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Promotional Apparel - More than just Tee-Shirts

Tips on what to consider if you have a limited promotional apparel budget.

Any time that we hear, see, or read the words "Free Promotional T-Shirts!", our interest is piqued.

How many times have you done this yourself, you swarm with the crowd to be sure to get your free t-shirt giveaway before supplies run out.  Or, you collect your receipts and product barcodes to mail in for a freebie, not even knowing what the promotion is even about.   I've even been to events where people that are just wandering by will ask for event shirts for an event they know nothing about yet still feel entitled to get a free item from.

There is no doubt that people like free promotional items, especially clothing items, often times that is even regardless of what is even printed on the item.  So how do we make the most out of our promotional apparel opportunity?  How do we get some bang for our buck, and not feel like we're being taken advantage of or like our message isn't being heard?

First, you want to have a clear goal for what you want your promotion to achieve.  Decide whether your promotional apparel item is meant to be:  a gift or loyalty reward; a goodwill gesture;  a vehicle to communicate a message or slogan;  intended to be a walking billboard;  a source of information; a brand-equity builder; conversation starter; etc.

Then be clear on who your target audience is.  Is the recipient of your promotional item a potentially new, or an already existing, customer?   Are you trying to impress the recipient with your free item so that your brand stays top-of-mind at their next purchase occassion?  or is this a regular customer who is essentially someone that will endorse your product if someone asks them about the logoed shirt that they are wearing?  Each scenario would have a different strategy behind it.

Decide what impact you want your design elements to have.   Is your message meant to be a loud attention getter, a conversation starter, or do you want to just display a subtle stately logo?  If you have a well thought out plan, you are more likely to achieve it.

Do-it-Yourself Design vs. Hiring a Professional Designer

If graphic design isn't your specialty, you might want to leave this to a professional. Definitely do your homework and browse online portfolios to get an idea of what others are doing and how you might want to do something similar or something different.

I recommend: A hybrid approach to design could include using a template service.  You can find one through your favorite search engine by searching for "t-shirt templates".  These templates allow the users to use free online software to mix-and-match colors and drag-and-drop design elements to create your own unique combination of elements. 
*Note:  If you are new to promotional apparel marketing, and your first order is large or very important, consider partnering with your promotional products supplier, or hiring a promotional products consultant in order to get some good advice and arrive at a unique offering that is consistent with your goals.

Decide how you want your item printed.

Having your logo and/or message put onto an apparel item can be achieved in several ways, including: embroidery, screen printing, silk screening, imprinting, etc. *Note: Don't be afraid to ask for an actual print sample if you are not sure what a particular printing process will look like.

I recommend: Refer to unbiased industry resources to learn the appropriate terminology to use with your promotional apparel supplier.   Industry associations with good online terminology lists include: the Promotional Products Association International ( and the Advertising Specialty Institute (

It's okay to scale-down your investment in certain elements, but try not to skimp on quality.

Promotional apparel items include quite a range of choices, such as: caps, hats, dress shirts, jackets, windshirts, sport shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, hoodies, t-shirts, turtlenecks, vests, tanks, etc. This gives you a broad range of items and costs to select from. And, surely the size of your promotion budget will dictate the options that you will or won't be able to consider.

I recommend: Keep in mind that the quality of the apparel & caps that you choose matters.  If you can't afford the more expensive fleece  or outerwear items, that's okay.  Go with a standard t-shirt instead, but do consider selecting a brand-name item to give that good impression of quality. Promotional apparel items come under popular brand names, such as Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, Jerzees, etc.   Quality is especially important if you are concerned about the wearer's perception of your company since the brand will be less evident to the observer. 
*Note: If your budget limits your consideration set, consider investing in an item with a lower per unit cost but invest more in your choice of print design.

Seasonality and pricing are significant decision-influencing factors.

Your budget will be the biggest determing factor in your promotional apparel choices and decisions. How much you can spend and how many items you need, together will determine your per-unit item price range. If you need a large quantity of items, you can more easily rule out the more expensive outerwear items, etc.

I recommend: Promotional apparel, just like all clothing, is worn in whichever season it is appropriate for.  Once your price range has been determined, then you will want to decide what "season" you are shopping for.   A lighter-weight lower-cost item can still offer a range of choices, from an everyday item, like a imprinted t-shirt, to a more seasonal item, like a tank-top for summer or a turtleneck for winter.

Choose a quality, easy care, easy wear, fabric.

Fabrics reflect quality and seasonality. It's always advisable to go with an item that is easy care. You have choices here too, such as: 100% cotton, 50/50 blend, silk, quick drying, fleece, woven, knit, mesh, twill, canvas, poplin, etc.

I recommend: A quality fabric that is comfortable for the wearer, will be worn and used more often than not.   An easy care, easy wear fabric will retain a quality look even if it is heavily worn or not so well-taken care of by the person wearing it.

Know the demographics of your audience.

Know if your item needs to appeal to a broad audience, or if you can cater to a particular type. Do you need a unisex shirt, or can you specialize in women's apparel? Do you need a one-size-fits-all item, or do you need to offer choice of sizes? Is your audience adults only, or do you need to offer children and infant sizes, too? Having a one-size-fits-all size significantly simplifies your planning and forecasting efforts, and minimizes the impact of any incorrect sizing assumptions.

I recommend: One recent study by the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) showed that for the hard-to-reach 18-34 year old demographic, "promotional products may be effectively employed as a stand-alone advertising medium (second to television in terms of reported information value)".  So you want to have your promotional item, as well as your imprinted message, to be age-appropriate to your target audience.

Know how you are going to distribute your promotional apparel item.

There are many ways to get a message out. Promotional apparel items can be appropriate vehicles in a variety of situations, such as: groups; events; business functions; sales forces; teams; and a broad range of other customers and clients.

I recommend: Promotional apparel items can be distributed in many different ways and to accomplish many different objectives, such as: at an event sign-up area;  at the completion of an event;  for the crew or staff of an event;  for the participants of an event;  as a mail-order reward;  by cashing in a voucher, a coupon, or points;  by being tossed into the audience at an event;  at a booth at a tradeshow;  to raise money at a fundraiser; as an incentive to try something new (an opportunity for you to upsell); as a contest prize;  by mail as a free sample or introduction;  etc.  There is a lot of room for creativity (and keeping costs down) here.

Tips & Tactics
Helpful advice for making the most of this Guide

  • Since goodwill and word-of-mouth advertising is hard to measure, be sure to measure them whenever you get the opportunity. Make sure that your website's signup areas and any print forms your customers fill out include a question asking: "How did you hear about us?". Then track how often a promotional item is mentioned.
  • If promotional apparel (e.g., clothing) items are not as affordable or as unique as your budget would prefer, consider going with promotional headwear which can start at a price range that is at par or even lower than the per-unit cost of a standard t-shirt. The types of headwear include: custom baseball caps, visors, imprinted knit or fleece caps, wind or sun hats, headbands, skull caps, or imprinted beanie caps -- many of which happen to be trendy with the younger audience.
  • When deciding on the colors and placement of your logo and message, don't feel limited to only the front, back, or pocket area. Also use the collars, cuffs, trim, and shirt edges or seams. Have a design that is over the shoulder, or that snakes around the side. Be a little off-beat if that is consistent with the strategy for the image you want to portray.
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