Lesson Learned: Duck Head

I’ve been excited about writing this post for a while.

I wrote an honest post about Duck Head’s flat relaunch late last year.  Remember the marketing campaign in G&G of some older guy on a vintage motorcycle?  This was October 2017:

Read the whole thing here (along with the comments).  The takeaway from the blog post: “To me, Duck Head was a culture.  The big yellow tag was a nod to a lifestyle that wasn’t about excess or luxury.  It was about a simple pair of inexpensive khakis that started as your ‘good pants’ for church, work, and dates, and eventually transitioned to yard pants, and ultimately cut off as shorts.  What stayed through that transition was that iconic yellow tag, and the attitude.  It’s a shame, folks.  A crying shame.”

This was an important time for Duck Head, as they were trying to find their place, but they fell flat.  That post garnered quite the response, proving my hypothesis that there is a very large, devoted customer base just waiting for Duck Head to get it right.

The feeling of Duck Head is one of the many inspirations for Red Clay Soul.  I hate to think of it as a ‘Southern thing’, but all of my friends wore Duck Heads, and we’d wear them to death.  We wore them because our older brothers in high school and college wore them.  Before every school year Mom would take us to Uptons and buy four of five pairs of Duck Heads in a few colors, knowing that they’d eventually be passed down to my brother, or cut into shorts if I wore out the knees.  The yellow tag was a badge of honor.

This old Duck Head marketing sums it up:

A couple weeks after I published that post, I got an email from a gentleman named Bill Thomas.

Bill had just been appointed the new Brand Director of Duck Head, and wanted to chat about my article.  We hopped on the phone shortly thereafter and had a good conversation.  The long and short of it is that they got the message.  The pushback they received from the release, both on the Garden & Gun marketing as well as the general online sentiment resonated.  There is already a loyal Duck Head customer base, and

I shared my perspective of Duck Head specifically on how it’s more of a feeling; a stockpile of good memories rather than just a brand.  I expressed my concern about the price ($118), and how I understood a $29 pair of khakis isn’t feasible, but convincing someone to pay that much is too much of a stretch.  I told him that it felt like the last two or three relaunches of Duck Head missed the mark: it was all about the yellow tag on the back, and there seemed to be a reluctance to bring that back.  These had a green badge, which my have had some historical significance, but it didn’t resonate.  The relaunch before this one had used a printed white tag, which was a complete joke, and fell flat as well.

Bill agreed. The marketing campaign was created before Bill took the helm.  That ship had sailed, and immediately created an uphill battle.

Bill has a long history in the khaki business.  Ever heard of Bill’s Khakis?  Yeah, he’s that guy.  Bill’s mission was to rebuild the brand based on the principles that garnered Duck Head such a big following back in the 80s: make khakis that are affordable, but meet a quality standard to keep brand loyalty, and to use the yellow tag.

We went through his product roadmap, where he shared his vision of three levels of khakis: the entry level that would attract the yellow tag lovers, a mid-grade that would be an ‘upgrade’ and more alterable, and then his aspirational idea was to have a pair of USA made, super nice khakis for the hardcore audience.

We talked about sourcing materials, and the current economics of mass producing a pair of khakis.  He walked me through his pricing structure, which after explaining, made a lot of sense.  His goal was to recreate the Duck Head yellow tag chinos for under $100.  The reality is that it’s not possible to sell khakis at $29 like they did in 1985.  They aren’t looking to end up in Goody’s again, so Bill was beginning his work to create a great pair of khakis that today’s college crowd and young professionals could start making the memories I had when I was coming up, as well as guys like me could re-live our glory days.

Since last November, Bill and I have stayed in touch.  We had numerous lunches, phone calls, and text messages.  Bill is a true developer: and he was looking for focused feedback on the khakis.  Some fun conversations:

Discussing yellow tag options:

The first prototype:

Let me clear something up: Duck Head has paid me no money, nor have they promised me anything.  My greatest asset to you readers is my credibility, and my loyalty can’t be bought.  If I didn’t believe in Bill and his vision, I would have said no.

Fast forward to today:

Duck Head has relaunched, and taking a ‘join the revival’ approach.  The chino lineup is exactly as Bill envisioned, and quite frankly, they hit the nail on the head.  I have touched and felt the Gold School chinos, and they are excellent.  The $89 price tag is very palatable and warranted for what you get. They create a context for the lineup.  It aligns with other khaki brands at that price point.  The yellow tag is prevalent, but not as BIG as it was back in the 80s.  This was a conscious decision, as the market points to a more subtle label that is appropriate for professionals (who aren’t big on huge logos).

There’s a small bit of stretch in the fabric, which is common in today’s khakis.  The fit is what I’d call a ‘trim classic’ cut.  They aren’t baggy at all, but not slim by any means.  I’d say the sizing lines up with Levi’s garment dyed 501s; not very ‘vanity’ in their sizing, more true to size.  The leg opening is good for loafers and boots – around 8″ for a size 32 waist.  For care, wash them as you normally would, then dry for ~5 minutes, and hang to dry the rest of the way.  They’ll be ready to wear the next day, or give them a quick iron if you’re going for a crisper look.

Duck Head also offers an upgraded model, known as the Green Badge chinos (the same ones they launched back in October of ’17), which are really nice when put into context with the release of the Gold School chinos.  Duck Head will be releasing the Gold Glory chinos in September, which are the USA made chinos.  I saw these last week, and are really incredible.  I can’t wait to tell you about them…  Here’s a sneak peak:

Over the next month or so, you’ll be seeing quite a bit of marketing on Duck Head’s relaunch in different mediums.  Given how much we’ve talk about them here on Red Clay Soul, I thought it was important to share my recent experience with all of you.  I really think they’ve gotten the message, folks.  Chinos are a part of our culture, and Duck Head is back.  Thank the Lord.

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  • NM08/27/2018 - 7:47 AM

    Are all 3 re-launches under the same company, just using different product/marketing managers to try to find the fit/sourcing/price balance? I picked up some of the first re-launch and it felt like they photocopied my usual J-Crew 36×30 measurements into a slightly heavier duty fabric, with the yellow duck logo of course. And I recall they were in the $60ish price range, also JC equivalent. They are still a comfortable pit of pants that has held up well. But I sense that was a bit too modern cut/interpretation for some of the old school duck head people. The new higher end pants’ waist trim and made in USA tag looks rather like what Bill’s used to do… any insight into sourcing there? ReplyCancel

    • JRS08/27/2018 - 7:57 PM

      Nope – all three relaunches are different.  Ownership has changed hands a few times.  More to come on the higher end pants…stay tuned.ReplyCancel

  • Nem08/27/2018 - 8:45 AM

    When I was at UGA (1986-1990) Duck Heads were everywhere.  We’d buy a new pair at Dick Ferguson’s and have their tailor narrow the legs for an extra $10 and be good to go.  If these new yellow tagged units are close, I’ll be happy to buy a pair or two.ReplyCancel

    • JRS08/27/2018 - 7:59 PM

      I have a couple of the REALLY old pair that I still wear – same thing, flat front and I had the legs tailored down.  I think you’ll like the Gold Schools (and I think you’ll really dig the USA made version as well…)ReplyCancel

  • Landy08/27/2018 - 9:01 AM

    Needing a new pair of chinos so I will give these a look. Disappointed not to see a ‘find a retailer’ link on their website as I’d prefer to check them out in person before pulling the triggerReplyCancel

    • JRS08/27/2018 - 7:59 PM

      Where are you located?  I know they are in a few retailers…ReplyCancel

  • Nacho dos Passos08/27/2018 - 9:28 AM

    Have you seen the relaunch of Jack Donnelly as week? Any experience on those? 
     I have a soft spot for Duck Head(l (UVA ‘91) but the last iteration put me off.  Having Bill’s and the experience I’ve had with them is enough to at least get me to look at them.   ReplyCancel

  • DH08/27/2018 - 9:47 AM

    WHO is it within their market research that prefers a more subtle logo, millennials? This isn’t a dig at that generation, but I suspect that’s not the demographic who’d support this brand the most, especially at this price point. I wore these pants in undergrad in the late 80s-early 90s and would gladly wear them again, at work, WITH the old-style yellow patch. They’ve missed the mark yet again, even after being told time after time what people really want.  ReplyCancel

    • Richard Williams08/27/2018 - 7:03 PM

      I agree. Still not listening. I still have 3 pairs left I bought at Goodys or Army-Navy. Price point should be comparable to Eddie Bauers Legend Wash. ReplyCancel

  • M08/27/2018 - 11:19 AM

    Sadly I think this goes nowhere.  Somethings just need to be retired, no matter how great they were.  I wore Duckheads through high school and college in the late 80’s early 90’s.  The were usually about $20-$25 and in 2018 that equates to about $40.  

    The only way I see DH getting any positive traction is to get a price point around $49.99 or so.  Perhaps an exclusive with Target like Lily and Hunter did successfully.  DH needs to become the “cool” economy brand.  Think Timex not Rolex,  ReplyCancel

    • Taylor08/27/2018 - 4:31 PM

      Spot on, dude. Absolutely spot on.ReplyCancel

    • RH08/27/2018 - 9:36 PM

      Make them exactly the same as before, sell them for $50 a pair and I will stack them like cord wood in my closet.ReplyCancel

    • Stephen08/31/2018 - 2:38 PM

      The Target idea sounds smart, though they might have to remind people they’re not just a Goody’s brand first.ReplyCancel

  • Ryan08/27/2018 - 11:28 AM

    I am slightly disappointed about the comment: “They aren’t looking to end up in Goody’s again…”.  I think that’s what I enjoyed about them.  I used to get a couple pairs of khakis when I would go in for my college football gameday gear in the early fall.  That’s another thing that folks are forgetting.  These old throwback jackets and polos that people are paying big bucks for on consignment websites are more than likely from a department store.  There is nothing wrong with ending up there.  That’s the market that needs some work.  I love a good men’s store just as much as the next guy, but I want a good khaki at a great price.  I’ve got plenty of great khakis at a decent price.  Mass produce these bad boys with the big yellow tag and let me start mowing the grass in them again! Then I can turn around and wear them to tailgate in.  But, I am glad to see them making moves in the right direction.  Thanks for the post. ReplyCancel

    • JRS08/27/2018 - 8:02 PM

      I get it…let me clarify: These Duck Heads have more of a focus on quality rather than an extremely economic option.  Make sense?ReplyCancel

      • Ryan08/27/2018 - 10:24 PM

        I understood everything you said. That was my long, polite way of saying I still don’t think this will work.  The “extremely economic option” was what made them so appealing to begin with.  ReplyCancel

      • CR09/21/2018 - 2:54 PM

        The problem here is in what you just said, that DH STILL seems to not get. What made them so appealing back then was that they WERE quality khakis for an extremely economic price. I get that in today’s retail market (I have spent my entire career in marketing, creative, and product design for global retail brands) you cannot go back to a $25 khaki, but I agree with some of these other comments that you could get it around $50. I’m just not going to go play a pick-up game of football in a pair of $90 khakis, and then mow the lawn in them. They are off the mark again and too many nice khaki options out there these days for $90ReplyCancel

  • Trip08/27/2018 - 11:31 AM

    I think this is definitely getting closer to the mark than the last relaunch, and I think the different price tiers are good, but I think they’re still missing the mark by not using the exact same logo as the originals. If they don’t want to do it for the top tier and maybe even for the middle tier, OK, I get that. But for the pair that is supposed to appeal to sense of nostalgia of the originals? Just use the exact size/shape logo as the originals.ReplyCancel

  • matt08/27/2018 - 4:29 PM

    Glad to see them right the ship.  I was a big Bill’s fan but they did a horrible job executing the sale of that company and lost my business.  I’m glad to see shorts under $80 and have confidence in Bill’s capacity to build a great product and brand.  ReplyCancel

  • David08/27/2018 - 7:30 PM

    I have been hopeful with each relaunch.  Like many I prefer the yellow patch over the tag but not a huge issue.  I do like the different options but most of all I like the fact Bill is involved.  I was a big Bills fan, still have a closet full of them.  I got the opportunity to meet him a few times at Wm King.  Sign me up, again….ReplyCancel

    • JRS08/27/2018 - 8:04 PM

      Let me know what you think after you get them.ReplyCancel

  • jay08/27/2018 - 8:12 PM

    I just don’t understand the issue with the big logo.  Why can’t we have it back?  I understand the tiered prices as well but damn…if you’re going to do a third tier, $90 is still up there.  That’s not tackle football at Thanksgiving money in south Alabama.  I hope they are successful but they should really consider the old, trusty logo.  ReplyCancel

  • Tanner08/27/2018 - 10:04 PM

    $90 still seems pretty steep to me, especially when compared to the cost of J. Crew and Orvis chinos, especially when not all of them are made in the USA. I’d be willing to try on a pair and if I can tell a big difference I’d consider buying it but don’t feel comfortable buying them blindly. Where in South Carolina do they sell them?ReplyCancel

    • OhioHead08/29/2018 - 4:27 PM

      $90 is very steep when I pick pick up $100+ Peter Millar Khaki’s @ Nordstrom/Nordstrom Rack for $50 w/o a logo……I grew up north of the Ohio River & DH’s were not super popular in the early-mid 90’s (HS – early College).
      I know making/selling a $50 pant is not easy – but can be done & unless a major retailer (Dillard’s) pick these up they won’t last long.
      Just my $.02 ReplyCancel

  • Chris Herrmann08/27/2018 - 10:22 PM

    Has there been any discussions about Gold School shorts. The new shorts (green label) are terrible. I loved the original Duck Head shorts. The new owners and previous owners destroyed them. They always looked good and held up to wear and tear.ReplyCancel

  • BCM08/28/2018 - 1:18 AM

    I can’t for the life of me understand why this has been so hard. The originals were universally loved (at least in the South) because they looked good, fit well, and were priced appropriately so that young men with limited means could still look great. We don’t need Supima cotton and fine corozo buttons. Get the price point around $50, and for God’s sake use the original yellow tag. Forget the high-end stuff. Stock every men’s clothing store in Southern college towns. It’s not that hard.ReplyCancel

  • JAF08/28/2018 - 3:08 AM

    Everyone seems to be missing that there’s a reason Duck Head went out of business in the first place. Economical + quality seems impossible to achieve, and brand nostalgia is overestimated as a viable marketing strategy. If everyone who loved and misses the old Duck Head (including me) ran out to buy the relaunch you’d have a company that… quickly went bankrupt again. New blood is needed to move product, and that new blood isn’t those of us who would love to see that original label on a pair of new pants. 
    Frankly (and sadly) the spiritual successor to Duck Head price / quality intersection is something we aren’t going to see anytime soon, mostly because the market doesn’t want it. My old Duck Heads were stiff as boards when new, and stiff pants that need a break in are not in demand at all given that everyone is now used to the pre-broken-in alternative (as evidenced by the new Duck Head’s inclusion of “stretch”). The closest I’ve seen are the pants sold by Ball and Buck, and those are a much higher price point. ReplyCancel

    • Not Bert or Ernie08/29/2018 - 7:31 AM

      @JAF – intelligent post regarding the economics.  The only way you get $50 pants is make them by the truckload (not DH’s market) and construct them cheaply.  Yes, DH went out of business because they didn’t manage the economics.  Selling to semi-preppy college lads is not truckload volume.  Invite anyone to get out your favorite $50 (full price not Marshalls price) pair of pants that you’ve bought within the last 12 months.  Then look inside and see where they were made, what the brand is, and how they are made – fabric and features.  You’ll find Bangladesh/Cambodia/etc., a much larger volume brand, and corners cut in the make and fabric.ReplyCancel

  • Mick08/28/2018 - 6:13 PM

    Spandex khakis, I just can’t do it. That 2% of stretch will never allow these to feel like you want a good pair of khakis to feel.ReplyCancel

  • Robert B.08/28/2018 - 9:21 PM

    The original company was O’Bryan Bros Manufacturing, and had been around since WWII.  It was family owned and operated for many decades providing work clothes, mainly overalls, for farmers in the south.  My grandfather and his business partner decided to launch a line of khakis and modified the logo which originally had a white background.  The khakis were in the same spirit as the overalls, tough, dependabe, and above all affordable.  It was great working summers in the factory in the mid 80s when the brand took off. Sadly he sold the business in the early 90s.  The first buyer expanded sales, but cheapened the brand by placing it on all manner of products.  What finally ended up in Goody’s was a complete debacle deserving of bankruptcy. 
     Glad the brand still has some life, but times and tastes do change.  Duckhead will always be indelibly linked southern culture in the 80s, but O’Ryan Bros was successful for over 6 decades by making affordable clothes for hard working southerners.  Best of luck with the relaunch.  ReplyCancel

    • OhioHead08/30/2018 - 10:48 AM

      Thank you for sharing your family history with the brand.ReplyCancel

  • MMR08/29/2018 - 8:56 AM

    I want so badly to like the new Duckheads. But I just can’t get on board. $90 is Way too much for the low-end pants. I can get on board for 50… Maybe.… But only if they made them the way they used to be. The large yellow logo was a badge of honor, not something that we should be embarrassed of, which seems to be the indication with the new smaller logo.  I love the idea of three levels of khakis, but the low-end should be just that… Low-end and with a lower price tag.ReplyCancel

  • Philip Barnes08/30/2018 - 5:34 PM

    So glad that Duck Head is back…I had these khakis back in college. I just got my new pair the other day. The new product is so much better than my old college Duck Heads….great value and quality. Hopefully, they’ll make jeans and field pants.ReplyCancel

  • Beth09/10/2018 - 11:18 PM

    Glad they are made in USA. Look at LC King manufacturing. They are the last family owned cut and sew factory in the US. 100% if their product is made in the USA . ReplyCancel

    • Danny Baseheart09/13/2018 - 6:12 PM

      I was wearing my LC King blue jeans recently on a trip to Ireland! I love what they do.  I have a Cone Mills denim barn jacket from them as well!ReplyCancel

  • Danny Baseheart09/13/2018 - 6:11 PM

    O’Bryan Bros was started in Nashville by two brothers and a group of investors in the late 19th Century.  The clothing they manufactured was strictly cotton canvas & denim workwear…Really basic, simple, & affordable dry goods for working people.  What’s amazing is the fact that by the time my father went to work as a sales rep for Duck Head in 1977, he was selling the Duck Head overalls to feed stores and army surplus stores as this was the staple product, & the company was in pretty serious financial trouble.  The agrarian market was disappearing quickly, & my father was looking to try just about anything to help Duck Head stay afloat.  The phenomenon  that Duck Head khakis became was born from a very simple, & sincere idea: Create an affordable khaki pant that folks could wear with a sports coat or t shirt, etc…It was to compete with blue jeans really & it worked.  I’ve kept an eye on Duck Head over the years as new companies have tried to relaunch the brand, & for the first time since my father sold the business I can honestly say that the new group seems to have the right intentions. The yellow label is such an important factor of a Duck Head khaki pant, & I’m glad to see they are listening to the market. With a slow & steady approach, I feel confident this new relaunch will be successful, although the Duck Head phenomenon of the 1980s can never be duplicated.  I believe the new owners realize this, & they seem to have the sense to adapt to this modern environment in a sincere way.  I’m anxious to see things evolve with Duck Head over the next few years! ReplyCancel

  • […] been a little over a year since Duck Head relaunched.  More specifically, a relaunch of a relaunch.  It’s fair to say that they finally hit the nail […]ReplyCancel

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