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  • Clayton Smith

Underwear David & Goliath : Step One vs Calvin Klein

Updated: Nov 29, 2019

I want to talk to you about what's in my pants - underwear.

Whether you like em high and tight or loose and lazy, every man has their collection of package packaging, tailored specifically to their personal preference.

And no I will not be revealing my personal underwear style in this post, please send your requests for pics to

Today I want to compare one of the oldest and hairiest bulges in the men's underwear game, Calvin Klein, to the new, pinky sized Aussie player, Step One.

Not only is it a super interesting study on it's own, but a good representation of what's happening across the board to many of the established and dominant CPG brands.

Size Ain't Everything - Step One

Started in 2016, Step One is an Australian company selling men's underwear direct to customers. Trunks and boxers. That's it.

Let's take a look at how they are positioning themselves in the market.

Real Talk - Tone and Language

Clear, simple, everyday language; not flowery, not verbose and not overly technical.

Here is some copy from their About Us page;

" Buying underwear sucks. You know. We know it. Guys simply don’t care about it. It’s an afterthought. We've changed the game. 
It’s hard to find a pair that fits, and when you do find a pair you like, they are long gone by the time you need new ones. It’s uncomfortable, like a permanent front wedgie.

This kind of direct and casual language is everywhere at the moment, especially brands targeting younger demographics. Brands are continually moving to a more personalised approach in all aspects of customer experience, especially when targeting younger target markets.

This tells us about their target market. They want a clear message, that's simple to understand.

Solid strategy, I appreciate fully that we men are, hmm what's the right word...simple?

Strategy Talk - Features & Benefits

Their strategy is clearly focused on communicating the features and benefits of their products, watch below;

This is a key aspect to their ads. Notice they are not selling a lifestyle. They are not selling "buy this and women will love you" or "buy this and impress all your friends". It's brass tacks. This is what our product does. And it's better than everyone else's.

The fashion world is usually one hundred percent focused on the kind of person you can be if you buy the product. Not Step One.

Main takeaway - this is not about brand.

Video Style Talk - Up To Date

This quick cut, rapid fire style is very 'now'. Youtubers and content creators have pioneered this style and it is now the dominant approach for content creators everywhere. As always, marketing will reflect the time it is created in, and this ad is no different.

The companies that identify communication trends and utilise them quickly and effectively in their marketing will win. Simple as that.

On a side note, I think digital advertising has done more to advance advertising in the last ten years than TV has done in the last fifty. Onward.

Turn Up The Volume - Advertising Channels

Someone smart has opened up the cheque book and handed it directly to the marketing manager at Step One. These guys are everywhere, and that does not come cheap.

I can't speak for their print or billboard budget, but they have been all over pay TV, Youtube and social media for a while now.

You can check out the ads they have running on Facebook thanks to this super handy tool provided by Facebook called Facebook Ads Library here. You can see any ad that any page on Facebook is running. Super interesting.

Step One : Underwear

Step One has built a simple, straight talking brand, focused around the features and benefits of their product. Their style and tone of their videos is the key to their success in my opinion. They have tailored their ads to work on social media & TV. Not just TV.

Every spare dollar looks to have been spent on advertising. The ads, the photography, the website; all are simple and functional. This works in a couple of ways; it creates a broad appeal and allows them to target multiple demographics and segments within the broader male market; it also allows them to put the bulk of their capital into advertising budget, instead of their advertising creative.

The Full Package - Calvin Klein

From a single, humble coat shop in 1969, Calvin Klein now ranks as one of the biggest apparel brands on the planet, with yearly revenues in the billions. Crazy.

So it's no surprise that a fifty year old fashion house with revenues that start with a 'b' approach their advertising strategy differently to a small, Australian based underwear only startup.

As you can imagine, Calvin Klein swings for the fences when it comes to advertising. The biggest stars of screen, stage and sports are on the CK payroll, with no expense spared. I once talked a director who made TV ads and he had done a few with Apple. He said that budget was not a concern. Any shot, any location was on the cards if necessary, from a mountain top in Peru to a desert in Egypt. I imagine the same would go for a Calvin Klein shoot.

Here's one of their latest ads with Bella Hadid;

And how about this one celebrating their 50th anniversary with the Biebs and Hailey;

and finally this one with five of Kardashian clan;

My mind boggles at how much CK must have forked out to get all the Kardashians in one campaign together. To get them all in the same promo? for the same brand? Silly amounts of cash for sure. And totally worth it.

Brand First, Product Second

As you can see in the above ads and plenty more on their Youtube channel here, there isn't much discussion about the features and benefits of the products. This is about one thing and one thing only; brand.

It's the oldest strategy in the advertising playbook; buy our products, and you get to be just like these famous people.

The fashion world has never been overly concerned about features and benefits, and even less so the more luxury and high end you go. Especially in fashion, the utility of the garment can only go so far, and so how do you differentiate? Everything else besides the product.

Perfume ads are big on this, and have always fascinated me. No discussion about the product itself. They never discuss how the product smells or how long it lasts; it's about the lifestyle and person the customer can align with if they buy this product. And it has worked for centuries; checkout this example from 1760 of a potter who made a tea set for English royalty and branded himself as "royalty approved". Wedgewood is still a famous brand today.

The focus on brand in the fashion world is partly why I find this comparison so interesting.

It's what tech analysts originally didn't understand about Apple; that they had transitioned into a lifestyle and fashion brand, and were no longer just a tech company. Which is why features and benefits are not as important to the Apple customer as they are to other tech brands. But that's a discussion for another time.

Conclusion - Step One is playing in a different sandpit

By focusing on features and benefits, Step One is removing themselves from the flashy, muscular, perfectly sculpted, aspirational, unlimited budget fashion world of underwear and into the everyday man world.

This is a great move on many fronts.

Firstly is that they don't have the bankroll to get involved in that world. If it's one thing I've learned from my time at the poker tables, it's 'don't sit down to play if you ain't got the cash to bet with in the first place'. Step One just ain't got anywhere near CK levels of cash. Trying to fight fashion fire with fashion fire would have been a terrible plan. Step One needed to be different.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is a massive market of men who do not take any notice of fashion. They are not interested in aligning themselves with sculpted movie stars and rock gods. They are not interested in presenting themselves as 'fashionable'. They do not consider being 'fashionable' to be important.

So if they don't care about fashion, which Calvin Klein is built its brand on, there is a massive opportunity in this market. And I think it's true for many other markets, where the incumbents are behemoth brands that rely on their brand and their brand alone to sell, leaving openings for consumer focused niche product and service providers to swoop in and carve out businesses.

Step One's approach goes back to that fundamental marketing step you are tired hearing about; understanding your target audience. As you can see, Step One understands their market, and have been able to align their whole customer experience to their target market.

One small step for undies, one giant leap for mankind.


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