From giveaway gifts at exhibitions and spin-off merchandise to embroidered work clothing and sportswear for teambuilding, the term 'promotional clothing' covers a wider area and more applications than you might expect.
It's everywhere, from the backs of the bar staff at your nearest chain pub to the online shop at your favourite band's website.
But clothing isn't the only type of promotional item available - there are also a plethora of pens, pads, mouse mats and even teddy bears around, and as technology becomes progressively cheaper, electronics like calculators and clocks become more and more viable as cost-effective promotional tools.
So is the humble promotional T-shirt a dying breed?
Some think not. Supertouch, for example, is an 11-year-old workwear and hi-vis supplier that has recently decided to jump into the promotional market with its ST Leisurewear range.
As Nigina Akram, the company's marketing manager explained, a high demand for promotional items from existing customers encouraged them to start supplying to the market, but they still made a point of performing a lot of research first.
"We spent about half a year performing market research," she told director-e. "That allowed us to examine consumer behaviour and see what the customers needed. During that period, we observed a shift away from giveaway items - pens and keyrings and things like that - to T-shirts and other leisurewear.
"The reason is that clothing has a high perceived value and people like to know that they've been given a good quality gift. It reflects well on the branded company and ensures that the item will be used by the receiver."
Robin Bull, managing director of Target Transfers, agrees. Target provides various transfer solutions for the fashion, sports, branding, corporate clothing and promotional markets.
Of the several million supplied by the company each year, Robin estimates that 30 percent is for the promotional market.
He said: "Although it can be a lower-cost item than some others, promotional clothing is often perceived as better quality and value over pens, toys, mugs and so on.
"With the explosive growth in branded clothing over the last five years, promotion planners have realised that people like to wear items that associate them with certain products or lifestyles, and are using that to their advantage.
"The trend that we have noticed is that more and more promotional activity is geared towards clothing, as opposed to other items."
Garments v gadgets
Some specialist promotions companies agree. AK Promotions supplies not just branded clothing, but also mugs, badges, balloons USB products and more unusual gadgets. But Anil Kenth, managing director of the company, says that as far as he's concerned, his customers are mainly interested in clothing.
"Our business has always been more about clothing," he said. "We only introduced other promotional items after some of our regular users started asking for them, so the core of our business has always been about promotional clothing."
That, he says, extends to his customers: "I find that our customers tend to approach us with a request for clothing and then build up the rest of their order around that. So they view the clothing as the real purchase and everything else as added value."
Sales and giveaways
Tracy Pallari is a co-partner at fellow promotions company Seven Star, which has been providing promotional clothing and merchandise for eight years now and whose high-profile clients include the Professional Darts Corporation. She agrees, but feels that a distinction needs to be made between different types of promotional clothing.
She explained: "I would say that promotional clothing is the bigger part of our business - it's about 70/30 in favour of clothing - but we're finding that it's more about promoting an image through branded staff clothing, team wear and sellable merchandise.
"The clothing side of our business is not as big in terms of giveaways as it is on uniforms – apart from baseball caps which are still popular and perhaps polo shirts for corporate golf days and similar team events."
|Obviously the experiences of different companies will vary, but one thing they agree on is the importance of providing good quality clothing.
Anil from AK Promotions believes it's an important message to get across, given the common perception of promotional clothes. He said: "Some people do see promotional clothing as cheap and poor quality, but in fact the best clothing is definitely at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of quality and workmanship.
"It's important for anyone who's buying promotional clothing to get good quality products, because the whole point is to get your message or brand out there. If you buy cheap clothing, people won't want to wear it, which means your message isn't getting across."
Tracy of Seven Star Promotions also points out: "There's no point in branding poor quality clothing otherwise it'll put forward the wrong image of your company. If the garment looks and feels cheap then the person receiving it may well think the same of your company.
"Thankfully, many people seem to have realised this - we very rarely get calls from people saying that they want the cheapest shirts we can find."
Robin from Target Transfers adds that while the clothing itself is important, so too is the need for the right kind of transfer or embroidery.
"Sometimes," he said, "the cost of branding an item is actually more expensive than the cost of the garment itself, but often it is the customer’s perception that the branding really matters.
"It is important that the designer and supplier discuss the needs and requirements so that the best solution can be provided."
Tracy from Seven Star agrees that close collaboration with the customer is important, particularly since the options available today are extensive.
She said: "What's becoming apparent is that so much choice can be confusing for customers; they phone up and say 'I only wanted a navy polo shirt and there's so many shades of blue that I don't know what to choose!'
"Because of this, we need to find out who will be wearing that polo shirt and where they’ll be wearing it. This makes it easier to come up with a couple of items that may well suit.
"With a bigger range of promotional clothing than ever, it’s important to help make the selection process as simple as possible."
Maximising the audience
So what draws people towards promotional clothing in the first place? What advantages does it really have over more unusual items?
Robin believes that part of the appeal is in the variety. He said: "Today there are many ways to decorate a garment - this is one of the main advantages that clothing has over items such as pens, mugs and toys which generally can only be screen printed.
"For example, garments can be decorated with specialist inks, so you can have for example glow-in-the-dark, UV, puff, foil, flock, full four-colour, reflective, glitter, gloss and so on."
For Anil, promotional clothing's big advantage is that it is accessible to a wider audience. He explained: "When you give someone a branded fleece or another item of clothing, you can assume that they'll be wearing it wherever they go and projecting your message to whoever they meet.
"Pens and mouse mats are maybe best for getting the message to that one person, because whenever they're at their desk they'll see your logo or design, but garments are better for speaking to a wider audience."
Nigina agreed, adding that the simple T-shirt is perhaps the best option for most promoters. She said: "Putting your image on a T-shirt is good for meeting long-term marketing objectives, because T-shirts are the most worn garments of today," she said.
"Some are cute, some are trendy and some are outrageous, but you'll see them being worn by people all year round and at all kinds of occasions. So if you put your message on a T-shirt, it will go wherever they go there all year round."
The principle works for sellable merchandising as well, as Tracy explained: “We’ve found through our work with merchandise collections at sporting events that the fans are happy to buy clothing that features their chosen sport, as well as clothing endorsed by their favourite players.
"This has a twofold effect by being both advertising and an extension of the brand. They leave the merchandise store with a branded carrier bag and a purchase that is literally a walking advertisement."