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Ugly Stik - reels it in
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Ugly Stick - reels it in

  Ugly Stik
reels it in
by Abram Sauer
September 29, 2008

First, make a good product. Fishing rod? Ok. Then, give it a memorable name. Ugly Stik? Oh yes, that will do just fine. Talk about name differentiation. That's a name with balls.

For the sake of perspective, quasi-reliable Internet website with the scoop on everything known to mankind, Wikipedia, explains that an “ugly stick” is “a traditional Newfoundland musical instrument fashioned out of household and tool shed items, typically a mop handle with bottle caps, tin cans, small bells and other noise makers.” Ugly Stik, on the other hand, is one of the most storied and celebrated lines of fishing pole available to anglers. And in what sometimes seems to be an increasingly rare brand strategy, Ugly Stik maintains its stellar brand reputation simply by being a damn good product at a good price.

While the brand name “Ugly Stik” dates back to 1976, the rods claim a heritage that goes back more than century. In 1896, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a man named William Shakespeare Jr., a lifelong fisherman with a background in advertising, camera manufacturing and medicine, invented an improvement for the common fishing reel that wound the fishing line more evenly back onto the spool. His patented design is still widely used today. Furthermore, the Ugly Stik brand of rods continues to enjoy an outstanding reputation for making quality fishing rods that offer the best balance of flexibility, sensitivity, and sturdiness.

In 1908 The William Shakespeare, Jr. Company had more than a dozen employees and created high quality products under the slogan "Built Like a Watch.” Seven years later Bill’s company became “The Shakespeare Company.” The company’s tradition of innovation continued through the century, right up until 68 years later when the manufacturer’s first Ugly Stik tubular fishing rod was heralded by a trade publication as perhaps “the most remarkable product of the last two decades." The first Ugly Stik’s design used the ferruless construction and the “Howard Process,” which probably means very little to people who don't fish, but which amongst anglers and rod-makers was a very big deal, technologically. This breakthrough led to a new caliber of fishing rod that could be bent from end to end into a circle without snapping or splintering, and yet retained a high level of stiffness so it would not be flimsy and unmanageable when trying to the land the big one.

Essentially, this is the foundation of Ugly Stik’s success: It delivers an exceptional product, at a reasonable cost, to those who are looking for just such a product and doesn’t waste its time with those who are not. This humble strategy has made Ugly Stik the bestselling rod on the market today. To get an idea of the brand loyalty Ugly Stik enjoys, read the viewer comments accompanying one of the brand’s recent television ads . (It is also noteworthy that in this ad Ugly Stik has managed something that seems very simple but is actually quite rare: a funny commercial that also highlights an actual product feature.)

The first Ugly Stik also featured a clear tip, a product design characteristic that still differentiates the brand today—especially when customers enter tackle stores and only the top portions of the fishing rods are visible among the aisles. Ugly Stiks are available in varying sizes and shapes depending on the nature of the fish being pursued. There are specialized rods for catfish, crappie, salmon, striper, freshwater, and “Big Water.” The brand is also available in a children’s line, which comes co-branded with cartoon characters such as “Scooby Doo.” In addition to its not-attractive sticks, Shakespeare produces Ugly Braid fishing line and Wicked Stiks, made for salt water and deep sea fishing—brand extensions that offer the same quality and commitment to the anglers and the sport of fishing.

Ugly Stik info can be found under the parent company’s domain. And while not winning any beauty contests, the site is fully functional and informative. Befitting the brand’s emphasis on function over all else, the site is a utilitarian dream, and probably right in line with what Ugly Stik’s loyal consumers would want. That is to say, it is assumed that Fishermen + Flash Animation = Disaster.

Within the industry and without, it is common to think of successful branding and immediately think of cultural behemoths like Apple, Nike, some kind of cola, Google, Starbucks, Virgin, and BMW, among others. But brand stories such as Ugly Stik’s are far more instructional for the average brand owner. The brand was created by a serious angler for other serious anglers, and has never deviated from its brand promise to deliver quality and innovative products at reasonable prices. Angling, after all, is about catching fish, but there is nothing fishy about an earnest brand hooking some customers along the way. Its line of business might not be that sexy, but it sure isn’t ugly.


Abram D. Sauer has written about brands and branding trends since 2001. Visit for more of his work on branding and product placement.

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Ugly Stik - reels it in
 I love hearing brand success stories, especially for these less common brands. Thanks! 
Peter, owner, McRae Creative Group, Inc. - September 30, 2008
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