What It Is: Martin + Osa sells casual clothing in nice fabrics (cashmere, cotton-cashmere blend, tissueweight merino wool) to men and women age 25-40 who've graduated from the torn jeans and faded T-shirts of their college years but don't want to give up comfortable, familiar styles. The first store opened last September in Tysons Corner, a mall near Washington, DC; today there are five stores nationwide, including the one I visited in San Francisco's new Westfield Shopping Center on Market Street. Prices are generally comparable to Banana Republic, although the selection is much smaller--"more tightly edited," as they say in retail.
Where It Comes From: The parent company of Martin + Osa is American Eagle Outfitters, an 850-store chain that sells casual clothing to 15- to 25-year-olds when they aren't shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch or Old Navy. Most shoppers no longer remember American Eagle's history: the company was founded in 1904 as an outdoor-gear company similar to Eddie Bauer or Pendleton. Hence the "outfitters." And hence a slim but significant link to Martin + Osa. Read on.
What They're Saying: "The number of Americans ages 25 to 34 is expected to rise by 5.2 percent by 2010, according to the Census Bureau," the New York Times reported last September in an article about Martin + Osa. "By contrast, those ages 12 to 18 are to fall by 3.3 percent. 'Retailers are salivating over that 30-year-old demographic,' said John D. Morris, an analyst at Wachovia Securities." About the store itself, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, "Wood-walled dressing rooms offer room for strollers while the strategic use of mirrors and wall murals is meant to give the feel of trying on clothes in the great outdoors. In the Refresh zone near the dressing rooms, staff offers bottled water, apples and the use of two restrooms. [Ed. note: No apples when I shopped in S.F. I'm miffed.] Stone walls throughout the store intersperse with warm wood beams shaped rather like a pergola, while lighting subtly shifts and ebbs to mimic the effect of clouds passing overhead." But the most distinctive aspect of the store design is the façade, which is all light-colored wood and blue-tinted glass, with nary a merchandise display to be seen. From the outside, it looks more like a trendy club than a store.
What It Means: Martin + Osa takes its name from two real people, a married couple from Kansas named Martin and Osa Johnson who between 1917 and 1936 traveled and photographed in Africa, the South Pacific, and Borneo. According to M + O company president Ken Pilot, "Our store environment and merchandise assortments will embody Martin and Osa's classically American spirit of sport, outdoor and adventure for today's generation in constant motion." There are links between the Martin + Osa web site and the Martin + Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute ("ranked the #1 museum in Kansas"); I haven't found a direct statement about financial ties, but I'm guessing that AE is contributing something to the (nonprofit) museum.
What I Like: Using linked male and female names as your brand says you sell both men's and women's clothing--although I wonder how many North Americans will recognize "Osa" as any kind of name at all. (It's the Anglicized spelling of a common Scandinavian name.) On the other hand, the unfamiliarity of "Osa" may work in this brand's favor, signaling the adventure and exoticism that the stores and the web site work hard to conjure. (Check out the eclectic reading and listening lists: from the home page, select "Goodstuff [sic].")
Then there's that plus sign, fast becoming the punctuation symbol of choice (replacing "@") to signify hip/cool/modern. A plus sign rejects the ampersand's baroque curlicues in favor of minimalist straight lines and right angles; it turns a partnership into a mathematical equation. Global and borderless, the plus sign--which also suggests an international dialing code--is turning up wherever the market is youthful and plugged in: Adam + Eve clothing for men and women, Tevrow + Chase women's clothing, M + J Savitt jewelry, Crispin Porter + Bogusky ad agency (creators of those Orville Redenbacher-as-zombie ads). Whereas the ampersand is a ligature of the Latin word "et," meaning and, the plus sign transcends Western culture and dead languages. It's positive yet neutral. (Like Switzerland. And what's on the Swiss flag? A plus-shaped cross.)
What bothers me: The first five or six times I heard or read about Martin + Osa I was sure it was an offshoot of Abercrombie & Fitch, not American Eagle. Why? Because the brand story is such a good fit with A&F--not today's slutty-preppy-slacker A&F but the historical company, which was established in 1892 and until the 1960s was known as an elite safari outfitter, the kind of store Martin and Osa Johnson might actually have visited before one of their excursions. (For its part, A&F is also targeting the 25-and-up market with Ruehl No. 925, an even more enigmatic and contrived name than Martin + Osa.) Okay, I'm a retail geek; most customers won't know or care who's behind the concept. I do think, however, that Martin + Osa is going to have to work hard to get customers to go beyond the stores' mysterious exteriors. (So far, you can't buy the merchandise online.) A strange name can help with positioning and generating buzz, but it doesn't always translate into traffic. On the other other hand (consultants have three hands, you know), who today remembers the origins of "Banana Republic?" (The original store sold surplus goods bought from failed dictatorships in tropical zones, disparagingly known as "banana republics.") And who knows what "Old Navy" means? (I for one don't have a clue.)
The decision: I'm all for great name stories, but with Martin + Osa the story isn't enough. Parent company AE will have to make a determined branding and marketing effort to overcome the name's liabilities and get customers to progress beyond those affectless store exteriors. On an ascending scale from 1 to 5, I'll give "Martin + Osa" a 3.7.
But: I'm fine with the plus sign in the name, but the full stops in Martin + Osa's trademarked tagline--"Everyday. Life. Adventures."--set my teeth on edge. Used this way, periods are the new italics; they're inserted after single words to create an annoying staccato rhythm and self-conscious emphasis where none would normally be perceived. (See also Pioneer's "Sound. Vision. Soul." and Sony's "Like. No. Other."--and many others.) Enough. Already.
UPDATE: Parent company American Eagle closed all of its Martin + Osa stores in mid-2010.