What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands. The book evolved from a class in Positioning and Brand Development at NYU where I asked my students to write case studies of brands that had been founded by entrepreneurs without an MBA or any formal marketing background. I was surprised at the strength of these brands and some of the stories behind them. Two of the cases from the class became subjects for the book: Roxanne Quimby (founder of Burt’s Bees) and John Peterman (founder of J. Peterman). Peterman was actually the first of these entrepreneurs that I met – he agreed to talk to me even before I had a contract to publish Accidental Branding.
Accidental Branding has just been released in the U.S. and is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-a-Million. If you have a group of 30 or more entrepreneurs or marketers and are willing to buy and read the book, I’ll be happy to speak to your group on the phone or in person for free during the months of May or June this year.
EXCERPT FROM ACCIDENTAL BRANDING: HOW ORDINARY PEOPLE BUILD EXTRAORDINARY BRANDS
CHAPTER 3 â€“ THE STORYTELLER JOHN PETERMAN (J. PETERMAN)
â€œThis is a single-action Colt 45 Peacemaker, the gun that tamed the West,â€ Peterman says, as he slides the long revolver out of his custom-made shoulder holster, flicks opens the cylinder, and loads .45 caliber bullets one by one. Then he hands me the gun. The sun hangs low in the Kentucky sky, pouring red light over Petermanâ€™s ranch on this midsummerâ€™s evening and making me squint as I inspect the Colt. It is a craftsmanâ€™s piece that looks like it has been hammered out of a single hunk of iron. The handle is inlaid with smooth Bakelite, which is cool in my hand. It is heavy, much more so than it looks, and as I extend my arms to aim it I feel gravity pulling it groundward. I hold the gun carefully with two hands and sight down the barrel. Then, releasing my breath, I gently squeeze the trigger. Nothing happens.
â€œJust ease back the hammer when youâ€™re ready to fire,â€ Peterman says calmly, as if he has not even noticed my failed attempt. I nod and slowly thumb the hammer toward me until it clicks into place. Then I line the shot up and pull the trigger again. This time the Colt jumps in my hand. It is loud, much louder than gunshots in the movies. Peterman looks through binoculars at the can Iâ€™m aiming for, which is 40 feet away. â€œYouâ€™re down and to the left. Donâ€™t flinch when you fire.â€ I hadnâ€™t realized Iâ€™d flinched, but I notice it the next time, and the next. I continue firing through two reloads, shooting 18 rounds in total. My flinch gradually lessens, but although a stout poplar tree showers chips every time I fire, the can sitting in front of it does not seem to budge. Peterman is gracious with the limited supply of bullets. He gives himself a mere six shots. When we retrieve the coffee can, there are five holes in it. Peterman says, â€œLooks like you hit it a few times.â€ He is being polite. I am pretty sure Iâ€™ve missed the can altogether and heâ€™s hit five of six.
The Peterman in question, the one Iâ€™ve come to central Kentucky to visit, is none other than that Peterman: John Peterman, the founder of the J. Peterman Company. He is the man who built his mail-order business to $70 million dollars in sales and reinvented the catalog as we know it. His name is familiar to over 40 million Americans. In 1991, Holly Brubach in the Sunday New York Times called Peterman a â€œmerchant poet.â€ He is also famous because of the buffoonish caricature of him played by John Oâ€™Hurley on Seinfeld starting in 1995. Four years later, Peterman went spectacularly bankrupt at the height of his fame. And now heâ€™s back, quietly rebuilding the empire he lost.
Peterman has invited me to spend two days with him in Lexington, where I will interview employees at the J. Peterman Company (including his wife, Audrey), sit in on merchandising meetings, and see how the business runs. I am not sure he realizes that my central goal for engineering the entire trip is to visit the ranch Iâ€™m now standing on. After spending four hours interviewing Peterman in New York City a few weeks earlier, Iâ€™ve become convinced that the ranch will explain some of the mysteries of the myth he so successfully created. Even before Seinfeld, people were telling stories about J. Peterman. He was the world traveler who had fought in three wars, who hobnobbed with sheiks and maharajas, who looked equally comfortable at a state reception or tending a farm in Provence. Petermanâ€™s little Ownerâ€™s Manual was a secret handshake for a certain set of people.
Along the way, the J. Peterman Company attracted some incredibly loyal customers, loyal enough to see their beloved business go bankrupt and still return as consumers two years later when Peterman revived it. In Lexington, I hope to answer a simple but elusive questionâ€”how did Peterman build this myth that motivated so many fanatic customers? And I have become convinced that the answer lies hidden at the Peterman ranch.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Accidental Branding. Copyright (c) 2008 by David Vinjamuri. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers and from the Wiley web site at www.wiley.com, or call 1-800-225-5945