A recent trip to St. Louis found Team Rosenthal on the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour. For the young son and daughter, there was a foosball table in the waiting area, Clydesdale horses in the stables and a gift shop. For the parents, there was free beer.
Actually, we were there for the same reason I had nudged the boy through Ford Motor Co.'s factory tour to watch F-150 trucks being assembled near Detroit last summer. I believe it's important to occasionally remind ourselves of all that's involved in producing goods we might otherwise take for granted.
Like the brand-name undershirts my wife bought me before we left on our St. Louis trip, and returned for a refund upon our return. Calvin Klein — the brand, not the man — encouraged us to contemplate where both its T-shirts and our brand loyalty came from — and what each was worth.
"There are certain things people want and they just want it cheap," Edward Lampert, the chairman and chief executive of Sears Holdings Corp., remarked to me a few months back. "There are other things that people will pay through the nose for. The T-shirt that we sell for $4.99, let's just say it costs us $2.99. The T-shirt that Calvin Klein sells for $70 may cost them $3.99. So the amount of quality in a product isn't materially different, but in some ways that's the value of a brand."
Lampert's Sears, struggling for survival in the retail landscape, has its own brand-identity issues of late, and no one in my household has ever paid even $20 for a Calvin Klein T-shirt. But whatever the difference in what Calvin Klein spent to produce its shirts previously made it worth the investment.
It wasn't a fashion statement. Few know you're wearing an undershirt, let alone the brand. But the weight of the fabric, the cut, the quality, had always made Calvin Klein a go-to choice.
"A brand is a constellation of associations that help or facilitate consumers making decisions, so expectations become wildly important," explained Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
St. Louis is one of a dozen Budweiser breweries scattered across the country. Our guide's spiel noted the water at each is filtered and monitored for uniformity. Beer drinkers have to know a Bud will taste like a Bud regardless of where it was brewed and bottled.
A fashionable brand name and label alone might be able to win a following for a while. Loyalty programs can tie you to a certain brand or company. But often, especially over time, a brand is a covenant with consumers. If the promise is high quality, it better not skimp.
"People deeply trust their favorite brands," said Tim Calkins, another Kellogg professor and author of "Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defense Strategy to Deal With Competitive Attacks."
"The best brands manage to deliver great service or great quality day after day. BMW consistently makes great cars. Nike consistently produces great athletic apparel. Whole Foods consistently sells great produce."
The new Calvin Klein T-shirts were a letdown. The opening of the V-neck wasn't as big. The fabric was flimsier. The label of the older shirts said their country of origin was Thailand. The new ones came from Haiti. My wife would get her refund without a hitch, but I wanted to know more, if only to be reassured these were not knockoffs.
"Calvin Klein did, in fact, change the production on the T-shirts from Thailand to Haiti," Karen Martin, senior buyer for accessories, loungewear and underwear for retailer Destination XL Group, said by email. "The garment was made lighter but is aligned with industry standards."
The Thailand-made Calvin Klein shirts were made of 100 percent cotton that, in textile industry parlance, had a weight of 180 grams. The newer ones from Haiti were also 100 percent cotton but just 155 grams.
For the sake of comparison, Martin said a similar Jockey tee from Bangladesh also was made of 155-gram fabric and Polo's version from India was 130 grams. Unfortunately, the weight of the old Calvin Klein shirts helped make it worth the premium, and the company changed it without any way for a casual shopper to know it had done so.
"We have strong relationships with the brands that we carry in our stores," Martin said. "However, we cannot dictate the specific quality our vendors use."
Had my wife or I thought to check, say, Amazon.com, we would have been warned. According to a customer comment trail of complaints that goes back several years, some customers felt the Calvin Klein shirts were even better when they were made in Egypt. In any case, the Haiti-made shirts always came in for criticism.
This is where the representative from Calvin Klein should be explaining when the changes were made and why. The company would tell us how Calvin Klein, acquired from the namesake designer almost a dozen years ago by PVH Corp., thought consumers would respond to the changes. We would learn what Calvin Klein believes its brand, described on PVH's corporate website as "powerful, influential and highly relevant," ought to signify to customers.
I asked. More than once.
Jennifer Crawford, senior vice president of corporate communications for Calvin Klein Inc., eventually did get back to me almost a week after my first inquiry. A spam filter was blamed, though she also said she was in Europe, about to fly back to New York, and couldn't provide answers without research assistance from her colleagues.