The G.I. Joe Museum

Once upon a time, there was an actual store called G.I. Joe's

This isn't quite related to the Story of G.I. Joe (movie), but it is important to the history of G.I. Joe -- it tells us what can happen when we forget our roots.  The original G.I. Joe wasn't a toy, action figure, or even movie -- it was our soliders in war.  They all used to get their gear at Army Surplus stores. 

Joe’s goes chapter 11
March 6, 2009 by idbranding

If you’re not from the Northwest, you probably don’t know what a tragic waste lies at the heart of this story.

G.I. Joe’s has been a temple of Oregon manliness since it was founded as an army surplus store in 1952. Over the decades it turned into a store for the average Oregon male (and un-average female) who was interested in hunting, fishing, cars, coolers, tents, tarps, tools, and things outdoor – at a reasonable price.

And over the years since I first got into this business in 1989, agencies in Portland have longed to build G.I. Joe’s into a powerhouse of a brand. The response from the leadership at G.I. Joe’s?

No thanks. We don’t need your branding crap. We’re doing just fine.         

And they were. Until the big national competition came to town. (Dick’s Sporting Goods, etc.) And now they’re filing for chapter 11.

Is this solely because they didn’t bother to build a sustainable, rich, and meaningful brand that could withstand the test of a hot new thing showing up in a low-cut blouse and tight jeans? Absolutely not. The economy…well, you know.

But the smugness of the leadership at G.I. Joe’s over the years – their personal macho hubris – blinded them to the value of building a brand rather than just shouting slogans and advertising product and price. And every agency that tried to lead them to brand building was completely frustrated. I don’t even know if they’ve been working with a real agency lately. But they have succeeded in letting whatever brand they had slip through their fingers.

Dennis, my partner, says he used to love G.I. Joe’s and his wife used to hate it. Then, over the years, she started liking it more and he started liking it less. Why? Well, read the Oregonian story and you’ll see that G.I. Joe’s started to go upscale with their products. No longer were they the bastion of reasonably cheap man stuff.

      They also changed the name by dropping the “G.I.” and going with just “Joe’s.” That was a strong signal of change. And, apparently, not for the better, at least to a lot of their die-hard target audience.

They lost their clear purpose, and their brand was no longer a part of their audience’s identity. It was just a place to shop. And suddenly there was competition. Joe’s had no deep relationship that could keep a guy from wandering over to the new hot thing and offering to buy her a drink.

All their advertising had focused on price and products with a slogan thrown in because they didn’t need that branding crap, right? They were the only man’s game in town. Until they weren’t. 

Why build a brand when you can use your marketing dollars to drive sales? The story of Joe’s might be an answer to that question. Not that a rich, engaging, and sustainable brand culture would have protected Joe’s completely, but maybe – just maybe – it would have given them that edge to keep them solvent through the competition and hard times. Maybe if they had developed a true ongoing conversation with their audience they would have held onto their brand, rather than letting it quietly slip away.


Of course, while G.I. Joe's was popular on the West Coast, even today it is not the only store with that name on it.  Here are a few others:

G.I. Joe's Army & Navy Super Store - North Attleboro, MA

G.I. Joe's Military Surplus - Norfolk, VA