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How this veteran’s company found profits in Trump-era patriotism and polarization

How this veteran’s company found profits in Trump-era patriotism and polarization
Tyler Merritt, co-founder of Nine Line Apparel, talks with Kaila Donaldson, who is in charge of the company's Facebook page. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Washington Post)

The origins of Tyler Merritt’s bestselling product this Christmas season date to the fall, when Nike launched an ad campaign featuring National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest the treatment of black Americans by police had made him the target of President Trump and unhireable in the NFL. “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything,” the Nike ad says.

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Merritt, a former Army helicopter pilot who runs a patriotic clothing company, immediately sensed an opportunity. Merritt called his team together to prepare a response. He suggested a shirt with the slogan “Just Don’t Do it.” His graphic designers countered with “Don’t Do It” and “Stand for It” before finally settling on the even pithier “Just Stand.”

Three days after the Kaepernick ad launched, Merritt was on “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite news program, pitching shirts from his company, Nine Line Apparel.

“The flag means something when you drape it over a casket,” Merritt told the Fox hosts, recalling fallen comrades he had pulled from the battlefield. “It makes me physically upset when I see people taking a knee.”

Nine Line Apparel boasts about $25 million in annual revenue, 180 employees and a business model born of this polarizing moment in American politics. Most of Merritt’s bestselling designs reflect a sort of love-it-or-leave-it patriotism that Trump touts at his rallies. “Stomp my flag and I’ll stomp your ass,” says one popular T-shirt. Others capitalize on the news and frequently echo GOP talking points or Trump’s Twitter feed.

None of Merritt’s other designs have come close to the success of “Just Stand.” Sales on the company’s website on the day of his “Fox & Friends” appearance surpassed the company’s combined sales of the past four Black Fridays. Three months after its release, it remains his company’s bestseller.

The success of the T-shirt provided Merritt and his team with a few lessons. His company needed to be loud, quick and clear. Merritt also learned that selling just about anything in this polarizing moment in the country’s history — especially patriotism — means picking a side.

“Polarizing topics create brands,” he said.

A worker stacks T-shirts on the floor of Nine Line Apparel, a company that produces patriotic clothing, in Savannah, Ga.
A worker stacks T-shirts on the floor of Nine Line Apparel, a company that produces patriotic clothing, in Savannah, Ga. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Washington Post)

Midway through Cyber Monday, the company had already netted about $50,000 in sales. It was shaping up to be another strong holiday sales season, Merritt said. At the company’s customer service desk, Donna Stevenson, who is 56 years old and the mother of a Marine, fielded an email from a customer who had worn a “Just Stand” shirt to Thanksgiving dinner and had taken flak from relatives.

“Please find me an argument I can use to defend your shirt,” he wrote.

Stevenson pondered the request. There wasn’t a lot to say.

“The only thing I can tell you is that it’s making a point to JUST STAND,” she replied via email. “Take a stand to support and respect our nation.”

Merritt was still on active duty and regularly deploying to combat zones when he and his wife started Nine Line in their garage in 2012. The company’s name refers to the military distress call for troops wounded in combat.

Soon, the company began to take off. Merritt, whose body was banged up from multiple combat deployments, left the Army about 18 months ago to run the business full time. He built a factory and corporate headquarters on 40 acres of land outside Savannah, Ga.

Some of the company’s bestselling designs are evergreens. One standard says: “Family, Faith, Friends, Flag, Firearms — 5 Things You Don’t Mess With.”

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When gun control is a hot topic, the company sells a lot of pro-Second Amendment merchandise. “In 1775, they tried to take our guns,” says one popular T-shirt. “WE SHOT THEM.”

Today, Merritt’s chief operations officer is focused on speeding up the design and production process to capture big moments in the news. “We have to be lightning fast,” said Myles Burke, 29. The goal is to give people shirts that resonate with what they believe most passionately at that moment.

“We try to have our designs as loud, clear and in your face as possible,” Burke said.

Merritt’s goals for the company are even bigger. “I want to be an alternative to Nike,” he said.

The company’s primary portal into the mind of its customer base is its Facebook page, which boasts nearly 2 million followers and is run by Kaila Donaldson, 28.

Donaldson, the wife of a Marine veteran, typically posts about five stories a day — a mix of military-themed news and ads. Sometimes the goal is to hook potential customers. In other instances, she’s trying to start a conversation that will offer her insights into Nine Line’s most loyal clientele.

Mara Frizzell works the embroidery line at Nine Line Apparel.
Mara Frizzell works the embroidery line at Nine Line Apparel. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Washington Post)

In the run-up to the holiday season, Trump’s missteps with the military were dominating the news. The president skipped a cemetery visit to honor American soldiers who died in World War I. He belittled retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden. In a Fox News interview, Trump derided the admiral as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and suggested McRaven should have caught bin Laden “faster.”

Trump also sent thousands of U.S. troops to the southern border on a mission that many in the Pentagon derided as unnecessary and intended primarily to boost his party in the November election. The troops are still there.

Donaldson didn’t post anything about Trump’s recent remarks about McRaven. Like most in the Nine Line office, she hadn’t heard of the argument. She also passed on posting stories about Trump’s canceled visit to the World War I cemetery. The story, she said, didn’t grab her.

She did share a story about Trump donating his salary for the quarter to a veteran entrepreneurship program.

“It did really well,” she said of the posting, which racked up about 500,000 views.

Another story that captured her attention involved Trump and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” the president called the former Marine “sort of a Democrat” and said he wasn’t sure how much longer the general would remain in his job.

Mattis merchandise has been a mainstay for Nine Line, which sells posters of Mattis’ face above the slogan “KILL ’EM ALL” along with Mattis “ONE BAD MOTHER” T-shirts. Donaldson wanted to see how Nine Line’s audience, which has a strong affection for Trump and the defense secretary, would react.

“It’s kind of pitting the audience against themselves,” she said of the experiment. The post largely fell flat among readers who weren’t sure what to make of it.

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“Our audience loves Mattis regardless of his leftist tendencies,” she said. “He’s a military guy, like them.”

A messy Trump-Mattis break, she said, would deal a big blow to the president’s standing with veterans.

She logged back onto the company page to see how its followers were responding to a story she had posted earlier that day about Trump’s threat to permanently close the southern border.

Unlike the Trump-Mattis story, this one had provoked a passionate response.

“I’ve been voting red for 20 years [hoping] for this,” one comment said.

“SHUT IT DOWN!!!” roared another.

Donaldson blanched. “These are kind of racist,” she said.

It was close to quitting time. On the video screen behind her, the daily sales figure had surged past $100,000, about 25% higher than the same-day sales from a year ago. Americans were angry, passionate and eager to let their friends and neighbors know exactly where they stood on the flag, immigration, guns and just about every hot-button issue in the president’s Twitter feed.

This much Donaldson, Merritt and the rest of the Nine Line team knew for certain: All that emotion was good for business.

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