In 2012, Tyler Merritt was an active duty helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, deploying to combat zones. Despite those intense challenges, he and his wife started a clothing company from their garage, at the same time as he served: Nine Line Apparel.
Fast forward to this fall. Half a decade later, they reportedly bring about in $25 million a year, according to a new report, selling t-shirts and other branded products with original designs.
The difference between the early years and today? The campaign and election of President Donald J. Trump--and the way that blew a market wide open for Merritt's company.
As Greg Jaffe wrote in a truly intriguing story The Washington Post (well worth reading in full), the president's supporters have become some of Merritt's best customers. And that's made his company (#987 on the Inc. 5000) successful.
'Polarizing topics create brands'
There are a lot of keys to the company's success, but as Jaffe reports, Nine Line built its customer base by discovering and applying the open secret of our era. It's that companies that stake out strong, polarized positions--and develop products that reflect extreme views--can attract very devoted followers.
"Polarizing topics create brands," Merritt told the Post.
His products back that up.
Almost all of his top t-shirt designs are about either touting the wearer's patriotism or his or her disdain for liberal Americans:
- "In 1775, they tried to take our guns. WE SHOT THEM."
- "Family, Faith, Friends, Flag, Firearms -- 5 Things You Don't Mess With"
- "Stomp My Flag. I'll Stomp Your Ass"
'Pitting the audience against themselves'
Merritt's company also has an effective social media strategy to identify their most likely customers, as Jaffe reported, which partly involves its 1.8 million-fan Facebook page.
"It's kind of pitting the audience against themselves," the employee who runs the company's social media, Kaila Donaldson, said of one social media post.
Sometimes they fall flat, like when Donaldson tried to post about Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired 4-star Marine general who has been a favorite of Nine Line customers but who has apparently fallen out of Trump's favor.
But others catch fire. Donaldson explained to the Post that a Nine Line item about President Trump's threat to close down the Mexican border, for example, inspired intense passion.
Much like the company's number-1 selling product.
It's a stark, simple shirt that rebuts former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick--whose kneeling protests during the national anthem at NFL games sparked massive blowback from Trump, and amplified deep feelings among his supporters.
Merritt saw the opportunity for a Kapernick shirt immediately after Nike made the former San Francisco 49ers QB the centerpiece of a new ad campaign.
Merritt quickly assembled his design team, according to Jaffe.
While Nike has been praised for its savvy in siding with Kaepernick (most younger Americans, who buy a lot more athletic shoes and gear, reportedly support the protests), Merritt was targeting the other America, that vehemently opposes Kaepernick and what he stands for.
The shirt is simple, including the words, "JUST STAND," in the same font that Nike used years ago for its "JUST DO IT" campaign, and a design that looks like cross between the Nike swoosh and an American flag.
Merritt was quickly booked on Fox & Friends, President Trump's favorite news program, to introduce the design. He told viewers: "It makes me physically upset when I see people taking a knee."
And it worked. Nine Line Apparel sold more products in a day than it had sold on the previous five annual Black Friday sales, combined, according to the Post. Months later, it's still the top company's seller.
The lesson seems clear. The country might be more divided than it has been in decades, but for companies willing to take advantage of polarization and take strong positions, political issues are good for business.