Brands. We’re surrounded by them—at the supermarket, drug store and shopping mall. Ads flood the TV, radio and internet, hyping the latest product introductions and solidifying a brand’s status in the consumer hierarchy.
As a society, we’ve trained ourselves to find importance in brands, even creating identity around the brands we purchase, wear and consume. Not convinced? Examine these two sets of brands:
From an identity standpoint, you may have imagined two dramatically different people. One lives in an urban environment, while the other prefers to call the rural countryside home. Perhaps one is book smart, and the other is street smart. You could even have the dichotomy of corporate versus cowboy.
Regardless of the outcome, you created an image in your mind of the person who purchases, wears and consumes these brands. And that’s exactly what these companies want you to do.
Forming opinions about brands isn’t limited to retail-based consumer products. It happens in the promotional products industry, too, especially with apparel. Some brands come to the promotional marketplace from retail, bringing with them not only name recognition but also quality assumptions. Russell and Champion are popular with the athletic set. Many grew up with tees from Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Jockey. Izod and Munsingwear have claimed their fame in the sport-shirt market. If you want an actual designer’s name, look no further than Bill Blass or Perry Ellis. Columbia is one of the most sought after brands of outdoor gear. And promotional golf wear just got more exciting with adidas, Nike and Ping entering the game.
But that’s not to say suppliers’ house brands are any less appealing to buyers. In fact, some buyers indicate they prefer house brands because of the value and consistent sizing of these garments. This is especially true for company store programs for both internal and external clients. When recently visiting the Ronald W. Regan Presidential Library & Museum, I stopped by its bookstore, which was filled with logoed merchandise and souvenirs. I recognized many brands exclusive to industry apparel suppliers—and these garments were selling for top dollar.
So what do buyers really think about brands and their importance when purchasing decorated apparel? PPB asked members of the End Buyer Advisory Council for their input. These seven buyers from across the U.S. represent many of the industries—such as manufacturing, education, sports, tourism, insurance, legal and financial—that are top users of promotional products. While all members participated in the discussion, some preferred to keep their comments anonymous. Here’s what they had to say.
Are name brands important when purchasing promotional apparel?
The panel of buyers unanimously agreed name brands are important because people recognize brands and attach a certain intrinsic value to the product because of a name. However, the degree of importance depends on the target audience and the nature of the promotion or event.
For in-house promotions, such as incentive or reward programs, this group of buyers tends to gravitate toward “brands that give the best quality at a reasonable cost and very few of these brands are considered ‘retail.’” Additionally, they find these house brands seem to be better in sizing. “When we order many of the name-brand shirts and jackets, they seem to run small,” indicates a buyer for one of America’s largest packaged food companies.
Conversely, name brands become more important in external promotions. “If we are purchasing for customer entertainment, we would consider name-brand promotion apparel,” she says.
“In a few cases, the brand is important to the customer. In other cases, the brand is important to me—as an assurance of quality, integrity, fit and availability,” says Christine Crocker, merchandise manager for a prominent west coast horse-racing park. “While I carry ‘branded’ merchandise, the brand I am selling is my own company’s image. The bottom line is that I am most interested in apparel that reinforces my brand.”
What do name brands add to a program or campaign?
If chosen well, name brands can bring “value perception and quality your customers know and trust,” according to a buyer in the soft drinks market. Credibility was also an attribute buyers recognized. But it goes beyond this.
Depending on the program, brands can makes a huge difference. For example, “customers will flock to a giveaway item that has a name brand and a current season look,” says one buyer from the insurance industry. “Interestingly, there are times that I am completely surprised by what is hot with different audiences, even within the same company.”
Additionally, Crocker notes, “If the volume of business warrants it, the name brand can bring in promotional monetary support, such as with advertising co-op dollars.”
Do you discuss brands when making purchasing decisions with your distributor; and if so, how do you decide on which name brands to choose for your promotions?
All buyers on the council indicated they do discuss brands with their distributors, which should be expected based on the size of the companies these buyers represent and the consultative nature of the sales process they require. And while distributor input is important to these buyers, personal experience with a brand is just as crucial.
“I will ask the distributor for advice on what is hot for the season,” says a buyer for an international law firm that employs more than 850 attorneys in 17 offices. “In the case of golf, I may talk to golfers, look at golf magazines and visit pro shops. I often ask for a sample to try myself or ask someone who plays golf to try out the item.”
Crocker, on the other hand, first relies on her own experience with a brand. But if she doesn’t have this personal brand experience, she then relies on the professional expertise of her distributor. “My distributor deals with them on a much broader basis and can provide insight in the brand’s ability to meet my needs,” she says.
Past brand performance is often one of the key determining factors when selecting apparel for Ann Rougeaux, assistant vice president – marketing for an international bank with more than $6.3 billion in assets. “We typically choose name brands with which we have had experience,” she says. “If, however, we are looking at a name brand we have not used previously, we always ask for a sample before buying.”
But let’s not forget about the role the target audience plays in the discussion of name brands. “I always discuss brands when making purchasing decisions,” says the insurance buyer. “We discuss specific needs or promotions first, price second. Cutting corners has its place, but the company is becoming more willing to pay a little extra for the brand exposure when it comes to image. If a certain name brand gets our company noticed, this is a good thing. But keep in mind this is when we’re marketing to our customers. With employees, we like to stick with quality—items that don’t shrink or pill, aren’t too thin and are consistently sized—but at a lower price point.”
For promotions where apparel will be used, are brands important in every instance or are some situations more important for, or conducive to, using name brands?
The buyer group was divided on this question. Troye Frank, foundation director for a city sports commission that bids on, attracts and manages major sporting events, says brands can be important, but “it is totally dependent upon not only the situation but also the audience’s level of expectation and attention.”
Crocker believes that as perceived value of promotional items rise, name brands become increasingly more important. “But for mass items such as hats or t-shirts, name brands are really only important if there is a phenomenon—such as the ROOTS Olympic hat a few years ago,” she says. “The intended audience is also a factor, as some promotional targets are extremely brand conscious and a specific brand might be necessary to achieve results.”
The buyer from a large law firm is a strong proponent of name brands. “In most cases, brands are important,” she says. “When choosing gifts for clients, we want them to feel as if they are getting something of real value, something they will want to wear and is indicative of what our firm represents.”
Rougeaux notes that when she becomes comfortable with a brand, it will become an integral part of her promotional repertoire. “If we have a brand that we know will last, doesn’t fade easily, is consistent in size and is easy to wash, dry and go, then we will use this brand a lot.”
But for those who felt name brands were not important in every instance, the insurance buyer summed it up nicely: “While there are specific programs where name brands do help our company, most of the apparel we purchase is from quality name brands within the promotional products industry—not retail brands,” she says. “For general convention, award and employee programs, we tend to lean toward quality with a good price point and, of course, good service and availability.”
Are brands important to all target audiences?
While name brands do offer “recognition and perceived value and quality,” according to Rougeaux, they are not important to all target audiences as indicated by most of our buyers. It could be because the “process varies based on each project and budget.” And when it comes to “commodity type products, target audiences are less concerned with name brands.”
The buyer from the packaged foods company says, “Brands don’t drive our total decision-making process. It is a combination of cost, quality and delivery.” And Frank points out, “Different audiences have different demographics, which result in varied expectations”—thus decreasing the importance of name brands.
The insurance buyer also thinks brands may not be important to all audiences. “For most of our users/audiences, recognizable brands are not a major consideration,” she says. “Vendors that have inventory available when they say it will be, do what they say they will do and have the right mix of quality/price will almost always get the business.”
Crocker notes, “Mass promotions, such as cap day at a stadium or handing out t-shirts at the race track, are all about encouraging someone to do something they were inclined to do anyway by offering a free item,” which takes the importance off the name brand. “Conversely, if I am giving a jacket to a group of potential large donors, I want a label they will appreciate,” she says. “It comes back to the desired end results.”
When given the choice between comparable products, would you prefer a name brand that is slightly more expensive (10 percent for example) versus a brand you don’t know?
Frank says in most cases, he would spend the additional money because “the name brand is a proven commodity.” And Rougeaux agrees that the perceived value and quality are important. “The money you save may not be worth the 10 percent in the end,” she says.
The buyer from the law firm says if the gift is for an valuable client, it is important enough for her company to spend a little more money. “We want our clients to feel as if we value their relationships with us,” she says.
Crocker says it depends on the price level of the item and the results desired. “If it is an area that my brand alone will carry, then no—I would not pay extra,” she says. “But, if my brand could use back up (an expensive item), I would go the name-brand route.”
The buyer from the insurance company says it also depends on the situation, but the deciding factor is how much time she has to review the products. “If we need something on a rush, I will always go with what is tried and true unless specifically requested otherwise by the using department,” she says. “I have been burned too many times by gambling on a company that has not proven its worth. But especially with apparel, it is nice to discover a new brand that has taken the time to figure out what we need and make it available to us. Given this, we will work a few items into our company store and see how the brand performs.”
However, the buyer from the packaged foods market is willing to forgo the name brand for the price savings. “So many events are budget driven; and if I can get a similar item for 10 percent less, I’m going to lean toward the more cost-effective choice,” she says.
If budget constraints prohibit a company from choosing name-brand promotional apparel, should it just forget about apparel altogether?
Buyers answered this question with an overwhelming “absolutely not!” “Apparel is a large part of branding a company,” says Rougeaux. “I would put a limit on the selection of items first.”
“This is where creativity and imaginative alternatives on the part of the distributor come in!” says Frank.
The buyer in packaged foods says she frequently purchases supplier house brands. “There are several lesser-known apparel brands that are very good in quality and meet our events’ needs,” she says.
“Especially lately,” notes the buyer from the insurance industry, “we have found excellent quality items that cost less than other brands with which we have worked in the past. But when it comes to trying out a new brand or company, I generally will defer to our rep because she is excellent in selecting what to buy. And interestingly, we are finding that many of the lesser-known brands have superior quality.”
Building The Importance Of Your Brand
As with most things in life, nothing is absolute, and this is true with determining if name brands should be a part of your apparel sales mix. While recognizable brands have their place in promotions, there is also plenty of room for suppliers’ house brands because of the availability, quality and economy they provide.
So whether you prefer Hunt’s or Del Monte, Cottonelle or Charmin, or Tommy Hilfiger or Calvin Klein, think about how these companies market to consumers. Much can be learned from well-known retail brands to build the importance of the promotional brands you supply to your customers.
Lisa Horn is PPB’s editor.
By Bob Pierce
“Branding can be painful.” —Elsie the Cow
Most of us have been around long enough to know that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t always get what you pay for.
Let’s face it: your buyers get their perception of quality and value from name-brand garments they see in retail stores and direct mail retail catalogs. Many buyers become quite familiar with certain brands. They get used to the fit, level of quality, price and styling. Their favorite retail brand becomes the standard by which all promotional garments are measured.
There is only one reason why the promotional products industry exists: distributors and suppliers have the ability to add value in the process of a transaction. Indeed, if you cannot add value to the process, you have no reason to exist. If there were not elements of value unique to promotional products distributors and suppliers, American business would simply bypass our industry and purchase everything from retailers or directly from manufacturers. It could be argued that this very phenomenon is well under way, given the success of brands like Land’s End and others who have entered the promotional marketplace.
Do not underestimate the power of name brands. This power can be so compelling to your buyers that they may be blinded to all other purchase considerations. As a true consultant and advisor, it is your duty to point out the value you and your promotional apparel suppliers add to the process. These values are often absent in name-brand product offerings.
Promotional products suppliers design packaging so decorators can easily see the size and get into the package for decoration. Pins, clips, cardboard, tissue and other barriers commonly found in packaging of retail apparel can create additional work for decorators and result in higher costs.
Consumer brand garments may not be concerned with decoration issues. Fabrics may be too unstable for embroidery purposes, or there may be a pocket or seam that interferes with embroidery placement. Fabric patterns may camouflage your client’s logo.
Any value-added services—such as collation of sales material, drop shipping to individual addresses, bounce-back promotional flyers or feedback mechanisms—will increase your worth and make the buying process easier.
Name-brand pricing must take into account such things as royalty fees, national advertising expenditures, overhead costs and retail price protection considerations. Often, a promotional garment can deliver greater value for a much lower price.
A retail brand traditionally changes its style offerings on a seasonal basis. A long-term promotion requires styles to be available for the length of the program, not just a season.
Fact-based comparisons of products and value-added services will reveal reasons for your buyers to purchase from you rather than from direct mail retailers. While brands may offer a compelling reason to buy, they may also diminish your value as a distributor unless you offer additional, non-product services. Always find ways to demonstrate your value. Product value alone, in the long run, may not prove to be a valid reason for you to exist.
A 26-year industry veteran, Bob Pierce is executive vice president of sales and marketing for Independence, Missouri-based Dunbrooke Apparel Corp.(UPIC: DUNBROOK). Contact him at 800-310-4985 or firstname.lastname@example.org.