AdviceTips & Tricks

Selling to School, Team and Sports Markets

How do you set yourself apart in this competitive marketplace? Graphics is the key.

This article was written by Craig Mertens, general manager of Digital Art Solutions. It was originally featured in the fall 2019 issue of Team & Active Wear.

All things considered equal, the company with the best-looking graphics is going to win in the marketplace. A T-shirt is a T-shirt. What makes the T-shirt special is what’s printed on it. They key is creating graphics that trigger an emotional connection. I still own nearly every T-shirt from my high school track and cross-country days. I have memories associated with every one of these shirts. They don’t fit me now, but my daughters wear them because apparently, it’s cool to wear ’80s retro apparel. 

My point is, if you create memorable graphics, people will want to buy your products. If your graphics are lame, no one is buying from you. Our company, Digital Art Solutions, specializes in creating stock graphics for apparel decoration. We did this because we knew that the average self-taught decorators were finding it difficult to compete with companies boasting sophisticated graphics capabilities. 

If you have invested in stock graphics, then you have access to the creative abilities of professional designers. You can produce graphics at a much higher level than trying to play graphic designer or forensically reconstructing designs your clients bring you from one of the online T-shirt websites. You look like a bigger deal than you are, and that exactly is the reason people invest in stock designs. You don’t have to be a good designer, just a good assembler. 

It comes down to swapping text values, changing fonts, swapping out clipart and playing with colors in CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator. I’ve always preached that a template is just a placeholder for a fresh idea. You want to create graphics that are relevant to the current graphic trends in the sports markets. Young people want to wear what professional athletes are wearing. 

If you collaborate with clients on a graphic, then they are likely to purchase from you. They were part of the creative process and now have a level of ownership over the idea. This is why we teach our clients to engage with their customers in the creative process. You need to get your graphics in front of buyers. 

While younger people are buying online, most of us older folks still like to talk to a live human being. I advocate a mixed approach to buyer engagement, which involves boots on the ground plus a strong social media presence and leveraging online selling tools.

Let’s take a look at all three approaches.

Boots on the ground means human-to-human interaction. One of your best forms of advertising is wearing your products around your community. If you have kids on the local athletic teams, wear a spirit jersey you produced. You’ll be surprised at how many people ask where you got it from. Bling apparel gets a ton of attention. Be prepared to say, “I made it myself, I have a local business that produces customized apparel, my minimum order is one.” 

Of course, you don’t have to tell them the price of a single unit. Hand them a business card with a promotion code on the back for a discount on their first order. 

Another approach is dropping off flyers and catalogs. Get on the school district’s website and gather the emails from the decision makers for each sport or group. Send over a quick email introducing yourself with a link to samples of your work. Post photos of your work on your Facebook fan page or your website. The key is showing them something that is personalized to their team or school. 

If you have customizable templates, this is a snap. Better yet, leave a sample. If you have a production process like a vinyl cutter, sublimation system or DTG printer, you easily can make a single customized sample. This is the best advertising money you can spend. The key is making it easier for the decision makers to buy. 

When you look at the sports market, the biggest audience is the fans, not the players. The kids on the team have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The fans are the bigger play with spiritwear. They are the folks tapping into the enthusiasm and support for the athlete. It doesn’t matter if the athlete is getting recruited for D1 athletics or sitting on the bench, their family members are going to be just as enthusiastic. Everyone wants to look good and support their athletes. 

You can use social media to exploit this. Imagine sending a parent of an influencer a free personalized T-shirt or spirit jersey and having them post it on their Facebook page or Instagram with a link to your website. 

You should spend a minimum of two hours a week prospecting with social media and email marketing using virtual samples.

Craig Mertens, General Manager of Digital Art Solutions

One of my clients has taken it a step further. She hires a student “brand ambassador” to post photos of her wearing school spiritwear on her Instagram account. She then drives traffic to her e-store and pays her ambassador a revenue share. The student distributes the end-product by posting on Instagram. “Come pick up your senior T-shirt after school this week in front of the flagpole.” She is generating huge numbers with this approach with a sales force of brand ambassadors at all of her local high schools. 

Finally, let’s talk about leveraging web-based selling tools to make it easier for your clients to purchase. My company, Digital Art Solutions, was acquired by InkSoft in June. They sell online tools for the decorated apparel industry. One of the challenges that our clients always have experienced is collecting funds. Most small businesses don’t have the financial resources to easily front the inventory costs on their orders. InkSoft developed an online selling and fundraising tool that makes it super easy for end users to buy, as 100% of the funds are paid up front. 

JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft, broke it down: 

“If the local lacrosse team needs to raise funds to attend a tournament you pop up a webstore, populate it with decorated products and produce on-demand with your vinyl cutter or digital printer,” he says. “You just made it super easy for clients to purchase; they have no upfront costs or risk and you simply pay them a revenue share.” 

“The InkSoft platform handles all of this. The best part is you are not getting price shopped because they are only focused on the revenue share, not the price of the product. You can set up incentives for when they reach specific benchmarks. If you can tie a client up with an affiliate store, you have locked out the competition.” 

In order to effectively compete in the school, team and sports market, you need to have relevant graphics. You then need to have a multi-faceted approach to get in front of buyers with human contact, social media and online selling tools. 

That said, the most important thing is persistence. I challenge all of my clients to spend a minimum of two hours a week prospecting, with social media and email marketing using virtual samples. It’s a bit like fishing, so the more lines you have in the water, the better chance you have of catching a fish.  Craig Mertens is the general manager of Digital Art Solutions. With decades of industry experience, he has spent the last 23 years developing products and services that assist decorators in growing profitable businesses. For more information or to comment on this article, email Craig at craig@smartdesigns.com.

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