Exactly What Tool Is Craftsman’s Handsome Model Selling?

A tale of two ads, generations apart

The business of building a brand name suffers no shortage of hard lessons. Here’s one of the harder ones: Even if your name has been famous for generations, never assume the newest generation will know or care who you are. Take the two ads here for Craftsman tools, which illustrate a cautionary tale that could easily apply to many heritage brands: Fame is fleeting, and banking on it isn’t always a good idea.

“In both of these ads, there’s an implicit, Pavlovian presumption about the Craftsman brand name,” observed Kenneth Homa, who teaches marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “With the older ad, it’s understandable, because Craftsman was once synonymous with do-it-yourself tools. With the new ad, there’s this presumption that Craftsman still means something. But Craftsman now has a low level of awareness, so this is a heroic leap.”

Which is too bad, since Craftsman is a textbook American success story. Started in 1927, when Sears wanted a tool brand to cater to a fast-growing segment of Americans buying automobiles, Craftsman set itself apart with design flair (all of its pieces were chromed) and quality (its lifetime guarantee was famous.) Laugh all you want at that dork cranking his boxhead ratchet in this 1976 ad from Hot Rod magazine; Craftsman was the real deal. It’s what the pros used. What’s more, Homa says, in the days before DIY acquired its yuppified, Martha Stewart chic, the target audience for this ad was as easy to identify as he was to sell to.

“That guy is my auto mechanic, or my neighbor who fixes his own washing machine. Nobody needed to explain why he needed a 74-piece tool set—he knew why,” Homa said. “And all this ad had to convey was: ‘You know you need this. Here’s a special deal. Now get your butt down to the store and buy it while it’s on sale.’ This ad is clear, targeted and well positioned.”

But times change, and brand names fade. The Home Depot was two years in the future when this 1976 ad appeared. Today, the chain claims to be the fastest-growing retailer in U.S. history—and it doesn’t carry Craftsman. Once the undisputed headquarters for tools, Sears is on the ropes these days, and its Craftsman brand now has to compete with more than 350 tool brands packing home center shelves.

Which might be why the 2013 Craftsman ad here not only fails to mention Sears at all, but nearly fails to even show an actual tool. Instead, we have meaty, manly Kevin Hanley, whose purpose seems to be putting a sexy face on a brand that consumers are supposed to know. “This ad is Craftsman concluding that its name has it nailed—so they put a fantasy layer on it [to convince you that] if you use Craftsman instead of Stanley [tools], you’ll be the coolest dude in the neighborhood. The challenge is whether Craftsman has enough residual recognition in the name to pull that off—and I don’t think they can,” Homa said.

And that is a problem no tool can easily fix.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.