Masters in Business

Joe Boxer founder Nick Graham on the art of calling attention to yourself. And your company

Nicholas Graham first learned of the power of the press by accident.

Back in 1987, when he was still silk-screening his Joe Boxer boxer shorts by hand, he'd do screen tests on pieces of paper and then throw the paper in the garbage. Well, one particular pattern of boxers consisted of $100 bills, and one day some kids were going through the Dumpster behind Graham's San Francisco building and came across the discarded test papers. Thinking that they had uncovered some fiendish den of counterfeiters, the kids ran home to tell their parents, who alerted the authorities. Shortly thereafter, the Secret Service showed up at Graham's door to confiscate and burn the contraband. "They were just doing their job," says Graham, "but they were laughing about it, too."

The media picked up on the story, and that was the birth of Nick Graham's obsession with publicity. "We got so much press from that," he says. "And at the time I didn't really know what that meant. Then everyone started to hear about the company: 'Oh, you were the guys with the counterfeit underwear."

While he was never publicity shy, in his first few years in business Graham concentrated on the logistics of growing an apparel company. "But in the last five years we've really gone on steroids with the publicity events," he says. "As we got more and more confidence as a business, we got more and more crazy. Just imagine what we'll be like in five years."

Inc. senior staff writer Christopher Caggiano spoke with Graham about his desperate need for attention--and about how that need has translated into benefits for his company.

Inc. : What's your public-relations philosophy?

Graham: I'm trying to figure out if there's anything philosophical about public relations. And I'm not sure if what we do is public relations. It's kind of in between marketing and giving the brand--and the company--more depth than you otherwise would in advertising. More of a three-dimensional idea than just buying an ad in a magazine. This is a company that actually does things--interesting things, goofy things, things that benefit the community.

Inc. : Other apparel companies might do similar things for publicity, but with Joe Boxer there's always an edge. Why is that edge there?

Graham: Because I get bored really easily. I'm sort of an extreme example of the short-attention-span adult. My background is performance, singing in bands as a lead singer. And I dabbled in acting. Mostly, I'm just comfortable with being the front person. I never considered myself to be a designer. We're more a marketing-driven company that happens to sell apparel. And the apparel that we sell is actually conducive to a lot of humor and a lot of identity.

Inc. : How much of this "attention getting" is an extension of your personality, and how much is a business necessity?

Graham: A lot of it is just because I want to do it. Literally, the whole premise behind Joe Boxer was to build a brand. Building a brand, especially in the past 10 years, has become such a critical part of a company's success. Anyone can build a product, but not everyone can build a brand. Why are we that much better than the other guy who's making boxer shorts or children's apparel? You have to have that other layer on top of the product to really add the value.

Inc. : What's the other layer?

Graham: It's a layer of excitement or identity. When you buy a Polo shirt, you get to imagine that you have this wonderful 17-bedroom mansion in Westport, Conn.

Inc. : What are people buying into with Joe Boxer?

Graham: A small house trailer in Omaha. Seriously, brands are an opportunity for people to adopt a lifestyle. Why do I buy a certain pair of underwear? Well, Calvin Klein or Gucci will make me feel sexy; that's the image they relate to me. If I want that, I'll buy it. With Joe Boxer, it's a very eccentric brand. We're sexy, too; we just go at it in a different way. One of the things that women find most attractive in men is their sense of humor. Humor can be sexy.

Inc. : Is that why the company is involved in sponsoring comedy shows?

Graham: I don't know; I just like comedy. One of the most successful things we did last year was sponsor British comedian Eddie Izzard's U.S. tour. I saw him on Letterman, thought he was a genius, and said, "I gotta meet him." I wasn't even thinking of us working together, but when I went to his show we hit it off. We promoted Eddie with displays at bus shelters with real underwear, calling it "A show so funny, you'll need new underwear." For opening night, if you showed up in your underwear you got a new pair of Joe Boxers. So we wrapped the whole Joe Boxer identity around the comedian without trying to infringe on what Eddie's about. That led us into sponsoring many different shows, from The Rocky Horror Show, in Los Angeles, to Sandra Bernhard in New York, to the off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.