I’ve never bought into the age-old adage that men don’t pay attention to the way they look. Men have always cared: They just don’t want you to know how much. Peak inside even the most “basic” man’s medicine cabinet, and along with a few rogue Q-tips and a pair of nail clippers, you’re likely to find some form of hair elixir, and nine times out of ten, this grease of choice comes in a beer-bottle-brown-tinted jar labeled American Crew.
American Crew has been one of the most widely used men’s hair nectars since its founding. But how has it maintained its firm (or moderate, or mild) hold on the ever-expanding men’s grooming market?
For many, it’s as simple as that familiar smell. “I’ve been obsessed with this particular note forever but have never been able to identify it,” writes one redditor. “The only place I’ve smelled it has been in American Crew Pomade (the one with the orange- brown label) and smells kind of industrial, maybe some kind of old-school, petroleum-based substance? Anyway it is heavenly and if only I could ID it I could look into fragrances that have that note…”
Jessica, a hair stylist at Supercuts, tells me that American Crew products are their best sellers, but also confirms that the draw of American Crew is its scent. “If you’re familiar with selling products, it’s through the sense of smell,” she says. “Smell will track them in. Men buy the product because of the smell.”
This cryptic “note” aside — redditors are currently seeking “a person whose job it is to identify the scents” to help track down the unknown aroma — it’s fair to say that the secret to American Crew’s success can be found in the enduring story of men’s faux-casual vanity. It’s a story formulated with tinctures of nostalgia and grit, built on the self-imposed idea that a man has to be polished but not too shiny — pretty, but in a Cary Grant sort of way. Historically speaking, for men, one of the “safer ways” to communicate that you care (but not too much!) about your appearance is via the judicious use of hair products.
Before the invention of hair gel, men tried a whole bunch of substances to slick back their unruly locks — petroleum jelly, corn oil and Macassar oil were all slathered in abundance. But in 1929, a company called Chemico Works — known for creating strong kitchen and household cleaners — decided to market a product called Brylcreem, changing the look of men’s hair for the next century and beyond. “After gaining popularity throughout England and Europe, it moved to North America and quickly spread as a fashionable product for hair styling,” reports Leaf.tv.
Many imitators followed, leading to a slew of greasy iterations over the next decades. Who could forget the oeuvre of atomic blue hair gels that were responsible for more flakes than Kellogg’s? Or the myriad hairspray cans, designed for women but often used by men to get their hair nice and crunchy? And of course Brylcreem continued to be used by those who needed that perfect, Elvis-inspired coiffure.
But in 1994, American Crew founder David Raccuglia revolutionized men’s grooming by spotting a wide-open market beyond hair metal and rockabilly fans. As American Crew’s website describes this most momentous of occasions, Raccuglia “foresaw a future when men would pay as much attention to their looks as anyone else. And he knew they wouldn’t want to lose their masculinity in the process.” So even as things move forward, as ever, they also take a couple steps back: Yes, more men will grow to admit that they care about their hair, but only so long as they don’t appear feminized in the process.
Along these lines, Alfredo Semolina, global vice president at American Crew, tells me that the core of American Crew’s DNA is the quest to “revive the classic man.” It’s this harkening to old-school masculine attractiveness — put together, but not showy — that informs much of the marketing of the product, right down to that familiar brown jar. Raccuglia, who became a hairdresser in 1977, told Live About that the inspiration for the packaging of his hair pomade, fiber and cream came from “an amber tonic bottle from the 1940s.” “It was glass, and it was from a hair tonic company out of Los Angeles,” he continued. “I don’t remember the name of it, but that’s where the inspiration came from for the amber bottles. It was sort of a classic apothecary look, and I thought it was just so perfect for men. It has a medicinal, very serious look to it.”
Ange Picone, a national director of education for Eighteen Eight salons, who previously spent 20 years as a national educator for American Crew, tells me that what made the packaging so unique at the time was that American Crew never had to put “for men” on the canister. “There were other companies trying to get into the men’s market that already had product lines for women,” he says. In particular, Redken and Paul Mitchell, he points out, were also launching product lines geared toward men, but since they already had well-known women’s products, they had to clearly label them “for men.” American Crew, looking manly and medicinal, didn’t need such explanations. “American Crew became renowned as the men’s brand,” says Picone. As a result, men who cared about the way they look — which again, is all men — but didn’t want to be caught using their girlfriend’s, wife’s or sister’s hair products, felt, perhaps for the first time, seen.
To that end, Semolina tells me that before American Crew debuted, men were a forgotten category within the beauty industry. “Words such as ‘niche’ were used to describe them,” he says. “American Crew realized that 50 percent of the population should never be referred to as ‘niche.’”
Realizing the potential of this untapped male market, Raccuglia also established an American Crew hair-cutting methodology that was adopted by barbers and hairstylists to further influence the male psyche. (“It’s no-bullshit hair-cutting,” says Picone. “Tried, true and tested. If you don’t deviate from it, it will work every time.”) It helps too that “men really trust in the expertise of their barbers and hairstylists,” adds Picone, the upshot being that if a man’s hair stylist recommends an American Crew product, he’s more than likely going to accept the advice, particularly if he’s still a kid and experiencing the exciting, grown-up feeling of a barber really styling his hair with product for the first time. And more than that — he’s going to stick with it, perhaps for life. “The problem here is, these are products that are usually consumed in private,” Lars Perner, a PhD in marketing who teaches consumer psychology at the University of Southern California, told Racked back in 2016. “These are things you use in your bathroom, so it means you don’t really get to see the brands that other people are using.”
It’s no secret that men are tough to market new products to. They walk down the aisle at grocery stores and pharmacies alike, laser-focused on reaching for that one familiar label: Part laziness, part not wanting to get caught expressing too much interest in what they’re buying. It’s this subtle but very classically male fear of exploring other, potentially more suitable self-care options that’s the foundation for most ubiquitous men’s brands.
Picone, of course, has another word for it: Loyalty. “Brand recognition helps, but men are very loyal to their products,” he says. “Men aren’t prone to change. When we find something we like, we stick to it. Most guys still use same brand of deodorant they first used. If they do go to a different product, chances are, they return back to the brand they trust.”
Again, though, what Picone interprets as loyalty, market research is more likely to identify as utilitarian stubbornness. “A study by the Erasmus University showed that once men found a brand that worked for them, they were more likely to stick with it,” claim GuideSelling.org. A different study describes men as “pragmatic shoppers,” considering success as “leaving with what you came for, having experienced a logical and efficient shopping process,” per MoneyCrashers.com.
The brand’s choice of marketing imagery has also helped enormously: Bold black-and-white pics that imply a good-old-days simplicity — a need for just one or two products to achieve your desired look. It’s impossible to discount just how wary men have often been about incorporating too many products into their morning routines: “They’re afraid if they get too many products in their bathroom something will happen to them and they’ll no longer be a man,” Ted Muething, marketing manager for The Bearded Bastard, told Racked in the same article referenced earlier.
So what better way to ease an anxious male psyche than with classically masculine black and white photography.
“I’ve always felt like black and white and men’s grooming go hand-in-hand because at the time, men’s grooming was at its best, most of the images were black and white,” Raccuglia told Live About. “So, there’s a relationship for me back to the era of grooming and a black-and-white photo that makes a man feel comfortable. As a man, when you look at a photo in black and white, it feels pretty comfortable and I think it’s easier for a man to relate to a man in black and white.”
This catering to comfort — and in particular, catering to the especially male emotion of nostalgia — also explains why, in 2016, American Crew used labels featuring black-and-white images of Elvis to release their limited-edition line of hair products.
Essentially, what’s worked so well for American Crew is its continued cultural connection, however apocryphal (remember, the brand has only been around since 1994) to a certifiably masculine heritage. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that, as Jessica points out, American Crew is pretty affordable ($11.50 a can) and widely accessible, sold in nearly every CVS, Walgreens and any other drugstore.
But 25 years after its inception, is American Crew, as one redditor asks, “still the king of hair products?” Based on the number of Amazon reviews and a quick Twitter search for its mentions, it appears American Crew’s salience is firmly secure. But not everyone is convinced: “Not even close,” responds one redditor. “There’s too many great home brew products to ever need to bother with Crew ever again.”
The “home brew” products he’s referring to are the sort sold by Steve Lockhart, brewmaster and founder at Lockhart’s, who says that home-brewed hair products (think mom-and-pop shop), which he equates to craft beers, offer an alternative to the mainstream “cookie cutter” products offered at American Crew. “I would say American Crew is a little more polished, a little more clean,” he explains. “We operate in the punk rock scene. We appeal to clean and grungy dudes. We’re the counterculture.”
Despite providing new competition, though, both Lockhart and Pedro Zermeno, the co-founder of Imperial (another men’s hair product company) admit that American Crew remains the number one hair product in the world. “They’re everywhere,” says Zermeno. “Big stores and small.” And as long as men remain stubborn and slow to expose their vanity, American Crew is sure to maintain its throne in the every man’s medicine cabinet — right above the bottle of Drakkar Noir his dad used, and the comb he smuggled out of his girlfriend’s bathroom.