The mainstream licensing industry and many high-profile brands are failing to provide their consumers and fans with what they want in apparel merchandising.
The new merchandising world is one of rapidly changing messages, customisation and quality products. Over the next five years this will define which are the winning and losing brands.
As e-commerce changed our expectations of delivery at the turn of the millennium; now social media and gamification has changed consumers’ expectations again. Consumers expect the ideas and messages they are interested in to be immediately available in fits, sizes and colours that suit them.
Old style merchandising, of pre-deciding this year’s message, colour and base product approved through layers of licensing control, no longer works. The consumer demand is now faster than the brand and the licensing sector is far behind the curve of listening and reacting to their consumers.
The early winners are celebrities and smaller brands who use social media and customisation to adapt apparel messaging and styles to immediate customer needs. They are taking advantage of disruptive print-on-demand, white label platforms like Spreadshirt. These winning properties are able to address three interconnected elements: conversation, merchandise and quality.
High-profile brands claim to understand the two-way conversation that social media has created with their fans, but when it comes to merchandising they are still frightened of what might happen if they let go of the tight strings which tie-up their brand image.
Successful brands and celebrities have learnt to use their fans’ insights and social media reaction to determine exactly what their consumers want. They use print on demand and customisation techniques to change their messaging as much as daily, or to make each merchandising item unique.
One way to address this is to expand the existing Twitter or Facebook conversations to include suggestions for new, perhaps limited edition, designs or slogans. Brands can listen to what their advocates want and use customisable merchandise to support online campaigns, bringing them to the street, bar, school or workplace. In a recent Dr Pepper Always One Of A Kind campaign, consumers were invited to display their uniqueness on a t-shirt. The whole advertising campaign revolved around the revelling of this quirky information - I’m a Cougar, I’m a Momma’s Boy, I’m a Rebel - via Dr Pepper branded, customised t-shirts. This meant brand champions got say exactly what they wanted.
As society has gone more casual, the consumer demand for choice has gone up. The days of the cheap promotional XL mens t-shirt, to be worn at home are gone. Consumers want products that can be warn to work or as part of an outfit.
Far from being a bolt-on extra, insightful brands are now using every day apparel merchandise as an integral part of their campaigns. Print-on-demand technology means each t-shirt, hoody, bag, apron or even babygrow, can be created as it is ordered. This means that brands can test ideas out. They can discover which designs work best and what sizes their fans buy, without having to second-guess.
US TV star Evelyn Lozada, discovered that although her designs sold well, her fans were choosing t-shirts with more coverage, rather than the vest tops she proposed, leading her to develop some suitable designs. At the very least, customers can now choose merchandise in a style, size or colour to suit them. This turns your merchandise into everyday wear, which will also mean your message is seen in places traditional marketing channels cannot reach.
This new level of engagement with fans requires a high level of quality in the final product. Customisation options give people a hand in creating the product, state-of-the-art printing processes and top quality clothing means that the item is likely to be treasured and worn at any occasion.
To be sure of the quality, work closely with your supplier. Satisfy yourself that your merchandising supplier understands the importance of flexibility, and has the processes in place to enforce it. Test the service of existing licences not on your internal approval teams, but on fans and see if they actually want to wear the product.
So what can a licensing company do to improve its merchandise offering? In short, introduce flexibility in processes that allow the brand to react to fans needs rapidly. Licensors are missing out on the opportunities which new merchandising techniques combined with clever marketing strategies can offer. Loosening up and allowing your key advocates some freedom could be a game-changer. In five years’ time it’ll be a very different place.