The company behind that distinctive ripping sound is trying to build a brand. That means convincing consumers that not all fasteners are created equal.
Brit Morin, known in some circles as “Silicon Valley’s Martha Stewart,” is ready to get crafty. “Today we are going to show you how to DIY your own ‘catch and toss’ game using nothing but an embroidery hoop, some Velcro One-Wrap tape, and of course a tennis ball,” she tells her viewers with her characteristic zeal. A YouTube video shows Morin cutting strips of the fabric fasteners, then sizing and attaching them to the embroidery hoop. A glue gun is involved. The nearly two-minute episode wraps as the words “Catch and Toss Using Velcro Brand Fasteners” flash onto the screen.
Morin’s love for the fasteners best known as an alternative to shoelaces isn’t entirely organic. She’s been hired by Velcro Industries to help turn the closure maker into a “lifestyle brand” à la Apple or Nike or Harley-Davidson.
It won’t be easy, given that most people don’t even know that Velcro is a brand, not the name of a product (a similar plight afflicts Kleenex), and a company (think Xerox). But a new management team at Velcro Industries, led by president and CEO Alain Zijlstra, has big ambitions, and it gave Fortune an exclusive look at its plans. Zijlstra has his sights set on doubling revenue to turn the company into a $1 billion operation, and to do it, he wants to transform Velcro into a globally recognized brand rather than a behind-the-scenes manufacturing company.
This financial goal might seem lofty if only the fastener on your bag or coat comes to mind when you think Velcro. But Velcro Industries makes a collection of closures used to attach everything from the interiors of cars and airplanes to blood pressure cuffs at the doctor’s office. The company’s biggest business? The tab used to close up diapers. Overall Velcro Industries makes 35,000 products, including a “silent” fastener that doesn’t make the notorious ripping noise (disclaimer: It’s quieter, but not really silent); paper that sticks to cubicles (marketed as “where Post-its don’t go”); and a product that sticks to glass. Through blog posts and videos on Velcro.com and her site Brit & Co., which includes backers like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Morin is trying to show the, um, hipper side of the company.
Front and center in Velcro Industries’ branding efforts is a battle to take back its trademark. The company would appreciate it if you wouldn’t go around calling every Velcro-like product “Velcro.” The generic name for the technology is “hook and loop,” which explains why most people refer to the zipperlike fabric fasteners by the trademarked brand name. Hook and loop goes back to 1941, when a Swiss engineer took a close look at how the “hooks” of burrs stuck to him and his dog after a hunting trip. “Velcro” is a combination of velvet (velours) and hook (crochet) in French.
Assistant general counsel Gemma Dreher conducts training for employees on proper usage, explaining, “You need to always use it as an adjective, never as a verb, never as a noun.” (Morin has clearly been briefed. She’s careful to say “Velcro tape,” “Velcro fasteners,” or “Velcro-brand products” in her videos.) Dreher and her team do the obvious work of pursuing manufacturers purporting to make Velcro, but they’ve also had YouTube videos and iPad apps removed that violate the trademark. “We do a lot of policing,” Dreher says. “We’re firm, but we try to be collaborative.”
Velcro Industries’ quest for recognition is a big shift for a company that has historically tried to avoid publicity. Velcro had a reputation for secrecy even before private equity fund Cohere Limited, which long held the majority of its shares, took it private in 2009. At the time, the fund had ties to the Cripps family of Britain, whose patriarch, the now deceased Sir Humphrey Cripps, was once Velcro’s chairman. (Sir Humphrey’s second claim to fame: amassing one of the world’s most valuable stamp collections.) While Velcro today is much more transparent, discussion of ownership is still off the table. Velcro declined to comment on Cohere or the Cripps family.
Zijlstra, who became president and CEO in October, realized the company needed to embrace its history and brand when he joined Velcro Industries in 2008 as president of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “We were very internally focused,” the native Dutchman told Fortune in his first interview since taking the top job. Velcro hired a PR firm last year, rolled out a fresh logo and a website where you’ll soon be able to buy directly from the company, and now touts sassy product tag lines like “What closure feels like” and “Closure has never been this easy.” The design of a Boston office in the works will incorporate as many of its products as possible. Zijlstra will be based out of the new site, but U.S. headquarters will remain in the old industrial city of Manchester, N.H.
If Zijlstra has his way, Velcro’s products will become even more ingrained in daily life. “Everything we want to do is building around the core of amazing connections,” says Jurjen Jacobs, vice president of global marketing. “That’s a bit more aspirational than saying we want to be the world’s best fastening solution.” As for consumers’ impression that all hook and loop is created equal, well, that could be harder to remove than the strongest Velcro fastener.
This story is from the July 1, 2013 issue of Fortune.