This underwear brand really hits the spot

“Chris, can you hold on? I’m just showing off my underwear to someone,” says Peter Neal, temporarily setting his phone aside. His remark is followed by muffled laughter, and delighted exclamations of “Oh, my God!” and “That’s awesome,” followed by Neal saying “I was so blown away when you sent them back.”

Without some crucial context, it’s an exchange open to all kinds of interpretation and conjecture. The truth is a little more prosaic, though no less interesting. It turns out that Neal, a serial entrepreneur who co-founded the successful Neal Brothers Foods brand with his brother Chris, is actually showing off a customized pair of his new underwear brand Manley, which he launched with his friend and brand namesake Paul Manley.

Neal’s longtime friend Jesse Clark, a creative sort, had recently purchased two pairs of Manleys online. After “zhoosh-ing” them up with the liberal application of textured paint, he sent them back to his friend in an envelope reading simply “To Peter, from Jessie.”

Neal is now proudly wearing the underwear to a meal at the upscale Toronto restaurant Scaramouche—they’re the only underwear he wears these days—and, spotting Jessie at the entrance, he can’t resist informing his friend (photo evidence, right).

“I just pulled part of my pants down in front of Scaramouche,” he explains with a laugh as he picks up the phone. It’s clear Neal isn’t a shy guy, which maybe shouldn’t be surprising since he’s building his underwear brand with some brash marketing around a human truth that might make a lot of men blush: pee spots.  

Along with that bold attitude—or perhaps because of it—Neal has demonstrated an uncanny knack for entrepreneurship. He turned his nearly 36-year-old namesake food company, which specializes in chips, salsas, dips, etc. into a more than $40 million a year business, and has also launched other successful enterprises including Hanna Neal Wine Merchants and Crank Coffee Co.

He jokingly likens himself to Babe Ruth, a prodigious home run hitter who also led the league in strikeouts five times during his career. “I swung at a bunch of stuff,” he says. “Some were home runs and some were not.”

It’s too early to say if Manley, a new entrant in a crowded category, will be a hit or a miss. But there’s no disputing that it’s a fun—and highly irreverent—brand addressing a legitimate “problem.”

It was conceived in the most difficult of circumstances. About two-and-a-half years ago, Neal was in the midst of a serious bout with depression, an illness that had claimed the life of his grandmother, and has periodically tormented one of his daughters. Manley, too, was devastatingly familiar with depression, since his wife Teresa had recently succumbed to the illness.

The two men would regularly get together for walks with their own pooches. They eventually came to be came to be known as “poop and sticks” walks, since those two things always seemed to dominate the conversation.

At some point, as the gloom lifted a little, the two men started batting around ideas for those mock products that Saturday Night Live is known for —like the hilariously shapeless “Mom Jeans,” “Bad Idea Jeans,” a high-fibre breakfast cereal called “Colon Blow” and, a longtime personal favourite, the “Love Toilet.”

Peter and Paul discussed everything from ear wax candles to spas specializing in nose hair braiding. Somewhere along the way, one of them, they’re not sure which one of them it was now, suggested a pair of absorbent underwear that would help eliminate that dime-sized stain that shows up men’s pants whenever a tiny dribble of pee slips out of the pipes after they urinate.

Officially, it’s known as “post-micturition dribbling,” (PMD) and it’s fairly common among men of all ages. If you’re ever seen a man return to his seat at a restaurant or sporting event with his shirt suddenly untucked, sweater pulled suspiciously low, or water splashed all over the front of this pants as he complains, perhaps a little too vociferously, about a major plumbing malfunction in the bathroom, odds are he’s experienced a bout of PMD and is doing whatever he can to cover up what Neal has dubbed the “pee spot.”

It’s often associated with age, but it could be a result of something as simple as rushing to get out of the bathroom, or even failing to shake it more than three times because of that old idiom. It might be because of a weakening of the muscles on the pelvic floor that surround the urethra, which can be caused by everything from being overweight to persistent heavy lifting (a Google search of “post-micturition dribbling among furniture movers” yielded no tangible results that suggest it’s more prevalent among this particular segment, however).

Manley enters a crowded category dominated by well-known brands like Fruit of the Loom, Joe Boxer and the west coast upstart SAXX, not to mention innumerable cheap competitors, but Neal says its ability to protect men from the embarrassing “pee spot” just might give it a leg up.

“It’s like buying any of the other 35-plus pairs of underwear, but you get the added benefit of having a preventative barrier, so you never have to worry about putting on a pair of khakis,” says Neal, who is identified on the Manley website as the company’s director of pee spot research. “For me and many, many others, it provides huge peace of mind.”

It’s a model that brings to mind Knix, another made-in-Canada leak-proof underwear brand known for its willingness to talk about bodily functions. Knix founder Joanna Griffiths recently sold an 80% share of the company to the Swedish hygiene products maker Essity for US$320 million.

“Women are great at communicating about issues like this; it’s why Knix was born and sold for half a billion dollars,” says Neal. Asked if he could envision Manley becoming as successful, Neal says it would be “thrilling.” “Paul has always wanted a Corvette, for example, and I would love to see that happen one day.”

Right now, he’s more excited about Manley’s plan to donate a portion of profits into as-yet undetermined mental health organizations. Neal currently does board work with Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project and Pine River Institute, both of which provides mental health and addiction service for youth and their families.

Neal is one of six partners in Manley, who hail from come from various professional backgrounds. “It’s a team of guys who were able to put their different skillsets together,” he says. “We’re all different ages and background, and we’re all pretty comfortable talking about penises and pee.”

Among the six is David Crichton (third from left in picture below), a founding partner of the now-defunct Toronto agency, Grip Limited, and who Neal calls “one of the most creative brains in Canada and a real Swiss-army knife.” Crichton has been helping out with web copy for Manley, as well as a new digital out-of-home ad campaign currently running across Outfront Media properties.

A veteran ad guy who has developed several high-profile marketing campaigns, Crichton says he was attracted to the brand because of a USP that lends itself to great marketing, as well as a compelling origin story.

Given guys’ notorious unease about talking seriously about anything pertaining to the body (though not necessarily bodily functions), it’s not surprising that Manley leans heavily into humour when discussing its underwear and the problem it solves.

The Crichton-penned explainer copy on the website, for example, reads “We took everything we learned from aliens in science fiction books, astronauts in movies and really, really smart contributors to Wikipedia, then sat down with a pen, a pad of paper, some beers and solved a problem men have been having since they put on their best loin cloth to go to Cave Prom. The result? A comfortable pair of underwear that not only makes you look great, but will come through in the clutch when you’re in a clinch because you didn’t clench.”

It claims that it prevents pee spots through its “Manley Barrier Technology.” It’s made with thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), an actual man-made material that possesses the characteristics of both plastic and rubber and can be found in everything from drive belts to sporting goods and hydraulic hoses.

The TPU is housed in what the brand calls a “Presenting Pouch,” a Crichton-coined expression that evokes West Coast underwear brand SAXX’s trademark “Ballpark Pouch. “I think that we’ve got a similar system of keeping everything in place, so I’ll call it the Presenting Pouch,” says Crichton. “You’ve got to come at it with a little bit more humour, so it gets talked about, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve got an incontinence issue.”

The out-of-home ads, meanwhile, contain simple, direct messages like “A man can change his spots” and “After-Shake Proof” alongside images of a man shot from the waist down, complete with a distinctive pee spot and a link to the Manley website.

The ads are currently running across Outfront Media properties, including boards in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. It’s only in the GTA for now, but the goal is to go national before the end of the month.

Manley is another example of a brand coming from out of nowhere to solve a longstanding customer pain-point, and is communicating its efforts with engaging advertising. It’s early days right now, but who knows, maybe one day the pee spot will be as well-known as another famous advertising creation: Ring around the collar.

Chris Powell