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Merchandise Marketing for Business Growth

The Role of Merchandise Marketing in Business Growth

In broad terms, merchandise is anything tangible you sell to your customers. Everything in your average department store is merchandise for one brand or another. That’s not quite what we’re talking about today, though.

Merchandise marketing is a little different. It’s pretty simple in concept: using merchandise as a marketing channel. The question is, what role does this form of marketing play in your overall marketing plans and your road to business growth?

What is Merchandise Marketing?

Merchandise marketing is a form of marketing using branded merchandise as your marketing channel.

Because of the avenue you use – branded products – merchandise marketing is in an odd place. It starts at the bottom of the funnel, with people who are already fans of yours who purchase branded merchandise from you. They then use this merchandise, whether it’s a branded pen, a branded mug, a branded shirt or backpack, or some other item. This wraps around into that individual, formerly a customer, becoming a brand advocate. Their use of your branded merchandise is similar to your typical PPM (pay-per-view) advertising in that it’s a top-of-funnel awareness strategy.

After all, no one who sees someone wearing a t-shirt with your brand can click on that t-shirt and make a purchase. Most of the time, your merchandise doesn’t have actual contact information on it. In fact, that’s an important consideration, which we’ll get to later.

Merchandise Marketing

The goal of merchandise marketing is generally not to make money on the merchandise itself unless the merchandise is also the product.

For example, a software company selling branded merchandise so fans can support them likely doesn’t care too much if they turn a profit with that branded merchandise directly. That’s because their goal is brand awareness, which turns into leads, which turn into customers for the real product, the software.

On the other hand, an apparel company selling branded merchandise isn’t just using that merchandise as a vector to share its brand name and logo; the apparel itself is also the product. Sales of the merchandise help promote more sales of the merchandise, rolling both marketing and sales together.

Of course, while profit might not be the primary goal, that doesn’t mean the merchandise needs to be a loss leader. Bulk-order custom t-shirts at around $12 each, sold for $15, $20, or even $30 on a brand website, can still be profitable. It’s just unlikely to be a significant source of revenue when its primary purpose is marketing.

The Benefits of Merchandise Marketing

For the purposes of this discussion, we’re largely ignoring companies where the merchandise is the product. Obviously, the benefit to merchandise marketing in that case is selling more merchandise; it’s the primary goal of the business.

Instead, we’re focusing on businesses that don’t have merchandise as their primary product. Software companies, services like landscapers, cleaners, personal assistants, and B2B service providers; merchandising is secondary or tertiary to these companies and can serve as anything from awareness campaigns to employee appreciation awards. What, though, are the more tangible benefits of merchandise marketing for these kinds of companies?

It makes a more tangible, lasting impression than transient marketing. When a brand pays for social media ads, those ads show up for a second or so and are quickly scrolled past or skipped. It’s why the concept of audience saturation exists; you show your ad to your audience as relentlessly as you can until it stops being effective. It’s why TV commercials air repeatedly every ten minutes. It’s why the same company buys dozens of billboards along the same stretch of highway. Each individual ad impression is transient and minimal.

Merchandise marketing is a more tangible and longer-lasting form of marketing. Something like a useful cup or mug or a piece of apparel can last and be used for a long time. Some people routinely wear branded apparel they’ve had for years! Every time they use it, they think about the brand. And, if a situation ever arises where someone asks about it, needs a recommendation for a product that the brand can solve, or has that need themselves, that brand is likely the first thought on their mind.

No other form of marketing has such a lasting impact because no other form of marketing is as physically resilient and tangible over the long term.

It can build a lasting connection or represent one. For example, merchandise marketing doesn’t need to be done via a storefront. You might identify customers who have been loyal to your brand for a year or more and send them free merchandise as a way of appreciating their continued support. The merchandise, as long as it’s high-quality and useful, can be an expression of gratitude and appreciation and builds a deeper relationship with those loyal customers. And, if word spreads that loyal customers are rewarded, it can even retain existing customers longer on the promise of that reward.

Identifying Loyal Brand Customers

It can be a cost-effective way to market. While the initial buy-in of branded merchandise at $12 a pop for a t-shirt, $5 for a keychain, or $8 for a coffee mug may not seem that cost-effective, especially when you compare PPC/PPM ads that can be $1 to reach a thousand people, the value of that merchandise marketing is so much higher that it’s extremely cost-effective for what you get out of it.

And, of course, compared to other marketing channels like billboards ($1,000 per month), mass mailers ($6,400 to send 1,000-5,000 postcards), television ads ($1,000 to $50k for a 30-second slot), merchandise marketing is dramatically cheaper and longer-lasting with more valuable impressions.

It can combine online and offline marketing in a unique way. A common example is brand partnerships. Your company can work with, say, social media influencers in your general industry or who mostly reach your target audience. The influencer can give away branded merchandise to their audience, which turns an online marketing campaign into offline awareness and value.

There are also simpler and more straightforward ways of doing this. You might reward customer referrals with points to be spent in a merchandise store or with merchandise directly. You might offer a small gift for new registrations or sign-ups. You might host merchandise giveaways or raffles when your company reaches milestones. There are many possibilities.

It represents your company’s style and ethics. Your choice of merchandise represents the kind of style, aesthetic, and focus your company has. A durable item made of carefully machined wood, a delicate glass item with engraving, or a gold-plated item, these sorts of merchandise items can portray a sort of more elegant, expensive, and luxurious aesthetic. The design of your items, the materials they’re made of, and the way they are produced, all of these reflect back upon who you are as a brand.

This also carries through in the ethical production of the items you hand out as merchandise. When you buy $1 t-shirts with the cheapest screen-printing you can get from a factory in Vietnam, it says something about your company’s priorities. Conversely, when you work with an ethical local producer, you show that your care and concern for ethics, the environment, and the human rights of the people in your supply line goes beyond a line in your About page.

It can become something more. Sometimes, a brand starts with one product, spins up something as a side benefit, and that does so well that it becomes the main offering. Sometimes, the promotional, disposable items you create now become sought-after collectibles years down the road. Sometimes, you come to represent something beyond just your brand, and your merchandise takes on a new meaning. All of these are opportunities you don’t have without merchandise marketing.

Considerations for Merchandise Marketing

If you’re considering investing in merchandise marketing, there are some primary concerns you’ll want to think about.

Merchandise for Sale or Gift

One of the first decisions to make is how exclusive you want your items to be. Are these prestige gifts to long-time customers or employees? Are they only available to employees in an internal store or as career milestones? Are they given out as exclusive swag at speaking engagements, conventions, and other events you attend or host? Are they enduring items you give out consistently, or are they designs or items you change each year or even each event to make them more exclusive?

And, of course, there’s always the option of simply making them all available on a web store at any time.

A Merchandise Gift

Deciding how exclusive you want your merchandise to be also helps attach prestige to it. It’s always a trade-off, though; the rarer and harder it is to get ahold of a piece of merchandise, the lower that item’s ability to build awareness is. It’s a delicate balance you need to strike to make sure your merchandise is working for the kind of marketing strategy you want it to perform.

Fortunately, you can have the best of both worlds. It’s relatively easy to make a general line of merchandise and then a smaller exclusive line with some tangible difference that you make exclusive in some way. Maybe you have a black shirt with a white logo as your general item, a version with a gold logo for conventions, and a version with a red logo for your employees. It can even spur conversations with people who are familiar enough to recognize that the color difference is significant.

The Merchandise Dilemma: Fashion vs. Information

One issue you have to confront is the purpose of your items versus their ability to be a form of marketing.

To an extent, you’re relying on whoever owns the item to be able to, and willing to, discuss it whenever someone asks about it. Unfortunately, this can cut down on the viability of the item as a marketing channel. Some people might not want to be a brand advocate, no matter how much they like your brand.

Say you print a t-shirt with your logo on it. It’s sharp, interesting, and minimalist. A fan of yours wears that shirt out and about; is that good marketing for you? Potentially, but often, the answer is no. Your logo doesn’t necessarily mean anything divorced of context. The item looks slick, but it doesn’t serve its purpose as well.

Merchandise With a Brand Name

On the other hand, if you attach your brand name or even a website URL to the item, it becomes a more effective way of reaching and attracting people. The trade-off is that it feels a lot more like being a walking advertisement, so people are less likely to want the item.

Adding things like contact information to your items is more useful for things like keychains, pens, mugs, and other non-apparel items. It’s worth having multiple designs you can use for different kinds of items to suit different purposes.

Is Merchandise Marketing Right for You?

We’re a little biased, obviously, but we say yes.

Merchandise marketing is an easy channel to get running, and it’s easy to tweak, adjust, and optimize as you go. If you find one kind of merchandise marketing doesn’t work for you, you can just change it! You can also start small, experimenting with swag at events or loyalty rewards, and if people start asking where they can get their own merchandise, you can expand your offerings.

Plus, as far as marketing channels go, merchandise marketing doesn’t need to be expensive. We offer a wide range of different product types in dozens of colors that are completely customizable with your branding; all you need to do is browse and see what kinds of price points you’d be looking at for various items.

Ethix Merch Mugs

At Ethix Merch, we pride ourselves on providing extremely ethical products, with local or hyperlocal production whenever possible, and a complete dedication to transparency for every step of our supply lines. If you’re curious or interested in knowing more, feel free to reach out! We’re always happy to chat and give you any information about any product you could ask for. We want you to support your brand the right way, not on the backs of exploitation, so contact us today!