Archive for the ‘Brands & Branding’ Category

What Your Customers Really Want

Friday, November 5th, 2010

If you’ve been in business for any period of time, you may think you know what your customers really want. We draw our conclusions from past experience of what our customers have purchased. We tend to look at the the most popular colors, styles, and sizes. On the surface this is a logical, but not necessarily accurate conclusion.

This type of purchase analysis is mostly based on simple observation. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, we can go much deeper. Doing so helps us to gain a broader understanding of the true motivations of our customer base.

As an example. The guy that goes to the hardware store to buy a 1/4″ drill bit, doesn’t really want the drill bit. He really wants the 1/4″ hole that results from the use of the drill bit. Further, he really wants the result the 1/4″ hole will enable for him. And so it is when people buy printed t-shirts. They really don’t want the shirt with the message on it, they want what the results that come from wearing the shirt with the message.

While this may seem obvious, the implications go much deeper. Let’s ask ourselves what are the benefits of a message on a shirt? It’s a form of media and the message is seen by many people when the shirt is worn. At least that’s what the customer hopes for. In reality, the message is mostly lost because the graphic design element is so weak that the image is nothing more than visual noise, resulting in it blending in with everything around it.

The lesson for us is to make sure the graphics, colors, and body style are sufficiently powerful enough to garner viewer attention. The graphics don’t have to be complex or multi-color, but they do have to be striking enough so as to stand out. But this simply isn’t enough.

The second element of the garment graphic is that it has to tell a story. The old Chinese saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is absolutely right on. Yet, most apparel graphics don’t tell a story. Their message is shallow and often unclear. Remember the person wearing the shirt is presenting a message to the viewer. How is that message going to connect with the viewer? Is there an emotional bond? Is it working on a deeper level than the obvious advertising and basic facts it presents?

When you dig deeper into the end motivation of your customers, you put yourself into the position of selling more, selling more effectiveness, and selling results. The garment and the graphics are a means to an end. When you get clarity as to what that end is, you end up selling much more to the customer to satisfy their desired end result.


Going Beyond Ink on Cotton

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

In my last post, I talked about the t shirt as a commodity and how it is much more than that, it is really the media of personal expression. This is a pretty high concept and would have difficulty standing on it’s own. Long gone are the days of having shirts printed for a promotion or advertising and having them readily embraced by the market. If you’re a well known brand, or have an exceptionally hot topic, it may be possible to have a successful promotion with little effort, but this is usually not the case now.

Indeed, for decorated apparel to really work it needs a couple of things to happen. The first is to have graphics that are so striking that they will stop the average person on the street. The graphics don’t need to be complicated, but they do need to impress. The need for great graphic design is critical. Simple clip art is rarely enough anymore.

The image needs to be printed crisply and cleanly. Registration and image quality have to be right on. Mediocre execution of the imprint is a sure recipe for not getting noticed. This is what separates the really great decorators from the sea of average printers out there.

Secondly, you need a story behind the image. Remember that the person wearing your shirt is wearing it for a reason. They identify with the message that’s on the shirt. What is that message? To use t shirts as media you need to be communicating the story and CONNECTING the story with the person wearing the shirt. This means they have to have some connection to the experience behind the graphic.

This is really easy to accomplish with an event like a festival, walk-a-thon, 10K run, etc. Pick a theme for the event and create the graphics to accompany it. The better the graphics, the better the connection to the event and the experience of the event.

If you’re doing images for advertising, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s not about a blatant commercial image, it’s more about the professionalism of the company and what they stand for. This is your chance to dialog with the business and see if they have a compelling vision of who they are and what they bring to the marketplace through their goods and services. You can learn a lot about a company and your own business through this process.

This is only the beginning. Creating compelling graphics that stop the viewer on the street and start a conversation is an art in itself. Anything you do now will be a starting point on a journey to become expert in this craft. But the starting point will be more than your competition is doing and it will also begin to differentiate you from the commodity mass of printers out there.


Launching Your Clothing Line

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Lately we’ve been doing a lot of shirts for boutique clothing lines. These are usually designers who’ve come up with a few clever t-shirt designs and want to market them. The questions are almost all the same and I’m surprised no one has really set out to provide meaningful answers. So this month I thought I would share some observations and answers to a couple of the more common questions.

The most basic one is: Where should I market my shirts?

I don’t mean to be obvious here, but the root of the answer is, to outlets that are thinking like you. Where do you shop? Where would you go to buy the designs you’ve just done? Start locally and work your way up. This is important for two really good reasons.

The first is that almost all the businesses or individuals that come in wanting to get shirts printed lack seed capital. This is the money you need to actually print the shirts to fill orders. Start with a sample run first. Get something physical in your hands. Buyers want to see, touch, and feel the merchandise. Your first objective is to get some market reaction. If you can’t afford to get shirts screen printed, have the samples done digitally (direct to garment.) This is a good idea anyway so you can see what DTG looks like compared to screen print.

If you find there’s a positive reception to your work, expand within your region. This would be a 50 mile radius of where you’re located, or the nearest larger city. I’m always careful about recommending rapid expansion. With too little capital, I’ve seen too many promising companies literally burn up trying to fund their growth. Take it a step at a time. Make sure you get paid right away for your product. Running out of cash is the single biggest reason new companies don’t make it.

2. Should I exhibit in tradeshows to get bigger exposure?

Beware of large tradeshows. I’ve seen this happen over and over. Young, inexperienced, innovative companies bring fresh ideas to the market. They have no way to capitalize on potential success if it really hits. Calculate in advance how much business you can handle. It’s one thing to get orders for 1,000 shirts. What would happen if you got orders for 10,000? How much business can you afford to book? If you can’t answer that, you need accounting help to get the answer.

The most common situation I see at tradeshows is getting ripped off by much bigger companies that already have deep distribution and lots of financing. Make no mistake, you are being watched. If there’s lots of buzz about your graphics and you’re actually writing orders, you run the risk of a very quick knockoff of your concepts.

While they may not copy your work exactly, the imitations will capture the look and flavor of your offerings.


Migrating Your Products and Services Beyond Being a Commodity.

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

No matter how hard we try, it seems overcoming the stereotype of being the “t shirt guy” is an impossible objective. The perception of being a t shirt company or vendor in the marketplace is huge. Just trying to get your customers to understand what you really do is a challenge. As I was thinking about this, some things began to occur to me.

My first thought was that the perception is reality. No matter how we see ourselves, customer perception of what we do is the real reality. They’re branding or labeling us with this perception. It’s up to us to fulfill that label, or somehow overcome it. Part of this labeling process is the commoditization of what we do. “You’re just another t shirt guy” is tough to overcome as it puts all t shirt printers into a giant group where everyone and every product looks the same. As I’ve said in the past, if you get caught in this trap, the only differentiator is price. That’s a losing game.

Your avenue out of this perception is to provide a logical path. Start with your position the same as everyone else. You can make or beat the lowest price in the market as the starting point. It really does not matter because our intention is to use this as a starting point for the conversation, that’s it. We have no intention for selling shirts for the lowest price in the market.

The key is to have a series of upgrades, steps, or levels. If you’re starting off with a cheap 5.4 oz cotton shirt, the next step up is a 6.0z with better graphics and special effects inks (high density, reflective, gel, etc.) Still not expensive, but something to compare with. Follow this with a more fashionable style like an American Apparel body or a 100% Certified Organic body with waterbase printing. Now you have much more margin and a clear choice that does not fit the stereotype. You’ve navigated away from a commodity to something beyond.

In order to make this transition it’s also important to give the reason why behind the upgrade. The reason why for the point of entry garment is all about being the cheapest, that’s it. It’s where it is because it fits the profile of the commodity. The fashion body is “hip” or cool, and the organic T is good for the environment. The more compelling you can make the story that leads up to the next level, the better chance you have of making the migration.

What you’re after is comparison. If you don’t have higher priced alternatives, you have nothing to compare against and the low end price gets pegged. Offering alternatives with a reason why behind them breaks the link to a commodity and frees you to move up to a higher sales price and higher margin.


Connecting with Your Niche

Friday, August 14th, 2009

A niche is nothing more than an area of special interest. One of the very first things you can do to improve your business is to move away from being a generalist that does anything for anybody. When you target your efforts to a specific specialty, you move away from a commodity product or service to one of uniqueness. This specialization is the mechanism for increasing your profits. Today I thought I would share some of the elements necessary to make a niche effort successful.

When selecting a niche it really helps that it be something you are personally interested in. The higher your interest, the easier it is for you to become excited and engaged. This is one of the keys. Enthusiasm sells. It’s contagious. I’ve seen mediocre product sold very successfully in specialty niches simply because the company or site was enthusiastic about what they were offering.

Your role here is to connect. The more authentic and genuine you are, the more believable
you’ll be. Printed apparel in a niche area should reflect the look and feel of that market. The automotive racing and motorcycle niches have their own typical look. Likewise for major sports events. Fun runs, triathalons, and marathons (half and full) have their own look as well. You don’t have to try and reinvent the wheel for your niche. Look at closely related areas and see if you can identify a specific signature style.

Specialization usually means you know more about that area than the average supplier. The more you can incorporate the style of your market, the more you will sell. For instance, if you are selling to outdoor festivals, make it a standard practice to fold and bag all retail product. This keeps the inventory clean and protected and is a definite added value.

Talk to many different people in your area. These can be customers, other vendors, or participants and spectators. Find out from them what’s important, what they’re looking for. Ask them what’s missing or what would make for a better experience. You may be surprised at the answers. Be on the lookout for opportunities for you to partner with others selling into the niche. You can often piggyback onto their efforts to increase your credibility and reach.

Success in niche marketing comes down to three things: Market knowledge, passion or enthusiasm, and connection to the market. When you combine these three elements, you have a recipe for success and profit.


On Being Responsive to Customer Demands

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Not much time today, but I wanted to get this short post out before I’m off for the day. Right now I’m in Tirupur, India doing a one week consult at a large apparel company. During the peak of their season they produce 50,000 units a day. The company is very, very modern with about 10 MHM presses and a couple of M&R pressses including an 18c Challenger II. They have automatic coating, soon direct to screen and an up-to-date imaging and prepress department. I have seen this situation many times in the past. Basically a 3rd World location but facilities anyone in the States would drool over. This is not what I want to write about today.

One of the biggest challenges on the horizon in the U.S. and abroad for that matter is the PVC free, Phthalate free issue. Big companies like Nike and Marks and Spencer in the UK are demanding that garments screen printed be free of these chemicals. They are abundant in traditional plastisols. The contaminent levels are ridiculously low as in 0.1% or less. It is a major, major pain to make the switch to become compliant. I know I will probably catch some flack for saying that, but it is the truth.

The point of all this is, my Indian client has made the commitment to switch entirely to waterbase inks, scrub everything inside and out, completely strip all their frames, squeegees, and flood bars, and generally go to extreme lengths to eliminate ANY possibility of contamination. They are not required to do this, it is entirely a voluntary effort on their part. It is an extreme effort and very, very expensive. Why are they doing it?

The answer is very simply. The owners of the company are visionary. They see the pressures worldwide within the Green Movement and the rising consumer demand for accountability. They also listen very closely to their customers and what they are saying. This is their proactive response to position themselves as responsible and progressive for the mostly EU markets they serve. They should be commended for their efforts and we should all use them as an example of responsiveness.

What are your customers trying to tell you? What are they saying about you? Do you really know or it is a best guess on your part? A great exercise, and one that will add credibility and value to your relationship is to ask them what’s important to them. Don’t let them off the hook. Formulate 5-8 questions that will really get them thinking about why they use you and what you could do better. After you’ve asked 20 or 30 of your customers the SAME set of questions, and had a conversation with them about the answers, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the pulse of your market is. This will give you the fuel, and starting point to proactively take a leadership position in delivering goods and services that go beyond just a printed garment.


Brand Comfort - Confidence in a Far Away Place

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I’m in Tirupur, India all this week, half way around the world from California where I live. Tirupur is in southern India about 1 hr flight time West of Chennai (Madras). It’s the center of the Indian knitwear region and has many significantly sized textile operations that supply blank as well as printed apparel for some of the world’s most notable brands.

Tirupur is also a fairly poor area, at least on the outside. I’ve been to many factories in developing countries and Tirupur fits the profile of many of them. Whenever I travel to lesser developed areas it always comes with the warning “Don’t drink the water.” This is usually very good advice.

It’s always a chance you take, even with bottled water. I’ve been in situations, more than once, where the locals will fill the bottles out of the tap and then super glue the caps back on to make it look like they are sealed. I’m always wary.

So we come to the topic of today’s post. When I got to my room at the Hotel Angel (an oasis for me!), what did I see on the table? There, in front of me was the familiar transparent blue label of Pesico’s Auqafina brand bottle drinking water, exactly as I know it in the US. My spirits peaked as I picked up the 1 ltr bottle to read the outside.

It was indeed bottled in India, but they went to great lengths to calm any concerns I might have. From the lablel:

“This bottle contains water treated through our 5-step State-Of-The-Art process that comprises UV treatment, reverse osmosis, ozonization, carbon filtration, and sand filtration. It goes on to label prominently “International Tamperproof Seal.” There are at least three quality badges or insignias on the label as well.

This is a clear case of not only the value of Brand Identity, but going further to reinforce the trust and safety of the product. Guess what? It works for me.

When I was in the hotel restaurant last night, I asked for bottled water and the waiter again brought out the Aquafina. He presented it to me so I could read the label and inspect the cap seal. I very much felt like I was confirming a fine wine selection. I commented to the waiter after looking at the bottling date on the cap that ” The April 9th, 2009 bottling was a particularly good bottling.”


Are You the Local Authority?

Monday, May 11th, 2009

One of the common problems I hear all the time from t shirt decorators is “my customers don’t take us seriously.” In general, the public sees apparel decorators as “just another t shirt guy.” We want, no need, to be recognized as the premiere authority of decorated apparel in our market or niche. Our credentials must be unchallenged. Our technical ability recognized by the by the marketplace. Our reputation must go beyond our local market/niche to encompass everything about how our product is used, but how do we accomplish this?

We want people to recognize the opportunity to have access to our skill set locally and to feel welcome in doing so. Part of accomplishing this involves our risk reversal or guarantees. We want our clients to know they’re welcome and that the business they do with us will be a positive “experience” they can talk about and pass on to others.

Jay Abraham calls this “Preeminence.” We want to encompass everything about what we do and how we do it. We are here to exceed the expectations of how our clients use our products and delight them with the final outcome.

A goal of Preeminence is to create a story that goes along with the experience. The easier we can make it to tell the story, the more word-of-mouth referrals we receive. This is important because a referral comes to us with a different expectation and a different mindset than someone off the street who doesn’t know us or what we do. Those individuals require much more time and effort for us to differentiate ourselves and prove we’re who we say we are and that we do what we say we will do

A second major goal of Preeminence is the role of authority. If you are truly an authority, your objective is to completely educate and position yourself as the only logical provider of the goods and services your customer is seeking. In this capacity, you have an OBLIGATION to completely inform and educate those you do business with. In the process, you will automatically differentiate yourself from all of the price cutting, low balling, fly-by-night competitors that are continually starting up and closing down.

It’s important to understand the role of education is all about just one thing, education. This isn’t some hidden sales pitch. The commercial focus is minimal to nonexistant. Our entire goal is simple to build confidence in our position as an expert in the market at what we do.

In my next post, I’ll go into the concept of Reciprocity, a condition that develops as a natural result of giving information away at no cost.


Valuing Your Brand in the Marketplace

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Customer needs and requirements are constantly changing. Maintaining your value to them and your position in their minds is a perpetual challenge. Owners and their employees often become complacent with the status quo. We simply get stuck in the rut of day-to-day activities. When we begin taking the customer for granted, or fail to realize customer requirements have changed, we’re often surprised to find we’ve been replaced in the minds of many of our now “lost” customers by. We’re often seen as irrelevant or out-of-touch, or “old school.”

This can be the beginning of the end for any company’s brand and position in the marketspace. Too often we move ahead with a product or service idea with little or no thought to the future. I’m not saying to overthink every decision, but you need some kind of vision for your company and customers.

How do you really “value” brand equity? The ultimate measure is what someone is willing to pay for a branded product. Are you able to get higher prices per product or service simply because the products are always outstanding?

This may or may not be the case, but consider this. Brand and brand reputation often are the basis for trust. Trust is the lubricant that opens the wallet because the customer knows from past experience they’ll receive substantially more value than what they’re putting out. Carefully cultivated, people recognize your name, logo, years in business, etc.

How much do you think the Apple or Nike’s logo imprint is worth? Another example. Recently we’ve been seeing the red and white Target bullseye and bull terrier everywhere. Target invested $1.2 billion last year on their commercial campaign. Follow-up consumer surveys indicate an unbelievable 97 percent recognize the Target brand. That’s amazing, but what does this mean to you?

The question is; what is YOUR brand worth? And more importantly, what are you doing to maintain your position in your customer’s mind as their requirements change? Even more importantly, what’re you doing to replace competitive brands with yours in the minds of their customers?

In this battle for mindshare, your role as a business owner is to be the driving force to create brand ownership and recognition. This is particularly important for us in our industry. Not only do you have the responsibility of creating and maintaining the recognition of your brand, you have the same for your customers if you imprint apparel in the corporate, commercial, or community space.

Are the images you produce helping or hurting your customers and clients? Think about the argument for mindshare and recognition. When you add a sponsor logo on the back of an event shirt, is it going to help that sponsor be recognized and remembered? More often than not, we simply scan a business card and throw on the shirt. From many of the examples I’ve looked at over the years, I’m embarrassed for the sponsor, not proud of their contribution.

There have been an increasing number of critical voices arguing the concept of branding is out of date and no longer adds value. The argument says that anyone can find anything cheaper on the Internet. While this may be true, what is missing is the trust element. The more you can do to reinforce your brand with trust and reputation, the stronger your company and business will be.


Are You a Brand in Your Customer’s Mind?

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Brands exist and our minds are full of familiar images we instantly recall when prompted by sights and sounds. A significant part of our industry is focused soley on commercial brand imprinting with the goal of recognition and association.

Think about your business for a minute when compared to a major brand you recognize and know. What’s the difference? How did their logos get etched in your mind and other customers’ mental product grids? And, what’s your role in this process of creating a brand image and position in their minds?

The only way to build brand equity is to replace one brand value perception with another. Creating a brand value proposition in the mind and keeping it there by constantly reinforcing the value position must be included with everything you do in your mix of promotions, day-in, day-out. Once you stop investing in maintaining your brand position in their mind, you’re giving your competition a massive opportunity to replace you and your brand with theirs in the customers mind.