Promotional clothing is going upmarket. Although thousands of brands are now being emblazoned on garments, consumers are no longer likely to buy branded goods which are linked to inferior clothing.
So not only is the promotional clothing industry becoming more competitive, it is now also aiming to provide quality alongside the name of its brand.
David Harris, creative director of sales promotion agency IMP, comments: “What you wear is a statement about you. Discreet branding, design and the feel of the garment reflects on the brand.”
According to Chris Thomas, European marketing manager of Screen Start, the promotional arm of Fruit of the Loom, clothing is becoming an increasingly important promotional tool. “It represents a voluntary display of a message on a long-term basis. It extends way beyond traditional media.”
The real challenge is matching a brand with the style, colour, fabric design and, most significantly, the target market.
The design of the product is key. Consumers do not want to be seen as “badge carriers” for the brand. Subtle and strategically placed logos are now the trend and sometimes all that is needed is the well-known colour of a brand.
Traditional T-shirts and sweatshirts with screen printing are still the mainstay of the business, but the style is moving into embroidered, rather than printed, polo shirts and jackets.
CMP Media, publisher of the computing magazine Network Week, discovered the benefits of promotional clothing through one of its columns, the BOFH – or the Bastard Operator From Hell.
“We wanted to grab the readers’ attention on more than just a professional level. We weren’t sure how popular the BOFH was going to be,” says publisher of CMP Media David Dobson.
He realised how popular the column was becoming after readers started requesting BOFH T-shirts. The company responded by producing T-shirts carrying the slogan “Your PCs broken and I’ve got a problem?”.
Dobson says: “People are now buying into the BOFH and not Network Week. But there is an understood association with Network Week which is important and separates us from the competition.”
CMP Media conducted research among focus groups to evaluate the success of the clothing and the results indicated that an upturn in reader awareness and loyalty had been created. Apart from this, the clothes have generated a new source of revenue for the publication.
But promotional clothing has always been and is likely to remain a follower of fashion, rather than the trendsetter. Managing director of Interfocus Matthew Hooper says promotional clothing looks to the high street for ideas. “The market must already be established before a particular style or brand will be taken up,” he says.
But whether or not promotional clothes are fashionable or not, the industry in this country is far outstripping its European counterparts.
Corporate account manager at the British T-Shirt Company (BTC) Katrina Padmore says: “Continental Europe is about three years behind us and they look to us for direction.”
Most of the promotional companies contacted expressed little interest in Europe, but some, including Fruit of the Loom, are reported to be investing heavily in training their own European-based staff in brand awareness and the ability to see promotional clothing as part of an overall campaign.
Which is what promotional clothing is increasingly becoming. The Central Office of Information (COI), whose clients include public sector organisations such as the Armed Forces and various government departments, has created its own promotions department to support public awareness campaigns. Clothing is an important part of the support programme.
COI merchandising and promotions manager Jeremy Coleman says: “The Army, for example, is looking to extend its own campaigns and provide branded clothing through the Internet and eventually make it available on the high street.”
Promotional clothing specialist CDA was one of the first companies to use dual branding – teaming up well-known fashion names with brands which produce their own line of promotional clothes.
CDA has been involved in a number of dual branding ventures, including Le Coq Sportif and Imperial Tobacco. The aim is that both sides gain by the association.
But there are limitations. CDA director Neville Blakely says many brands, such as Nike and Reebok, will have nothing to do with the dual branding concept.
Promotional clothing has also moved into the business sector. “Many think that corporate wear is the same as uniforms,” says IMP’s Harris. “But effective corporate wear can be more personalised and does make staff more approachable for the general public,” he says.
Financial services companies are big users. In June last year, Barclays Bank launched a corporate wear collection for its staff. After 15 years in a corporate uniform characterised by Barclays’ famous bright blue, the bank thought it was time for a change.
Barclays network services director Richard Beaven says: “The uniform was heavy and out of date. We wanted to provide a professional and consistent brand image for our consumers as well as our staff. The staff needed to find the new style acceptable and be happy to wear it.”
Research was conducted among staff throughout the country with the result that the old bright blue was jettisoned.
“Employees wanted a choice as well as a consistent look. They wanted something casual which also reflected the diversity of the staff,” says Beaven.
The bank hired fashion designer Jeff Banks, who was at the time a consultant designer for corporate wear company Vermillion. Banks developed the Elite Collection for the bank.
The collection included a maternity line, as well as trousers and saris for the Asian staff. And it was produced for more than 20,000 employees around the world.