Merchandising can be a challenging piece of the branding puzzle, particularly if your business doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit for using this branding strategy. For example, you sell… hot tubs… should you even bother with some type of brand merchandising? If so, where do you start and how can it actually strengthen your brand, and do you need an interactive agency to guide and direct the effort?
Let me clarify the context of this article. We’re not talking about improving your merchandising methods if merchandising or retailing is your primary business model. Instead, I want to focus on how you can either add or improve your current merchandising as a branding tool. Let me give two examples.
If you’ve been to a concert, you’ve seen the merch table. You’ve probably even purchased a shirt, or a bandana, or an iron-on patch for your denim jacket… although let’s hope that last one took place at least 20 years ago. We may not think of entertainers as having brands, but they do. U2 stands for more than Bono, The Edge, and whoever that third guy is. It’s an embodiment of all their songs, album covers, causes, politics, style, etc. They’re not clothing designers, but they sell a lot of t-shirts. Why do they sell them, and more importantly, why do people buy them? We’ll answer those questions after I share my second example.
If you’re involved in design or marketing, you’re probably familiar with House Industries. This Delaware-based design firm has produced some of the most popular and aesthetically amazing fonts of the last 20 years. So their primary business is typography and graphic design. But they also sell t-shirts, carved hunks of wood, and… decorative pillows? Ok, suppose I’m a designer and I’ve purchased the Eames font family from House to use on some projects, and I think it’s the coolest thing since Reebok Pumps. Why would I want an Eames pillow on my couch, and why would House even try to sell me one?
Answer: because I think it’s the coolest thing since Reebok Pumps! Why do I want everyone to know that I was at stop number 17 of U2’s last tour? Because I love U2, and I want you to know that I love them because it says something about me. Both of these examples display the best approach to using merchandising as a brand strengthener: culture. This is also the most challenging approach to use, because it implies that at least some people love your brand (image, mission, product, logo, etc) so much that they want other people to know that they’re a customer. This is the definition of a product evangelist, or alternatively, a raving fan.
It’s tough to reach this point, but any business can do it, even a company that sells hot tubs. It’s worked for local restaurants, construction companies, dentists, and tons of other random businesses you wouldn’t think offered merchandise. And when it works, there are usually some common factors in play.
- Customers genuinely like your business for some reason. It could be your product, your relationship with them, or your brand identity.
- Your merch actually looks good. You appeal to the current sense of style and offer a well-executed item that actually makes the customer look good. If you want them to make you look good, you have to make them look good, which means that you have to understand the style of your customers and design the products well.
- Customers want people to know that they’re customers. If you’re a proctologist, you’ll need a really awesome t-shirt…
The second approach to brand merchandising is utility. This is more simple, direct, and therefore common. Think of all the SWAG you got at that last trade show. I once got a combination tape measure/sticky note pad/pencil/level with… some company’s logo on it. I even used it a few times. It might still be somewhere in the trunk of my car. What items do your customers use on a regular basis? They may not love your brand, but if you give them something useful, other people may see your logo and think they love you.
Ultimately, the success of your brand merchandising efforts is a function of how well you’re doing in all areas of your business because it’s a measure of how your customers feel about you. With some great design and graphic elements, usability, and loyalty, you can build a strong customer base that keeps coming back!