How to Build a Multibillion-Dollar Brand, According to Jimmy Buffett

You won’t find Margaritaville on any map, but it is taking over the globe.

A little over 40 years ago, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett released his hit album “Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes,” featuring a catchy tune about wasting away in a tropical locale. In the ensuing decades, the pop song has been transformed into a roughly $2.5 billion licensing and hospitality operation.

Margaritaville Holdings encompasses everything from restaurants and hotels to apparel and shoes. Here in New York, it debuted a Broadway musical in January — “Escape to Margaritaville” — and a Times Square hotel is in the works for 2020.

Buffett is deeply invested in all these endeavors. When FN visited him in the green room at the show in April, Buffett was peering out the window watching the lines outside. And he made a point of mentioning that the cast wears his Margaritaville footwear onstage.

Jimmy Buffett
Jimmy Buffett with cast and crew of "Escape to Margaritaville."
CREDIT: Rex Shutterstock

For fall ’18, the company is further boosting its shoe selection with a new label called Island Reserve. It will be a higher-end complement to the Margaritaville collection, which is stocked at major chains such as Famous Footwear and DSW, and sells for under $60.

“This new line will have more of a specialty-shop distribution,” said Scott Coble, president of Margaritaville footwear and apparel, noting that Island Reserve will retail for $75 to $125. “It’s that weekend sneaker casual look that can take you anywhere. It’s a little younger and a different take on our brand.”

Coble has been interpreting the Buffett brand for 15 years and takes inspiration from the music. “When I first pitched the idea of shoes, I went back to the box set that Jimmy did [in 1992]: ‘Boats, Beaches, Bars and Ballads,’” he said. “I thought, I can make shoes for boats, beaches and bars — ballads is a little tough — but it’s been a great ride and immensely successful.”

Margaritaville sneaker
A fall '18 laceup sneaker from Margaritaville's Island Reserve collection.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

Much of the energy of Margaritaville comes from Buffett himself. At 71, he still tours regularly, in between fishing trips to the Bahamas or visits to New York to make cameos in his musical.

This month, FN caught up with Buffett in Sag Harbor, N.Y., while he was winding down from a local tennis tournament.

How did the Margaritaville brand start?
“In Key West [Fla.], people were selling Jimmy Buffett shirts, but they were spelling my name wrong. So I thought, ‘We can probably do a better
job than that.’ You don’t realize when you start out what’s going to happen, but when you trust good people to take care of things, it grows amazingly.”

How would you describe the Jimmy Buffett brand?
“It’s authentic because I lived this way for a long time. I went where it was cold to work when I had
to, but I would prefer to stay where it’s warm. And when I found Key West, I had a job singing in bars and working on fishing boats. And at that time, I thought it was pretty cool to do that.”

Why are people so devoted to your brand?
“I have no idea. A lot of people maybe live vicariously through me. We’ve got more than 150,000 people following [on Instagram] as I’m doing what I prefer to do, whether it’s working or playing. People are interested in that, and it almost becomes a travelogue, which is the interesting thing today — as opposed
to writing a travel book that would take five years to finish.”

What are you like as a boss?
“When you’ve got great people, you let them do it. But if there’s a problem, I’ll get involved. I only know how to do this because I really am the son of a son of a sailor. My grandfather was a sailing ship captain, and he ran a big ocean liner with a lot of departments. I guess I get the genes from him. I wanted to be the leader of the band; I didn’t want to be a member of the band. I took the responsibility for it because I wanted to make the decisions the way the captain on a ship does, but with a great crew.”

It’s a little ironic that your brand is about having fun and relaxing, but you don’t sit still much.
“I get my time in — don’t worry about me. The other stuff is fun. I was there when nobody showed up. So now that everybody is showing up, I’m not going anywhere. I mean, retire from what? This is a pretty nice job.”

What is your input regarding Margaritaville footwear?
“I brought back this pair of flip-flops from Vietnam that were bamboo, and I asked Scott to make them with a little more tread so I could fish in them and wear them on the boat. It’s still in my suitcase on the road. And I have the new boat shoes that have shark fins on the side, which I love. I don’t wear them because we make them; I wear them because they’re cool and we do make them.”

Margaritaville
Margaritaville Island Reserve "fins" sneaker.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

Have you enjoyed being in the theater business?
“It’s been a wonderful experience with a joyous cast. When I first started my band, we wanted to take people to a place where they could forget about stuff, and it’s the same thing with ‘Escape to Margaritaville.’ But there are some fun-police in New York that think we don’t belong there, but we’re doing just fine. People love the show. They go there and have a great time, and so to hell with The New York Times.”

What else are you working on right now?
“I’m just getting ready to go back out on tour. We’ve been doing these stadium shows with the Eagles, and I have two in Minneapolis and Denver. And the rest of the summer is about celebrating the 40th anniversary of [my album] ‘Son of a Son of a Sailor’ with our own tour.”

What do you hope your legacy will be?
“I like to think I’ve made the world a little happier than it was before I got here. I’m not looking for awards and personal gain more than what I’ve already got. There’s an old French saying, ‘noblesse oblige,’ which means if you’re lucky enough to have this, then you help other people get there. I want to teach and I want to help kids who need financial aid getting into school – education is the thing that gets you places. And I want to keep plastics out of the ocean and be more observant of nature. Yes, there is global warming, as some people don’t seem to believe. So for all the Scott Pruitts in the world, I hope there are a few more Jimmy Buffetts, too.”

 

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