4 Ways SMBs Can Use Clothing Merchandise to Behave like an Iconic Brand

Over the past year, 81% of branded merchandise purchases have been to support a small business.
4 Ways SMBs Can Use Clothing Merchandise to Behave like an Iconic Brand
Image credit: Foundation merch by steamdesign on 99designs

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
CEO of 99designs
4 min read
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Think about your favorite t-shirt. It may be pristine, color-faded or even full of holes — but its design definitely tells a story.

When it comes to merch, that story is typically about cult brands, fandom and personal identity. Whether it’s a much-loved band tee, a favorite sports team, or meaningful slogan supporting a cause, we wear our hearts on our fronts, backs and sleeves. Recent research from 99designs shows that small businesses are leveraging the marketing power of brilliantly branded merch more than ever before. From hospitality to the arts, entrepreneurs are channeling a behavior more familiar to iconic brands than small businesses to get through tough times, find new revenue streams and create physical connections with customers.

The response has been enormously positive. More than half of us (52%) purchased at least one item of merch in the past year — and 81% of these t-shirts, hoodies, totes and more were purchased specifically to support a small business during the pandemic. It’s a heart-warming statistic that pledges significant support for local brands around the world, reflecting a subtle but important shift in consumer allegiance.  

But in a time where everyone’s trying to get back on their feet, how and why does this approach work? Here are just four of the ways brands can benefit from high quality, creative merchandise.

Related: 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' and 4 Other T-Shirts Every Entrepreneur Needs to Wear

Advertise authentically 

Well-designed merch is prime real estate for anyone looking to market a business, transforming customers into grassroots brand ambassadors and prompting word of mouth recommendations in a visually engaging and effective way. In short, it takes out-of-home advertising to a whole new level. After all, billboards can’t share an authentic story about its experience with a brand or product, but a customer can. 

What this means is that you should apply the same creative quality and effort to your t-shirt designs as you would a billboard or ad campaign. Albeit passive, design is one of the most powerful promotional tools available to any brand. There’s no doubt that beautiful, high quality aesthetics equate to greater impact when it comes to merch.

Image credit: Indie Hackers merch design by Saska on 99designs

Build a community

Merch is all about nurturing emotional connections between a business and its customers, and building an authentic community of supporters and advocates. These kinds of products help capture a feeling from a particular moment in time, serving as a physical touch point between your brand and the wearers long after they have left a venue, office or website.   

Don’t underestimate the bonds forged through shared experiences. If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that people have rediscovered and reconnected with their local communities in new ways, rallying behind small businesses and pledging their support. A well-designed piece of merch is a multi-faceted community building tool that can help maintain this cultural momentum, whether through social engagement or as a loyalty reward.

Related: 3 Important Foundations To Leverage Online Communities For Business Growth

Evolve your brand personality

The goal is to craft something that your customers or team will choose to wear over every other t-shirt in their closet. It’s not just a case of buying some shirts and slapping your logo on the front.

Take this opportunity to be playful with your visual brand and have some fun. Think about how you can communicate your story and personality by tapping into broader design trends or custom illustration to build a narrative through your merch.   

Image credit: Salon merch by XZEQUTEWORX on 99designs

Grow your business

While many businesses jumped on the merch bandwagon to make it through lockdowns and shutdowns during the pandemic, it can be a viable long term alternative revenue stream — particularly given consumer appetite for these kinds of products.

Investing in your merch design and thinking outside of your creative comfort zone allows for endless opportunities, from seasonal products to limited edition print runs or special event memorabilia. 

Image credit: Foundation merch by steamdesign on 99designs

We’ve seen first hand the creativity and ingenuity of entrepreneurs and business owners taking control of the unexpected twists thrown our way. With the volume of branded merch design up 134% on our own platform, it’s clear that what started as a quick pivot for many is truly here to stay.

Related: 5 Company Swag Products That People Will Actually Use

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