FUBU’s Stealth Marketing

UPDATED: May 4, 2010
PUBLISHED: May 4, 2010

Daymond John was not a rapper. He couldn’t sing or dance. But as a young man, he latched onto the emerging ’80s rap scene in Queens and the Bronx as his path to success.

John began working as a roadie for now legendary acts Run DMC and LL Cool J. Along the way, he found his passion—fashion. “I couldn’t rap or sing,” John tells SUCCESS, “but I loved fashion. That’s one of the most important things if you want to be successful as an entrepreneur. If you’re doing something you love, you will always succeed.”

And John knows what it takes to be successful. The founder of the urban clothing line FUBU (For Us, By Us), John has built his empire through perseverance, creative marketing techniques and groundbreaking branding strategies. Today, he’s known as the “Godfather of Urban Fashion,” runs multiple multimillion-dollar clothing businesses, and offers his marketing and branding expertise to some of the leading companies and figures in the world.

But back in Queens in 1992, John wasn’t a success yet—far from it. He had little direction and virtually no understanding of business. He did possess a strong desire for a hip tie-top hat. When he priced a few available styles, he realized he couldn’t afford what he wanted, so John designed and made his own instead. Then he made a few more. He and a friend took to the streets of Queens, and after a particularly successful night with $800 in sales, John knew they had something special.

Not long after, FUBU—the brand—was born. John sewed the logo on hockey jerseys, sweatshirts and T-shirts, but he didn’t know how to market his product. He went to his longtime friend, LL Cool J, who by this time was a star in the music industry. “I have this new company and an apparel line,” John remembers telling him. “You, as a successful businessman, tell me what to do to get this brand out there.” LL told him to find the biggest celebrity he could and not take no for an answer. “You need to stalk him and get him to wear your product no matter what,” he told John. “He needs to know you’ll never leave him alone.”

The next morning, LL Cool J woke to find John camped on his lawn. Turns out, LL Cool J was the biggest celebrity John knew.

John convinced LL Cool J and the members of Run DMC to wear his clothes. But he only had eight shirts at the time, so after one group wore his apparel, John rushed to the dry cleaners to get the garments ready for the next appearance. FUBU gear began showing up in music videos airing on MTV daily. It was one of the first attempts at product placement in the industry. Soon, FUBU was perceived as an exclusive apparel line favored by the biggest rap acts in the world.

For John, it confirmed his evolving theory about branding: Anything, including himself, could be a brand. “You’re a brand the day you’re born. And [your actions] become the brand you are. And whether you’re a famous rapper or actor, or just someone with a desk job, brand matters,” John says. “You’re judged maybe 10,000 times a day when people walk by you on the street…. We judge and brand a person within the first minute and then wait to hear things that convince us we’re right.”

John knew it was time to capitalize on the growing buzz surrounding his brand, so in 1994 he and his partners took FUBU to an industry trade show in Las Vegas. The group was inundated with more than $300,000 in orders. But no one paid up front, and John’s group had no way of producing the clothes on such a mass scale. John went back to New York and mortgaged the house he and his mother owned. With that $100,000, John turned his home into a makeshift clothing factory. He could still only fill a third of his orders, so he went to banks in search of financing.

“I got turned down by about 27 banks, and I was turned down because I was poorly prepared,” John says. “I didn’t know what banks needed to see; I didn’t know how to write a business plan; I didn’t know about business forecasting; I didn’t know anything.”

Desperate, John took out an ad in The New York Times seeking investors. Out of the dozens of loan sharks and prank calls he received, only two or three real potential investors contacted him. One, the president of Samsung’s textile division, was especially promising. Samsung watched John and FUBU over the next several months. Within a year, he and the company had a distribution deal. Soon FUBU was in department stores and malls across America.

In 1998, FUBU took in more than $350 million in revenue. John and his business ventures have totaled more than $4 billion in sales since FUBU was launched.

John turned his initial success into other fashion ventures and a separate marketing and branding consulting firm, Stealth Marketing Corp. He’s also parlayed his fame into a stint on the hit ABC show Shark Tank, where John and four other entrepreneurial giants offer critiques and guidance for fledgling businesspeople, even agreeing to partner with them in some cases. He finds his work on the show especially rewarding. “I love the fulfillment of seeing people educated. I love watching the entrepreneurs, the way their eyes light up. They go through the initial excitement that I went through 15 years ago,” he says. “I kind of live vicariously through them.”

But he chooses partners wisely, evaluating both the individual and the product. John looks for someone who can articulate ideas clearly, has researched the field and isn’t afraid to admit if he or she doesn’t know the answer to a question. Then he evaluates the product’s upside: Is it proprietary? Has it sold well with a minimum amount of effort? “If you have those things,” John says, “I’m ready to engage you.”

In any of his new ventures, John keeps his original philosophy at the forefront. He chuckles at the moniker Godfather of Urban Fashion, but the respectful name is a result of his hard work and his fundamental understanding of what it takes to build a thriving business. “I’ve learned, especially in this industry, everything is about branding,” he says. “They have to find something to call you.”