Published in Economic Development
Wolverine World Wide’s Merrell brand used the Upper Peninsula as the backdrop for its 2018 advertising campaign. Wolverine World Wide’s Merrell brand used the Upper Peninsula as the backdrop for its 2018 advertising campaign. COURTESY PHOTO

Apparel companies embrace Michigan’s outdoor recreation

BY Sunday, March 01, 2020 04:00pm

Michigan residents have taken to wearing their state pride on their sleeves.

Over the last decade, that’s led homegrown manufacturers and retailers to create uniquely Michigan brands while raising awareness of the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities. 

After the state of Michigan launched its “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign in 2008, an onslaught of copycat Michigan-branded apparel, gifts and homemade decor sprang into artist markets and small retailers throughout the state. 

But the products weren’t marketed to tourists at souvenir shops. They were made by Michiganders for Michiganders, and even some of the state’s biggest companies began to cater their products and advertising to the swelling sense of state pride. 

A few of those companies broke away from the pack, and MiBiz spoke to two firms to get an understanding of how Michigan-branded products have grown into a multi-million dollar industry. 

The Mitten State

A year after the Pure Michigan campaign launched, a pair of business partners — who had been raised in the state but left to live elsewhere — landed back in Michigan and started The Mitten State, a Grand Rapids-based manufacturer and retailer of state-themed apparel and gifts. 

“There was a lot of Michigan pride and they ended up drawing out that moniker of the state of Michigan and it just took off from there,” said Scott Zubrickas, vice president of The Mitten State. 

The Mitten State grew from a holiday season kiosk at Woodland Mall into a company that generates annual revenues between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. Before the company had an online presence, its sales mostly came from a few small retailers and residents of the state who “just loved Michigan,” Zubrickas said. 

Now, 50 percent of the company’s sales come from outside of Michigan, according to Zubrickas. 

“There are a lot of people who are giving these (products) as gifts or buying it because it’s something that they remember, like drinking a Faygo or drinking Stroh’s with their dad. Maybe they don’t live in Michigan anymore, but it gives a little bit of a feeling of home,” he said. 

Michigan nostalgia is a brand in and of itself at The Mitten State, which produces apparel featuring everything from Smokey the Bear to vintage logos from General Motors. The company is also a licensee of popular universities and sports teams in the state — agreements that they’ve established separately from traditional license holders like the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. 

The Mitten State’s outdoor-themed line of apparel, which spotlights natural resources like lakes and forests as well as popular activities like fishing, biking, snowmobiling, hiking and more, is one of the company’s top sellers. 

“The cool thing is that everybody that works here, we’re all from the state ourselves and it’s all stuff that we personally do,” Zubrickas said. “We know that in the wintertime, we either hibernate or go out and celebrate, so we’ve got really comfy stuff for when you’re just chilling at home and then we have the design aspect of what you do outside.” 

The company has participated in multiple fundraisers with its apparel and The Mitten State donates a portion of its park-themed T-shirt sales to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

“We feel like we’re representing the beauty of Michigan and we’re making a brand and a business based on that,” Zubrickas said. “We should be giving back to help keep those places clean and pristine.” 

Merrell/Wolverine World Wide 

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was prominently featured in a 2018 advertising campaign for products from Rockford-based footwear and apparel marketer Wolverine World Wide Inc. The dense forests, crumbling cliffs and icy landscape of the U.P. inspired the creators of the company’s Merrell brand of outdoor footwear while they imagined the environments in which the gear would live, according to Lauren King, senior marketing manager for Merrell. 

“Residing and working in an area that allows you to live your brand purpose and wear the products you help create is inspiring and adds to the culture we have here,” King told MiBiz. “We love sharing our team out on the trails here in Michigan with our consumers.” 

Some of the “most rewarding” parts of the campaign were the positive responses the company received from people who also live in Michigan, according to King, who said Merrell partnered with Pure Michigan to roll out the campaign. 

The advertising also worked to share the state’s landscapes with outdoor enthusiasts and Merrell customers who had never visited Michigan. 

“The reactions from those outside the state were equally exciting as many had not seen the U.P. landscapes before or considered it a hub for outdoor recreation,” King said. 

Presently, the company also collaborates with Michigan House at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas and the Outdoor Retailer expo and conference in Denver to “elevate Michigan as a mecca for outdoor recreation,” according to King. 

“We know some of the best adventures are the ones close to home,” she said. “We want to celebrate our backyard and the place we create in.”

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