By Gretchen Hyman, contributor via Underground Group
⏰ 6-minute read
In 1996, Frogg Toggs tackled the literally ancient problem of keeping humans protected from rain and comfortable at the same time.
The company’s water-repellant technology contributed to a zeitgeist among outdoor apparel brands in the early 2000s.
Establishing a consumer base for a new type of product took years of ingenuity. Frogg Toggs’s CFO has a simple explanation for why fans keep coming back two decades later.
Getting caught in the rain can put a damper on an outdoor football game. But not for Wilbur “Phil” Fowler. Instead of running for cover like most people, Fowler had some research to conduct in an Alabama downpour.
It was 1996, and Fowler was at the game to test the water-repellant capabilities of medical fabric used to protect doctors and nurses from blood-borne pathogens.
He was fielding an investment proposal from a startup founder and medical gown salesman named Ralph Thrasher, who was proposing to make lightweight outdoor rain gear from similar fabric manufactured for the medical industry.
The more common plastic-derived raincoats and slickers of the time tended to restrict arm movement and trap the body’s sweat vapors and temperature during exertion. The rain gear market was prime for innovation.
By the end of the game, Fowler was as dry and comfortable as he was certain that Thrasher’s business idea was a promising investment. The specialized medical fabric provided him with a waterproof cover so he could watch the game in comfort. Plus, it enabled his body to breathe and not overheat, underscoring the same design principles that 23 years later still define Frogg Toggs(opens in new tab), now one of the most recognizable names in outdoor apparel.
It was 1996, and Phil Fowler was braving a downpour to test the water-repellant capabilities of medical fabric, which inspired a line of waterproof outdoor gear.
Building momentum for the Frogg Toggs product and honing the company’s core messaging took many years and iterations of the specialty medical fabric from that point. But the company’s founders and investors never lost sight of their primary goal of providing the average person on a limited budget with durable, waterproof outdoor gear and accessories built to last.
Meeting the needs of outdoor recreationists
The science of keeping humans protected from rain can be traced as far back as the Aztec, Maya and other indigenous cultures like the Inuit(opens in new tab), who used whale and seal intestines woven with bone(opens in new tab) to create a lightweight, water-repellant cover for hunter-gatherers to move and breathe freely.
The European academic community’s discovery of rubber in 1736(opens in new tab) was a major turning point for water-resistant clothing, and so was the tarpaulin(opens in new tab)-based Mackintosh(opens in new tab) raincoat invented by a Scottish chemist in 1824.
However, water-repellent fabrics are a historically challenging set. The density of protective materials combined with the heat and humidity the human body generates have resulted in more product failures than successes. Only since the early 2000s has technology begun to more broadly address the varied needs of those who want to enjoy the outdoors, in any season, and not overheat in exchange for staying dry.
Frogg Toggs released its first major advancement in waterproof fabrics technology in 1997, when it launched with a lightweight, breathable rain suit made of its flagship non-woven DriPore(opens in new tab) fabric. A waterproof, wind-resistant film, the fabric was made in-house.
Water-repellent fabrics are a historically challenging set. Frogg Toggs released its first major advancement in waterproof fabrics technology in 1997.
DriPore is now in its second generation and functions as the middle layer in many of Frogg Toggs’s signature hunting and fishing rainwear and outerwear products, which include jackets, pants, waders and footwear.
Frogg Toggs's waterproof gear enables fisherman to stay dry while outdoors.
Convincing the skeptics to try something new
Post-launch, the journey for Frogg Toggs was a challenging one, said current CFO Chase Handley, who joined in 2012. Establishing a market base who believed a fabric as thin as a paper towel could be water-repellant and durable took many years of marketing ingenuity.
Thanks to Fowler’s investment, Frogg Toggs’s sales team gave away more than $1 million in free rain suits in its early days to prove the efficacy of the fabric before the company started turning a profit, Handley said. The team believed so strongly that the product would one day be considered indispensable by its fans that it was willing to take a major financial hit, even if it meant keeping the staff small and committing to some pretty lean years until the product gained acceptance.
It took until 1999 for word-of-mouth(opens in new tab) among outdoor professionals and hobbyists to reach a point at which the intended audience was experimenting with Frogg Toggs gear during its outdoor pursuits.
It took nearly three years for word-of-mouth to reach a point at which the intended audience was experimenting with Frogg Toggs gear.
“Once the [target] customer tried out a Frogg Toggs product, there was always a lightbulb moment,” Handley said.
As more customers bought in, releases from the product development team came to include Chilly Pads(opens in new tab), a line of cooling towels launched in 2006, and fly fishing Waders(opens in new tab), which launched in 2008. Waders remain one of the most popular items within what Handley refers to as the “hook-and-bullet industry” that includes fishermen and hunters.
The original Frogg Toggs products were aimed at fishermen and hunting enthusiasts.
Expanding the product mix
Handley joined the company straight out of college as an inventory analyst. He said that at the time, the team was brimming with ideas and passion for serving the needs of the Frogg Toggs consumer. The product was being sold in major big-box retailers such as Academy Sports and Outdoors, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s and Dunham’s Sports.
The marketing team began gradually introducing the product to the wider sporting goods market beyond its core “hook-and-bullet” demographic. This expansion included motorcycle riders and recreational sports teams.
Learn how another retailer(opens in new tab), Corkcicle, expanded beyond its original customer base after its first string of successes.
Soon after, Frogg Toggs brought to market its Java(opens in new tab) fabric, a woven material that provides water hold-out, breathability and durability while remaining portable and lightweight. That release was followed by the Toadz(opens in new tab) fabric, a hybrid material combining a rip-stop shell with a windproof liner composed of non-woven fabric.
On a steady upward trajectory among its peers, Frogg Toggs walked away with best-of-show awards the annual International Consortium of Associated Sport Tackle Manufacturers(opens in new tab) show, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show event. The team won best lifestyle apparel and best technical apparel in 2018 and best footwear in 2019.
Beyond hardcore fishers and hunters, Frogg Toggs now targets everyday adventurers.
Frogg Toggs’s early business model was predicated on bulk delivery of items to retailers, because that was the tried-and-true strategy of the time. As a result, the company was a little late to the direct-to-consumer (D2C) fulfillment and marketing game.
But over the past five years or so, with an increased focus on social media marketing (opens in new tab)and following D2C market trends, the marketing team has ramped up its prowess in these categories. Frogg Toggs posts original photos and videos made both in-house and by fans and brand ambassadors(opens in new tab) on Instagram(opens in new tab) and Facebook(opens in new tab), where it has 40,000 and 150,000 followers, respectively. These posts not only keep Frogg Toggs top-of-mind with its audience but also allow prospective customers to see the product in everyday use.
Learn how another outdoor apparel company(opens in new tab), Beyond Clothing, got its D2C game on last year.
Learn how another apparel company(opens in new tab), BuddyLove, successfully works with brand ambassadors.
Frogg Toggs now employs almost 90 people and has steadily grown revenue 10% year-over-year since 2005. The team also upgraded last year from a 60,000-square-foot warehouse to a 120,000-square-foot, state-of-the art facility just outside Arab, Ala., that has allowed employees to increase efficiency, Handley said. (Frogg Toggs’s products are manufactured in China.)
The Frogg Toggs team continues to grow along with the size of its office space.
Leapfrogging into the future
Frogg Toggs’s biggest hurdles these days are growing pains, said Handley. It’s a far cry from 23 years ago when the company was trying to convince lovers of the great outdoors to try a new lightweight material for the first time.
For Handley, Frogg Toggs’s longevity comes down to a quality product. He likes to say that the team “has been keeping ordinary folks comfortable in the outdoor elements since 1996” by providing a dependable product that it continues to iterate every year.
“We’ve stood the test of time and proven that our products deliver great quality for a great price,” he said. In short, “we have gained the trust of the consumer.”