Good Design and Promo Products – Oxymoron?


Font Geek / Flickr mat_honan

I had a rare chance to read an old copy of the Sunday New York Times recently and was struck by an article on a t-shirt design contest at Oberlin College in Ohio. The article touched on something we’ve known all along – gone are the days of sticking your corporate/school logo on something and expecting someone to wear it. Rather than the college name emblazoned on the front of the shirts (boring), stylized and iconic symbols of life on campus are screened to perfection. Hallelujah.

So, what up with the promo product world? A lot of companies and non-profit organizations still seem to think their brand is enough to convince folks to pull their t-shirt over their head more often than all the others in the drawer (or grab their re-usable mug, their tote bag, you get the idea).

But, seriously, when was the last time you put on a t-shirt with something like Deloitte Consulting, Kaiser Permanante or Safeway on the front of it?  I can think of a few cool killers offhand & here is a short list:

1. Brand Police. We’re often presented with brand guidelines in advance of doing work with a client. By and by, the brand guidelines were designed for letterhead and AGM reports. They’re useful for getting the pantone right and for figuring out what the black & white version of a logo is really suppose to look like.  But too often they serve as the final word on creativity – thereby rendering the creative expression of a brand to it’s logo and nothing more. Brand guidelines are party poopers when you want to have a little fun.

2. No Time to Design. Last minute planning means folks aren’t empowered to drift from what they know their boss will approve without blinking. I can’t tell you the number of times we start a conversation rife with creativity only to default to the standard logo in the standard place because the time wasn’t there to get approvals and buy-in to designs that fall outside the box.

3. Lack of Clear Marketing Objectives/No specific audience. Too often purchasing  promotional products doesn’t come under the same rigor as other marketing spends. Without understanding your audience, intended outcome or call to action, the opportunity to align messaging with a clear outcome is lost. And understanding who your intended audience is can inform design.

In the case of t-shirts, the real challenge for companies is creating a true ‘wearable’ vs. another give-away t-shirt. All of us have a dozen (or more) shirts in our drawer, and all of us wear the same 3-4 over and over. So how do you get someone to pick yours as part of their favorite stash of tees?  You get them with design, people, you get them with design. Here are a few of our favorite and tips:

1. Secret Messages. Consider printing your core messages/logo/branding inside the t-shirt, under the flap of the messenger bag, ect (and use the main real estate for a cool graphic that has a chance of being work again and again). I’m sure the marketers are cringing, but imagine – it’s like a private conversation and reminder to your core customer that you love them every time they pull your shirt over their head. At a minimum, keep it subtle. Think left sleeve not front chest.

2. Be Cheeky. We did a run of t-shirts for a client called Pulse Energy who specialize in building management energy management software. Instead of a basic logo print on the shirts we printed ‘check my pulse’ on the front with a subtle logo hit on rear nape of the shirt.  Fun, especially when worn by their cute, fit staff.

3. Design first, Logo Second. Consider starting with a cool concept or design first and worry about incorporating your logo later. Here is a great execution of that concept by BC Based coffee roaster Saltspring Coffee. They printed a series of coffee molecules on their travel mugs for the true java junkie – their logo is a subtle link in the ‘chain’.

Pantone Mugs. Lovely. / Flickr elizabeth.graeber

There are very few brands cool enough to get away with just being themselves. Pantone is one of them. The “world’s authority on color”  goes so well with your morning coffee – their mugs get picked first, I’m sure of it. For the rest of us, think about design first, your logo second.

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