Introduction

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(New Era Google+)

New Era first gained popularity in the 1930s as a sporting headgear brand, along with the rise of baseball, attaining the baseball fan community as its primary consumer group. After shifting brand identity to a baseball cap provider, New Era’s dominance over the sports arena continued to grow, but in the 90’s, New Era started to push its identity beyond the baseball world. Through such course of history, New Era not only has become a major provider for official football caps as well, but also has come to embrace hip hop artists, dancers, skateboarders, and other people engaged in the “street culture” as a consumer group that makes up a significant part of its brand community. Today, with the emergence of the snapback hat as a trending fashion item, New Era earned a more diverse range of consumers while maintaining its initial target consumer group, and the diversity of the brand community led to the expansion of the narrative of the New Era brand. The examination of how New Era interacts with its consumers, we see that New Era approaches consumers as a malleable brand that transforms according to how the consumers interact with the brand. Such approach has shaped New Era into a brand that is valued by multiple groups of consumers, exceeding its identity as simply an official MLB hat brand.
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Success and Limitations in the Sports Arena

Approaching consumers involved in sports lifestyle as a brand with an original, authentic sports heritage, New Era builds credibility as a lifestyle brand that is embedded in the American sports culture. One way that New Era demonstrates such authenticity is through the presentation of its history. The official online webpage includes a “Heritage” page with lengthy history of the brand presented in easy-to-view, interactive timeline format. New Era’s choice of the term “heritage” over “history” connotes that New Era is not just a long lived brand, but a cultural brand maintained with tradition and authenticity. The timeline covers the origin and heritage of the company and its history of showing support for all range of athletes, from major league players to minor, local team players. Such history is also emphasized in length to portray New Era with a narrative of authenticity. In 2010, New Era’s 90th anniversary became a key point of its advertising campaign, as 90 years of history signifies a tradition that other competing brands do not have. New Era presents itself as an original brand that shares the history of baseball and its players from the very beginning, as the brand to be granted the first exclusive license with MLB to provide official on-field product. Recently in 2012, New Era was chosen as the official on-field cap provider as well, and this deal with NFL demonstrates New Era’s credibility as a sports lifestyle brand outside of baseball. Labeled the “official” brand licensed by major sports leagues, New Era attains a narrative as an authentic representation of sports, by being accredited by major institutions and players of the sports culture. New Era’s approach with authenticity in the sports arena as its narrative appeals to consumers to consume its products to establish authentic connection with the sport and the represented teams.

For consumers engaged in the sports culture, New Era caps signify celebration, pride, and support for a sports team, and they are used as markers of mutual allegiance in the physical world. A Dodgers fan claimed in an interview that a baseball cap is like a “secret handshake” that is shared within “a community that you instantly become a part of when you wear your team’s ball cap” (MLB). Whether it be baseball or football, sports fans build their community through dialogues that occur with the signs on their caps, which are primarily provided by New Era. For this reason, a part of New Era’s brand community overlaps with the MLB or NFL brand community, and therefore the consumers’ relationship with New Era is sometimes supplementary to the consumers’ relationship with the particular sports league. According to Muniz and O’Guinn, a brand community is a “specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand,” characterized by the “relatively strong degrees of commitment” of the members (412-413). These consumers clearly value New Era brand, for the signified team that they support and for the products that make them part of a community with others who bear the cap of the same team. Their lack of commitment and direct interaction with the brand, however, shows that the sports narrative based on major league team sports can be too weak to form a brand community and a lifestyle around New Era.

Because of this lack of a direct relationship with the sports fan consumers, New Era faces a challenge to maintain its appeal in the sports arena without depending too much on existing institutions. New Era emphasizes its technological assets that appeal to athletes as a brand invested in enhancing their sports lifestyle. New Era’s official webpage has a page called “NE TECH” that enables consumers to explore the various aspects of design and technology that makes New Era products the best suitable for athletic activities and casual wear as well. On this page, New Era’s technologies of cooling, thermal guard, water repellent, and UV protection are introduced, as well as a summary of its technological progression from the innovation of adjustable size caps to the various features that enhance sports performance. Through the emphasis of such technological aspects of its product design, New Era urges consumers to see that its products are good sporting gear before they are simply team merchandise, and also reiterates its goal of making products with the athlete in mind.

To make its presence more prominent among the consumers involved in the sports culture, New Era also makes efforts to create its own brand community and a lifestyle that is parallel to, but separate from the MLB or NFL lifestyle. One way that New Era approaches in doing so is by hosting events that encourage consumers to participate on its own platform, rather than those provided by the major sports leagues or teams. The current theme of New Era’s NFL line of caps is “Speak with Your Cap,” emphasizing the role of New Era hats in the sports culture. Their “Cap Battle” event, calls on consumers to represent their team allegiance with their cap and use the New Era social media platform to cheer for the team they support during the official game time of the team. Through this event, New Era encourages the formation of the sports fan culture not only around the act of “wearing” the hat and “speaking” their allegiance through such act, but also around interaction on New Era platform as the key to supporting a team. New Era reaches out to fan communities of sports and urge them to participate in its brand culture in their athletic lifestyle and fan culture. Despite these efforts to stand separate from other colliding brands, New Era is still confronted with a challenge of becoming a primary brand for consumers solely with the narrative of sports because of the overpowering presence of the sports leagues and the teams as partner, but also competing brands.

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Allegiance Outside the Sports Arena

New Era’s search for narratives beyond sports was met with consumers outside of the sports arena who, despite also their lack of direct relationship with the New Era brand, attached highly symbolic meanings beyond sports allegiance to the New Era products. In 2001 after the 9/11 event, many people at a national scale wore New Era’s Yankee hats or Mets hats to show support for the victims and solidarity with other people of New York who were affected by the tragic event. By wearing these hats, rather than showing support for either teams that the caps represented, they made a “statement of “United We Stand,”” empathizing with the people of the region that bear the same cap (MLB). Consumers used New Era’s products to communicate allegiance with one another,  making a political statement of support and unity in the midst of national conflict by consuming and wearing the hats.

The consumer use of its products to attach meaning of unity and allegiance with one another, rather than with a particular team signified by the cap, seems to have inspired New Era to also manufacture products that directly symbolize a social cause or memorialize a political event. With products that carry social and political meanings, New Era urges people not only to ‘wear’ the hats, but  also ‘speak’ with them about their social and political stance. As a response to the 9/11 event, New Era released hats for all MLB teams with the addition of the USA flag patch on the left side of the hat (Creamer, Chris). If the New York Yankees or Mets hats regionalized the 9/11 event and showed support specifically to the people in New York city, the flag served to symbolize the event as a national tragedy and displayed more apparently the national unity and support. These caps were brought back on field and on sale in 2011, for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, and has become a iconic tribute for that event. New Era produces other lines of products that serve a function of memorialization and carry a meaning of unity. For Veteran’s day of 2013, New Era introduced a new product line that supports the Pat Tillman Foundation, USO, and Wounded Warrior project. Banet-Weiser claims that a “brand culture provides a kind of index for supporting and legitimating specific political consumptive acts” (135). New Era’s production of hats that directly speak about a cause seems to be such form of supporting and legitimating people’s political and social stance of unity by visibly representing it on the hat. Consumer attachment of social and political meanings to New Era’s products met with New Era’s search for ways to expand its brand narrative beyond sports heritage and led New Era to incorporate in its brand narrative the allegiance to one another in a greater community. Yet this narrative, like that of sports allegiance, seems to be contained more in New Era’s products rather than the brand itself.

Narrative of Individualism

Unlike the sports fans or other consumers who used New Era caps as a symbol of unity under one entity, people of the “street culture” and other artists saw New Era hats as objects for individualization. Perhaps it is the casual style — New Era’s caps with wide, flat brim have almost become an iconic object for the “street culture” through appropriation by its people. Hip hop artists, especially Jay-Z, are best known for participating in this process of appropriation of New Era hats from mere sporting goods to an icon of a culture. Aside from simply wearing them, they frequently incorporate the New Era brand in their musical works, using New Era.

Man, I keep my fitted cocked just to show my head line; But keep it down low when I’m out on the grind; It’s gotta be New Era man no matter what they charge; But it’s all good cuz I got my Lids card; Keep my tag on my brim just for stuntin’ purpose only; Never rock no other brand cuz that shit’s phony” (“New Era”)

In this excerpt from the lyrics to a musical work titled “New Era,” the rapper Lil’ Flip describes how he incorporates specifically the New Era brand in his identity through the way he wears it “cocked” and sometimes “down low,” and the loyalty he shows to the brand “no matter what they charge.” Through appropriation, the artists attached their own meaning to a brand that did not have the narrative of “street culture” before, which led New Era to recognize these young people of the streets as significant group of consumers for the brand, and also the narrative of individuality as a potential for building a new culture of its own.

As a response to the street artists’ use of the brand, New Era absorbed the new meanings created by this new consumer group to expand its narrative outside of the sports arena and invited them to the construction of its brand community and a lifestyle characterized by individualism. In 2010, New Era launched a new campaign that promotes self-expression, using phrases that urge one to do his or her own individual thing, such as “blow your own mind,” “fly your own flag,” “build your own bandwagon,” and “create your own era” (Creamer, Matthew). Such slogans, especially “create your own era,” accentuates the theme of individuality because they suggest that New Era is not imposing a dominating idea of a new era that people should fit into, but encouraging people to create their own “new era.” Through the adoption of consumers’ idea of the brand as its own, New Era maintained the consumer group that initially attached the meaning of individuality, and allowed the brand community to grow by appealing to more members of the “street culture” with a value of self-expression. The theme of self-expression is relevant also in society as a whole today because of the emerging concern that identification of self is becoming artificial due to ever advancing technology that replace “authentic” human modes of interaction.

Spike Lee is another artist part of the New Era brand community, whose search for individuality contributed to the transformation of the New Era brand upon the new narrative of self-expression. New Era’s movement to making customized hats started out with Lee’s request as a consumer, when he asked the company for a custom-made Yankee hat with unofficial colors in 1996 (Creamer, Matthew). New Era incorporated the idea of customization in its business strategy and cultivated its narrative of self-expression by allowing consumers to create their own hat, to represent themselves with cap styles that are not limited to the official New Era collection. Now the New Era website leads consumers to a whole another website called “New Era By You,” equipped with a system that allows consumers to generate their own New Era hats through means of personalization. The consumers’ sought for individual character in its products made New Era interested in personalizing business and push “authenticity” and “individualism” as its brand narrative to move into the business of building its own identity and culture.
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New Culture around New Era

With the establishment of a brand community composed of members who directly identify themselves within New Era’s new narrative of individualism, a new culture formed around New Era. As consumers took their caps as objects that allow construction of self, the issue of authenticity and legitimacy became important in the community. Legitimacy is an important component of a brand community as well, as a process of differentiation “between true members of the community and those who are not, or who occupy a more marginal space,” so their interest in legitimacy of the products seems almost consequential to the establishment of a committed community around New Era (Muniz 419). Lil’ Flip’s lyrics “I got my Lids card and keep my tag on; Never rock no other brand” well exemplifies the consumers’ value of authenticity in their New Era caps in his reference to other brand products as “phony” and his demonstration of the tag culture in the New Era community. The New Era community has a strange ritual of keeping the tag or the sticker on to show the legitimacy and authenticity of the brand, which is rarely seen in any other brand culture. It is known that this culture was initiated by an individual who kept the tag on as “a personal touch to let everyone know he has an official New Era hat,” and was adopted by others with the same value of showing legitimacy (Creamer, Matthew). Because of the amount of stress they put on keeping authenticity of the brand, the members of the New Era community become active participants of New Era’s anti-counterfeit movement, against non-genuine products. Aside from the tag culture, the community also shares multiple discussion forums with guides on authenticity check, which can often be seen online.

Tag Culture

Tag Culture

The culture of cap collecting also settled as a common method of self-expression in the New Era brand community. Many loyal collector consumers use their own individuated collection of New Era caps as a profile for their identity. Such act of self-profiling through collecting New Era hats can be seen also as an act of “self-branding,” which involves the “self-conscious construction of a meta-narrative and meta-image of self” through consumption (198). In an interview of a New Era cap collector, we see that he has a designated “favorite,” “go to,” and “first” New Era hat. For the members of New Era’s brand community, each hat seems to bear a story that speaks about a part of an individual, who is then branded according to the hats in the collection. The culture of a brand is often co-produced through a continuous cycle of exchanging meanings between the branders and the consumers, in a culture “loop,” as described by Lury (151). Culture of New Era, including the deal of legitimacy and cap collecting, also seems to be the product of the loop, in which New Era provides narrative that it picked up from its consumers, and consumers add to the narrative to create a brand culture through interactions with the brand.

Cap Collection

Cap Collection

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New Era of the Prosumers of Individualism

New Era demonstrates success in creating its own standalone culture and a lifestyle around the theme of authenticity, with a brand community that puts values not only in the products but also in the New Era brand itself. It is questionable, however, whether New Era truly helps consumers express individual personality; it seems paradoxical that it is calling to the people to express their unique selves by consuming the products that are ready made and that multitudes of other people also wear. Inviting the consumers to be more than just consumers, New Era works to diminish the visibility of this paradox and appeals to the young consumers with a passion for making their own statement, as a brand that helps foster individuality. New Era reaches out to its brand community to invite dedicated consumers to be the “cultural “intermediaries” for the brand, or what they call “Flagbearers,” representing New Era for other consumers or potential consumers through their individual stories (Canclini). A major celebrity that New Era has built a relationship with is Jay-Z. Originally a dedicated consumer of New Era products, Jay-Z now has his own line of products at New Era. He is a notable cultural intermediary who represents the brand by incorporating New Era some of his works, and also by consistently updating his fashion with his customized New Era hats, one of them having lyrics from his song, “I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can,” engraved on his hat. New Era also has other sports stars and artists in the global community on its list of “Flagbearers,” who present their narrative of individualism alongside their relationship with New Era. Guy Barnette, the creative partner at New Era’s ad agency Brooklyn Brothers, claims that New Era is “defined by the people who wear it, not by the company” (Elliott). By recruiting influential figures to act as cultural intermediary between the corporate and consumers, New Era invites consumers to contribute their uniqueness in the building of New Era as a brand that promotes authenticity and self-expression.

Jay-z in his hat customized with lyrics to his song “Empire State of Mind”

To present itself as a supporter of people’s self-expression, rather than as a self-imposing brand that tells people what to wear, New Era depends on the consumers to become producers of the brand as well, thereby becoming what Lury terms a “prosumer” (105). Act of consumption itself is a productive activity that “produces a common that can work as a context within which goods can acquire,” but New Era calls on the consumers to be more conspicuous forms of prosumers (Arvidsson 242-243). In 2011 for its 90th anniversary, New Era invited 90 influential fans to create their own caps to be auctioned for charity. The submitted works were also used as content for New Era’s 90th anniversary collection book that features the creativity that New Era fosters in its consumers. Similarly, through another linked website New Era Introducing, New Era invites consumers to submit their art work that showcases their “creative skills and scope of imagination,” who then, when accepted, will be given a task to transform a blank canvas cap into a distinctive work of art. Final works are said to be showcased in a limited edition “New Era Introducing” book, and one piece awarded with 10,000 for the artist’s career. New Era’s selection of “influential fans” or unique artists and giving back to them, in forms of an award and a feeling of having made a social or artistic impact, establishes New Era as a brand that fulfills its role as a supporter for consumers interested in expressing themselves. At the same time, New Era constructs and publishes its narrative of individualism through the content produced by consumers as prosumers.

New Era Cap Co. 90th Anniversary Book

While some participating directly in events hosted by New Era as compensated prosumers, some engage in “free participation” as prosumers in the online space. The voluntary activities of consumers as prosumers also serbe a crucial part in New Era’s production of value (Lury 104). The online virtual space, as a free space for self-expression and vast amount of resources, serves a great significance to the New Era brand community with interest in expressing individualism. New Era provides online platform for consumer participation on social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google Plus, and Youtube. These pages are invested in publishing material that would appeal more to, and encourage participation of familiar consumers rather than new ones. On these social media outlets are pictures of exclusive products, announcements for deals and other events for consumers to build a lifestyle around the brand through discussion and other forms of online interaction. Consumers with strong attachment to the brand also form fan communities on personal spaces, such as their own blogs and channels on youtube. Their discussion of the brand is not limited to simply sharing and reposting official content posted by New Era and extends into creating their own fan content, which New Era is also interested in collecting. The official New Era site has a page dedicated to fan content, with a variety of fan work from original songs about New Era to product review videos. In the caption for every post, New Era states, “don’t forget to send us your own,” encouraging consumers to engage in such prosumer activities. The consumers of New Era use the online space also to interact upon various topics regarding the New Era brand, including maintenance of the products, new and special products, and their own collection of the New Era hats.

NewEraCapTalk.com is the most notable website that functions as the headquarter for New Era’s brand community, which is viewed in over 134 countries and available in 64 languages. It operates independent of New Era Cap company, yet the size and popularity of the website makes it function almost as a separate corporation sponsored by advertisements. The “About” page describes NewEraCapTalk as a web community “for hat enthusiasts globally…to stay ahead of the latest product releases, locating wanted items, seeking legit checks and even selling off some pieces from your existing collection.” Articles on exclusive deals and new products are organized in a blog form, classified in issues according to months and years. NewEraCapTalk also has a marketplace for exchange and a forum for various discussions, from guide to taking care of the caps, checking for legitimacy, pricing, “show off” space for users to share their collection, as well as a “off topic” forum for plain social interaction. An interesting feature of NewEraCapTalk is that access to the forum is only granted with registration, which needs to be followed up by the admin’s approval. The way that a user is admitted as part of the brand community is almost like a verification process, that seems to symbolize the legitimacy not of the user as a potential member of the community, but of NewEraCapTalk as a legitimate host of the brand community that operates upon membership. New Era depends largely on the creativity of its consumers that are shared on official New Era platform as well as in their own personal platforms for the production and maintenance of its brand narrative and culture around individualism. The participation of consumers as prosumers helps cover up the paradox of achieving individuality through consumption and maximize New Era’s role as a creative outlet for people to express themselves through.
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Conclusion

Through a continuous cycle of exchanging meanings between New Era and its consumers, New Era’s narrative of authenticity and individualism has been co-produced. New Era’s initial narrative of sports allegiance has become a part of the individualization process, in which consumers represent themselves through the team that they support. The narrative of allegiance has also expanded outside of the sports arena to represent people in a greater communities in social and political contexts as well. As a brand responsive to consumer interaction with the products and the brand, New Era has transformed into a brand that serves as a platform for self-expression, providing its products as tools for creativity and also for building a culture and a community. If New Era before the 90’s was only called “New Era” by its name, through its transformation, it seems to have come to truly represent a ‘new era’ in terms of people’s regard to hats as more than just hats, but as statements that compose their individual identity.
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Works Cited

Arvidsson, A. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Culture 5.2 (2005): 235-58. Print.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Branding Politics – Shopping for Change?” Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York, NY: New York UP, 2012. N. pag. Print.

Canclini, García Néstor, and George Yúdice. “Consumption Is Good for Thinking.” Consumers and Citizens. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Creamer, Matthew. “New Era: The Cap With the Cred.” Advertising Age – News. Crain Communications, 4 June 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Creamer, Chris. “MLB Teams to Wear US Flags on Caps for 9/11.” SportsLogos.Net. N.p., 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Elliott, Stuart. “It’s All About You, and Millions of Others.” New York Times. New York Times Company, 16 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Hearn, A. “`Meat, Mask, Burden`: Probing the Contours of the Branded `self`.” Journal of Consumer Culture 8.2 (2008): 197-217. Print.

Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2011. N. pag. Print.

McHenry, Sid. “Celebrate the Rich History of Ball Caps.” MLB.com: News. MLB, 28 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Muniz, Jr., Albert M., and Thomas C. O’Guinn. “Brand Community.” Journal of Consumer Research 27.4 (2001): 412-32. Print.

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