across the case’s body (this one’s plywood, not plastic), adding touches like rivets and leather trim.
“My contribution was to put the butt pocket on,” Bussey added, referring to the signature “W” stitch pocket sitting on the case’s lower right corner.
For Wheeler, it was essential that the denim for the case and straps look and feel like a pair of Wrangler jeans. “We want to make sure the wash is bright and have that sort of buttery soft texture—that classically worn-in look to them,” she said.
All told, the elapsed time between idea and sellable product was two years.
It was time well spent, according to veteran marketing strategist Shama Hyder, CEO of Zen Media.
“Co-branded merch is nothing new, but the guitar case made out of denim is particularly notable because it goes beyond just slapping on a logo,” Hyder said. “It is what I’d call ‘melded merch,” and will become a trend. What makes this particularly effective? It’s authentic. It literally weaves the two brands together into a brand-new product. It also triggers a sense of nostalgia. I also bet this will become a collector’s item.”
Actually, that’s the idea. With a production run limited to 2,500 cases, “we assume that in 10 years we’ll see these on the used market driving a $1,000 price tag,” Bussey said.
If Bussey’s right (and even if he isn’t), there’s a latent benefit for Wrangler here, too. Because unusual products like the case generate buzz, and world-of-mouth marketing is a central component at work.
“The way [we have been] able to merge these two brands to have kind of a showpiece, it just takes it to a next level, which is really cool,” Wheeler said.
Cool enough that guitar players took notice quickly—not just of the accessories, but of the custom Fender Telecaster used in the PR materials.
“What we really want to know,” said Guitar World magazine, “is where we can get that denim-finished Telecaster with the leathery pickguard that appears in the promo photo… How do we wrangle one of those?”
Bussey didn’t want to get into too much detail on that question, but he’s fielded his share of inquiries about it already.
“We’re looking into [offering] leather pick guards in the future,” he said.