Ranger Up corners its niche and builds a macho apparel brand

vbridges@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2014 

  • Find a niche

    • Know what you have to offer.

    • Identify a niche and play to your strengths.

    • Find your target customer.

    • Tailor your business message to your market.

    Source: U.S. SBA

— At the end of East Trinity Street, Nick Palmisciano and his team are trying to turn Ranger Up into the Ralph Lauren of military apparel.

While Lauren’s brand advertises on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and has preppy and classical themes, Ranger Up’s apparel is patriotic and is promoted on military blogs, social media and through YouTube videos that use a sarcastic, macho and sometimes brazen voice.

“Whenever I post something on Facebook, I sit down and I think I am going to amuse my fiends, inform my friends, or show my friends something very cool,” said Palmisciano, 36, a father of five and West Point graduate who spent six years as a U.S. Army infantry officer.

Ranger Up’s more than 100 videos range from a pseudo-military workout with exercises that include “wet willies” to a cartoon series with military characters indulging in stereotyping and expressing themselves with no-holds-barred profanity.

Palmisciano is in some of the videos, and said he spends “zero minutes a day” worrying about whether the content offends people.

Ranger Up makes clothing that targets the military, police, fire and others that serve, along with the patriotic Americans who support them, he said.

The business was built on selling patriotic men’s and women’s T-shirts that range from $22 to $35 and include sayings such as “I hunt the things that go bump in the night” and “Unapologetically American,” one of the company’s tag lines.

“We are a small business that appeals to our core constituency,” Palmisciano said. “And if it bothers other people, they probably don’t share our values, and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether they are bothered.”

Uncovering a niche

While some might consider Ranger Up’s strategy risky, Palmisciano and local marketing experts said it’s a cost-efficient, effective opportunity to distinguish the company and engage its niche market. It has nearly 266,000 Facebook fans and a YouTube channel with 4.5 million views.

“A lot of people think that going broad is the way to go when you are building a brand,” said Olalah Njenga, CEO and founder of the YellowWood Group, a Raleigh-based marketing and management firm. “It is actually not. The best thing you can do for your brand is actually uncover a niche, and go deep in the niche.”

The strategy allows a brand to uncover a market’s nuances and charge a premium for a valued product, she said.

“Put the time and energy to figure out why people buy, and why they would buy from you,” she said. “Companies can then build a small community and test messages.”

Brands can differentiate themselves through pricing, quality, product placement and promotions that appeal to consumers’ curiosity, emotion and humor, said Jeremy Sisk, president of Xperience4Higher, a Durham small-business marketing firm.

Since 2006, Ranger Up has progressed from selling T-shirts out of an apartment to employing 15, shipping about 1,000 shirts a day and bringing in more than $4 million in revenue in 2013, Palmisciano said.

After the Army, Palmisciano sought a master’s in business administration from Duke University, where he taught Army ROTC students mixed martial arts and small-unit tactics.

After hearing his students complain about a lack of decent patriotic T-shirts, Palmisciano started designing his own.

After graduating from Duke in 2005, Palmisciano began doing brand licensing for John Deere, and launched Ranger Up with a partner in 2006 by selling T-shirts with 25 different designs.

The first year they spent about $36,000 and made about $6,700.

To connect with his target community, Palmisciano reached out to and started advertising on military blogs, which were gaining popularity at the time.

“I was able to sponsor some of these blogs and get immediate feedback and reactions to the shirts,” Palmisciano said.

Revenue jumped to $100,000 that second year, he said.

Palmisciano eventually joined and started advertising on Facebook and targeting students at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy and other schools sought out by those that aspire to join the military.

Through Facebook, he was able to interact with customers.

“We started developing real relationships with our people,” Palmisciano said.

Some customers, including a special operations soldier, interacted almost daily. Ranger Up shipped T-shirts to his hospital bed after he was injured in an explosion in Iraq.

“We wrote this big (online) article on him,” Palmisciano said. “People really appreciated it.”

The success of the post inspired the creation of website RhinoDen.com, which includes Ranger Up products and videos, pictures of girls in skimpy clothing, and news and information on the military, mixed martial arts and Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters.

Bold choice

In 2008, Palmisciano’s business partner left the company and Palmisciano moved the business into a small warehouse.

In 2009, Palmisciano was offered a promotion at John Deere that offered a boost to his more than $200,000 salary.

Palmisciano, however, decided to invest his time in Ranger Up.

“We wanted to turn this into a real strong point in veteran entrepreneurship,” he said.

Palmisciano started selling shirts to stores near large U.S. infantry posts, such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning in Georgia. Ranger Up products are now sold in more than 200 stores, and wholesale accounts brought in about $1 million in revenue in 2013.

Over the years, Ranger Up has also expanded its products to hoodies, hats, metal signs, and made-in-America men’s jeans that retail for about $95.

Ranger Up’s conference room boasts white boards covered with scribbles from previous brainstorming sessions.

Last week, one outlined the company’s plan to launch a veteran entrepreneurship program campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Another had potential T-shirt sayings. A third listed items – from bedding to bikinis – that touch people’s lives, a Ranger Up product wish list of sorts.

“We filled five boards with this,” Palmisciano said about the potential products.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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