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The promotional clothing industry has come a long way since it offered flimsy, cheap merchandise. Now that companies are recognising the brand-enhancing properties of top-quality garments, the sector is beginning to challenge high street chain

You remember how it went. You would buy your cartons of BrekkiFlakes, bottles of Fizz Pop, cans of UberBier; you’d send off the vouchers and a cheque; you’d allow 28 days for delivery… then your “super” T-shirt would eventually arrive. A suspiciously thin feel to it, but never mind. However, you were none too pleased when after a couple of washes it was fit for little more than cleaning the car.

But that was then. The world of promotional clothing has subsequently undergone a revolution as companies realise it is pointless spending millions making a brand name synonymous with quality only to emblazon it across an inferior garment.

The promotional clothing industry has grown markedly since some bright spark hit on the idea of using T-shirts to plug the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. But the T-shirt as a mobile advertising billboard did not come into its own until around 1970 when it was used to promote a Californian fast-food chain.

Companies now realise promotional clothing can boost a brand’s profile. This explains why cigarette manufacturers such as Camel and Marlboro have developed their own clothing lines as they have been squeezed out of more traditional advertising media.

Pino Grillo, sales and marketing manager at Things, which manufacturers T-shirts for, among others, United Airlines and for movie releases, comments: “Promotional clothing is like a walking poster with a lifespan measured in years, unlike a 30-second TV ad.”

This sector has probably seen more change in the past five years than in its first 50.

These days, your T-shirt is far less likely to have that low-quality feel. David Sanders, managing director of promotional clothing supplier Key Design, admits “that three or four years ago the quality was appalling”. But now his firm, which lists Guinness, William Grant, Mazda and truck company Scania among its clients, typifies the way things have improved. “We have the same quality control procedures as Next,” says Sanders.

Conny Pieters, European marketing manager at promotional clothing supplier Jerzees, is more emphatic: “Promotional garments are now better quality than you find on the high street.”

Not only has the quality improved, but the industry has also seen innovation from suppliers eager to keep one step ahead of the ever increasing competition – for example “scratch and sniff” and light-reflective T-shirts. There are also many more products on offer: anything from cufflinks and watches to leather jackets and suitcases.

Howard Miles, merchandise controller at Guinness, says the promotional clothing budget now accounts for about five per cent of any launch. This is compared with less than one per cent four years ago.

So if the promotional clothing industry has seen a revolution in terms of size, quality and range over the past few years, what does the future hold?

Many believe the im-provement in quality holds the key and predict the industry will muscle in on the high street.

The Barling Group is licensed by Coca-Cola, Apple Computer, Caterpillar and Paramount Films, makers of the movie Mission Impo ssible, to produce promotional merchandise. Mission Impossible T-shirts have been on sale in retail outlets such as Burton, HMV and Virgin Megastore for the past few months.

Barling’s managing director Gary Brennan also points to the crossover into retail of JCB company Caterpillar, now famous for its shoes, and cigarette brands such as Camel and Marlboro, who also now manufacture shirts and trousers.

“Caterpillar made footwear for its drivers. About seven years ago, it began to see public interest stir. Now its annual UK sales are very impressive,” he says. Coca-Cola and Apple are following suit and Brennan forecasts that for other “brand names which are deemed sexy, this will be an increasing trend”.

Malcolm Garnett, sales manager at clothing supplier Event, says: “There will be more branded clothes available on the high street. In football, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough now make their own footwear, Newcastle United produce school clothes and I know of at least one TV and one radio station that will be producing their own branded clothes in the next couple of years.”

However, Richard Charlesworth, sales manager at Merit, who also foresees increased crossover, believes it will happen in the opposite direction.

“More high street clothing manufacturers will move into the promotional sector. They are beginning to realise there is a market for it. If a retailer were to ask a company like Adidas to make 500 tracksuits with its company logo on, it would get a cool response now – but things will be different in the future,” he predicts.

Charlesworth, whose company has produced clothes for Red Stripe lager, Continental tyres and Daihatsu vans, predicts another development – greater specialisation.

Certain suppliers are geared towards high-quality mass-produced shirts, he points out; for example Things, which can produce up to 200,000 shirts a week.

Charlesworth predicts there will be a trend towards suppliers “concentrating on what they know best” and becoming synonymous with certain product lines. He believes this will also result in a fallout of smaller firms which will not be able to compete with the ever expanding specialists.

Sanders also predicts that as “fashion trends across the world converge, companies will increasingly ask suppliers to act for them not just in the UK, but internationally”.

One of Key’s clients is the restaurant chain Henry J Bean’s which has outlets in 17 countries, and handles clothing supplies across the entire network.

Companies are also becoming more specific in their briefs to suppliers. Merit’s Charlesworth says: “Standard colours will no longer do. Companies now want a colour that can instantly be associated with their brands, even without a logo,” he says.

Charlesworth also says that promotional clothes now mirror high street fashions rather than lagging behind them. “Five years ago, styles would appear in shops and then in the promotions market about two years later. But now you are almost having to second-guess retail fashion trends,” he says.

The services which suppliers offer have also undergone a revolution.

Says Charlesworth: “Five years ago, we might have simply delivered 10,000 T-shirts to a firm’s headquarters. But these days clients don’t want the responsibility of handling and stock control, so now we distribute to the company’s outlets as well.”

Tim Salthouse, director of Tradewinds, a London-based clothing printing company, says: “If a client wanted to run a press campaign offering certain clothing products, we could handle everything from distribution to banking the cheques for the client.”

The actual growth in the industry has been put down to a number of factors, including a change in the British public’s dressing habits.

Pieters says that T-shirts and polo shirts – the bedrock of the industry – are now even more popular as fashion items. “Five years ago, people had to go to work in a proper shirt and tie. These days they dress more informally,” she says.

The recession has also been credited with boosting the industry. Salthouse says that during the recession companies diverted more of their budgets into promotional clothing, which they saw as being more cost effec tive, as they moved away from above-the-line advertising.

He claims: “During the slump, our turnover grew by up to 60 per cent each year.”

But promotional clothing can also be a money spinner in the right hands. Manchester United earns 23m a year from merchandising alone – more than the total turnover of virtually all the other Premiership clubs.

But Grillo believes the medium is limited. “Everyone seems to try their hand at promotional clothing – but some brands just do not lend themselves to the medium. Petrol brands for example are just not sexy enough – although petrol companies spend lots of money on clothes.

“Would you want to walk around with Shell or Rover stuck all over your T-shirt? Promotional clothes only work for companies like these if it is executed in a subtle and creative way. Think of it, have you ever seen anyone wear a shirt with a petrol brand all over it?”

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