How Duke Cannon Has Changed The Face Of Men’s Grooming By Being Proudly Unpolished

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May 18, 2021 /Forbes/ — Very few brands can find themselves at home on the shelves of both Ace Hardware and on But Duke Cannon Supply Co. isn’t your typical brand. Launched nearly 10 years ago, Duke Cannon is proudly unpolished. The approach has led the company to be one of the fastest growing brands in the men’s grooming space. I sat down with Ryan O’Connell, Duke Cannon’s president and CEO to learn what proudly unpolished means to them and how the brand’s unique approach to retail has set the business apart.

Dave Knox: What is the background of Duke Cannon?

Ryan O’Connell: Duke Cannon was started on Veteran’s Day of 2011 as a premium men’s grooming brand. Our co-founders Sam Swartz and Anthony Albanese were former PepsiCo marketers and on Veteran’s Day of 2011, they launched their first SKU. It was a Big Ass Brick of Soap and that has been one of our signature SKUs ever since. They launched as direct to consumer (D2C) and since then, they grew distribution in small brick-and-mortar, independently owned retailers, and gradually grew into some larger banners like Duluth Trading and Carhartt. I joined in 2016 after being at Target for nine years. Since then, we’ve expanded across other channels, including FDM, while continuing to grow our independent, specialty, and D2C channels. We are currently in over 30,000 stores across the U.S. with a strong D2C business and we’ve expanded the assortment well beyond the Big Ass Brick of Soap. We offer a full breadth of men’s grooming product ranging from body washes, aftershaves, beard care products, hair wash, and hairstyle and everything in between.

Knox: The men’s grooming category has changed considerably over the last decade. Where does it go next?

O’Connell: The category has evolved over the last decade from being dominated by big national brands like Dove for Men, Axe and Old Spice. In the last five years, premium and challenger brands have been able to catch on across Food/Drug/Mass and D2C. That is only going to continue with a lot more entrants in these next couple of years, mainly because men are increasingly engaging in personal care. We know from our own research that the engagement level of most men in grooming has been relatively low. As recent as three years ago, roughly 1 in 4 men were using whatever was in the bathroom, meaning that whatever their significant other had purchased they would use and just be content with that. Us and some of our peer brands have really changed that dynamic with more appealing scents, approachable branding, and product better designed for men’s needs.

At Duke Cannon, we focus on function, fun, and purpose—those three elements combine to differentiate and power our brand. Some of our competitors use different positioning, of course, but we think the category is going to continue to evolve and grow as men become increasingly engaged. There are a lot of men out there that would never even consider the use of a face wash as early as three years ago and now they are using a facial skincare regimen. Same thing with hairstyling. A lot of men didn’t really consider a pomade or any other types of styling products as recent as two years ago and now they’re using two to three different types of pomades. The category is in a really healthy spot with strong projected annual growth through 2023. Naturally, some camps will form in the category. There will be some brands like us that offer a wide-ranging assortment and then there will be some niche players focusing on certain segments, like skincare or beard care. Regardless, the consumer is going to be in a really good spot in terms of choices.

Knox: How has Duke Cannon built such a loyal following over the years?

O’Connell: We have had a consistent approach. We have always had a sense of humor that has made the brand very approachable. We call ourselves proudly unpolished. We never use models and instead use in-house talent. One of our guys on the sales team was featured in our Proper Cologne ads last year. Let’s just say he doesn’t necessarily have the body of models you may be seeing from our competitors. But it’s being proudly unpolished, being approachable, talking about lifestyle interests—not just grooming—that is super important for men to become more engaged in the category. Frankly, it’s a little counterintuitive, but you’ll see us talking more about things that interest our core consumer than grooming at times. And that taps into how men think. They may not want to be told what to use when it comes to grooming. Content that ranges from grilling in the summer to bowling with your friends to catching up over drinks may, however, be more approachable. And while such content doesn’t hit on the core product that we offer every day, it does offer little respites for men as they go about their day…as they work hard to make sure that they are taking care of themselves and make sure they are taking care of their friends and families.

Our purpose as a brand is to better the day of hardworking men. And the way we do that is twofold. One is the use of our products. It’s a personal care product. He’s using our brand every day and the product offers a little respite through great scents and superior function. Our scents are designed for him. And the product is designed for him through a more thoughtful approach to product innovation. As an example, our body washes have a higher viscosity and distinct masculine scents (e.g., cedarwood, leather) when compared to national brand body washes. The reason for higher-viscosity is to provide a better, longer-lasting cleaning experience that does not require a loofah. We believe it is important to design the product in a functional way and to offer great scent. The second way we better his day is through our content. And we have been very consistent over these last 10 years, offering a great sense of humor and being very approachable. This content has fueled a sense of camaraderie among the Duke Cannon community and, as a result, created a loyal following.

Knox: How does Duke Cannon balance this ever-evolving omnichannel retail landscape?

O’Connell: It’s an opportunity and challenge. Back in 2014, we would consider any retailer that called as long as the retailer was investing in the category. Nowadays, you really have to take a look around and understand who are the winners and losers in brick and mortar retail. And from a selling perspective, you have to blend a brick-and-mortar environment with a digital environment. It must be well-balanced to create a true omnipresent brand experience.

More particular to our business, you can call grooming a category within the larger beauty categories and I think winners in beauty will have a brick-and-mortar presence coupled with a strong digital presence. Scent is a way to convert a consumer so, typically, presence in stores enabled consumers to experience the product more closely and drive conversion. But, increasingly, we are investing in a stronger digital presence, which is capturing so much more of our initial purchase and replenishment. We want to invest with and want to grow with retailers that also share this mindset. I think Target is best in class in this regard, and a few other regional players are building the omni-present capability rapidly, particularly with flexible fulfillment options.

The other element of omni-channel is focusing on your core consumer and understanding where he is or those who may be shopping on his behalf. I think we are the only brand that can say we sell in Ace Hardware stores and on To think about a personal care brand being sold in Ace Hardware is kind of crazy, but it works fabulously for us and Ace. When Saturday morning rolls around, lots of hard-working men love going to an Ace. They want to see what’s going on. They want to buy grilling accessories if it’s warm or they just want to fix up something in their house. Ace is where they go to pick up the tools for either occasion. We have been partnering with Ace for the last three years as part of their impulse merchandising strategy. As consumer comes up to the register, they see a Duke Cannon brand statement and grab a bar soap, aftershave or beard oil. It is a total impulse purchase. They love it because it’s this kind of little treat. It’s a respite. They’re like, “Oh. I didn’t know you guys had Duke Cannon.” or,” Hey, I heard about Duke Cannon. I didn’t know where to buy it. Now I see it at Ace, I’m going to pick it up right now.” The consumer loves it. Retailers love it because it is a basket builder and increases the average ticket value. Turning attention over to, we’ve been doing business with now for four years. And when you think about women shopping for their household or women shopping for themselves but curious about maybe gifting for the men in their lives, that’s where comes in. We’ve had a successful growing business there. We often see spikes around secondary holidays as well as the main holiday season because she’s buying for him.

So there are really these two lenses that we look at in terms of distribution. One is building an omni-present brand across numerous channels and the other is pursuing the best opportunities to deepen the relationship with your core consumers.

Knox: If you had launched Duke Cannon today, what do you think you would do differently versus back in 2011?

O’Connell: Not much. In 2011, Sam and Anthony didn’t have many options to launch a brand other than D2C. Challenging national brands in large retailers with relatively no awareness would have been a significant hurdle at that time. But, building the D2C capability was probably the best thing for us given today’s trends and the pull-forward adoption of D2C buying in personal care as a result of the pandemic. I would add that, back when we launched, most brands viewed D2C as more of a marketing asset than a marketing and selling capability. Now we think of it as both. D2C has to work hard as a channel to be omni-present in the market. Fast forward to today and many brands start with a strong D2C business, build their equities up on those channels, and then translate that back into brick-and-mortar. That’s the reverse of traditional thinking behind brand launches, but, today, I think it’s more important than ever to think that way.

Knox: As a lifestyle brand for guys, how has Duke Cannon thought about launching verticals beyond your core?

O’Connell: We get it all the time from our fans, but as the CEO, I really want to keep the team focused on men’s grooming. There’s a lot of value in just staying focused on what we do well right now. Over time, we will start to take some of the equities we’ve built, whether that’s in scent or in product function, and really think hard about what are these other verticals that we could win in. We won’t go recklessly into a vertical just because we think we can and we think our core fan base would like it, but we’ll take a thoughtful approach.

There is no question in my mind that we will enter new verticals as a lifestyle brand. It’s just a matter of being patient and figuring out when the time is right and when the team is ready. We have seen instances in our category where a brand may have early success, then jump to another category in short order, but it can lead to distraction and a brand team that is spread too thin. We’re in a good spot where premium men’s grooming category is in great shape and the consumer is getting more and more engaged. We have a very clear role in the category with very clear positioning. I want to only strengthen that position in these next couple of years and then we will make a move into new verticals when the time’s right.

Knox: What advice do you give to entrepreneurs that want to follow the path of Duke Cannon?

O’Connell: It is a twofold recommendation. First, really listen to what your consumers and your customers (i.e., retail partners) are saying about your brand and product. Second, have patience. Build the business, don’t rush the business, and don’t force the business. If your brand has potential, the signs will be clear—if you are listening. For instance, learn from your consumers about what makes your brand and product different and more appealing than competitors. What are the things that pop for your brand as differentiating factors? Understanding those factors helps your brand positioning and product offerings. Internalize those differentiators and think deeply about how to translate them into a strategy.

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