Entrepreneurship How marketing

T-shirt Marketing 101

©2014 Sparky FirepantsT-shirts are one of the best ways to get your company’s name into the world. Probably the best.

Of course I would say that, I’m a t-shirt person. If I were a billboard person, I might tell you to plaster your marketing message on Sunset Boulevard. But I’m a t-shirt expert so I’ll stick to that.

Okay, besides having a built-in motivation for evangelizing about t-shirts, I do have some solid reasons (and experience) to back it up. Pull up a chair and let Sparky lay it down for you.


Billboards rank pretty high on the visibility scale. Literally. So that’s wonderful, but one problem with billboards is that they’re stationary. You have to pin your hopes on people going by them and looking up (instead of texting, like 34% of drivers).

A T-shirt is fantastic for marketing visibility because the person wearing it is a moving billboard. Your marketing message is seen at the mall, the grocery store, the gym, and a bar, potentially all on the same day – for the same money. We’ll chat more about money in a moment.

Plus, it’s much more comfortable to wear a t-shirt than steel scaffolding and lights. You’ll have to trust me on that.

More Bang for Your Buck

Do you know how much custom printed t-shirts cost? Most people don’t. That’s because prices can range widely. All the variables in your design, colors, printing method, and quality of shirt make it hard to give a generic example. You can probably guess that my advice to you is to not go cheap. Of course you should squeeze the most value you can out of the deal. Just make sure you get the best quality you can afford. If you wind up with a box of shirts nobody wants to wear, you just blew your marketing budget on expensive dust rags.

When you factor your costs for your t-shirt marketing campaign, think about this: You pay for it once, but it keeps on sending your message for years.

Everybody Wears T-shirts

Quick, name someone you know who doesn’t wear t-shirts.

Okay, I know. There’s always that one stubborn holdout who swears, “I never wear t-shirts.” Hmm. Right. Well, the toilet has to be cleaned sometime, yes? I’ve never personally cleaned a toilet in a VanHeusen button down. I’ve cleaned one with a VanHeusen… okay, perhaps a story for another time.

Whether or not there are these rare t-shirt-eschewing humans walking among us, admit it: T-shirts are frikkin’ everywhere. According to a survey, about 81% of the US population will wear a t-shirt by the time of the next presidential election. So it makes sense that you should put your marketing message on them.

Don’t Just Brand it. Make it Cool!

There are certain brands and logos that people will always wear on a t-shirt. Coca-Cola. Apple. Orange Crush. Vans. Those lucky brands, right?

There are even a few local brands that can get away with a logo-only tee, like that burrito truck that’s always slammed at lunchtime.

If you aren’t one of those brands (be honest with yourself), you can’t just stick your logo on a shirt and expect it to get the same mileage. As a marketing manager, you might get tipsy over the idea of wearing the Harvey’s Insurance logo on your chest. Harvey might. Maybe his mother. The rest of the world, not so much.

So you have to come up with an idea for your shirt that goes beyond plastering a logo on cotton. Make it interesting and fun, something other people would actually wear. That’s a tall order, I know. Think about your customer base and what they might find funny or just cool. Be careful with humor, though. Stay away from religious, sexist, racist, or political jokes. Even if you think your customer base will find it funny, tread carefully there. Your company’s name will be on it, and you don’t always get to pick who wears it.

Which reminds me – yes, do put your company logo on the shirt. Just don’t make it the centerpiece unless you’re an established brand. Sorry, Harvey.

Because We’ve Been There

Over the years, we’ve made too many marketing mistakes to count. We learned the hard way. These days, in our custom t-shirt business, we see plenty of really smart people about to make the same mistakes. Thankfully, we’re always ready to draw from our personal lunch box of stupid and help them make a better choice. Well, we try.

 Questions? Comments? Leave them below or email us at And don’t forget to share this post. Sharing is caring.

How Screen Printing

Water-based Ink Does Not Equal Earth-friendly: A Busted Myth

ink-bucketsSometimes you’ll find a screen printer who touts their enviro-friendliness by advertising, “We only use water-based inks!”

Maybe you care about chemicals that go into our water supply, and maybe you don’t. For people who do care, this kind of claim really shouts out to you. “These are my people! They care about the Earth like I do!”

That may be true. I give a lot of credit to intention. Before we wave our hands in the air like we just don’t care… I also give a lot of credence to the Buddhist saying about the finger pointing to the moon, which is about looking beyond the finger to find the truth. Sometimes the truth is that the printer intends to do the right thing for the environment by using water-based inks. They are moving in the right direction by being conscious about their screen printing practices. That’s very mindful of them and I applaud it. But to be truly “earth-friendly,” we need to look deeper and understand what’s behind the curtain of water.

People sometimes assume that because it’s water-based, it’s automatically earth-friendly. It definitely sounds friendly, like we could drink a tall, cold glass of screen printing ink and not die. Or, we could just wash it all down the sink with the moldy salsa. The problem is that water-based ink is not just water. There are pigments, binders, thickeners, and sometimes, even co-solvents in the ink residue (source:Ryonet).

So even though it sounds enviro-friendly, water-based ink can still be toxic and not good for municipal sewage systems – or the oceans and rivers where the water eventually winds up.

If the ink itself weren’t enough, we have to consider how the screens are cleaned. Water-based inks can be cleaned with water… unless they dry out. Then we need to use much stronger solvents. While they do make solvents that are more enviro-happy, we can’t assume every shop who says they use water-based ink is using them. Or that they’re following other earth-happy shop practices.

Plastic… Phantastic?

In our shop, we use plastisol inks for most of our printing. They are PVC-based, Phthalide-free inks that when cured with heat turn to a solid. We clean our screens with a soy-based cleaner and cotton rags. The cleaner reacts with the ink, rendering it biodegradable and drain-safe (can be filtered in our system). The cotton rags are heat cured, making the plastisol a solid, which can be disposed of – except that we reuse our rags.

Is that better than water-based? It’s not a death match between water-based and plastisol. There are good reasons for using both, depending on the situation. For example, we need to print on spandex with plastisol ink (it’s stretchy). We print posters with water-based ink (you can’t heat cure paper).

Good shops are never perfect, but they are open about their methods (truth) and always improving (intention). Those shops that tout their use of water-based inks should be just as knowledgable and open about their ink’s content and cleaning methods.

Do you care? Then do this!

If you care about the environment, ask lots of questions of your printer before you assume they’re more earth-friendly than others. Try these:

What type of ink do you use? Can you point me to the manufacturer’s web site?

What solvents do you use to clean your screens?

Where does the water go when you clean screens? Is it municipal drainage or you have a different disposal solution?

What are the right answers? They’re the answers that make you feel comfortable about getting your printing done. It’s that simple. But I will say that if a printer refuses to answer them, you should keep looking.

If this sounds like a lot of work just to get some frikkin’ t-shirts printed, you’re right. If you care, you care. If not, you probably stopped paying attention a few paragraphs ago.

The point is, you can never assume that something is environmentally friendly by reading an advertisement. Do a little homework. If you really do care about the environment, it won’t hurt a bit.

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