The marketing industry may be struggling to find rays of light with regards to 2009, but it is more important than ever for businesses and brands to promote themselves and maintain awareness. Indeed, marketing wisdom dictates that those who continue to invest in a recession fare better than those who reach for the panic button and slash spend.
For some in the promotional clothing business, there is no doubt that thoughts are focused on the present. Mark Grant, owner of TSF, says: "At the high-volume end of promotional giveaways, and even more so today, clients are only interested in cheap and cheerful, regardless of whether the product is a high-street or catwalk favourite. I am producing a high-volume order of headwear for a major sports event sponsor, and the only rationale behind the product is that it is extremely cheap."
On the flip side, others are planning next year's collections and considering what will be 2009's must-buys. There is universal agreement that the basic T-shirt is still a staple of promotional clothing, and its low cost will keep it that way in the coming year, especially for bulk orders. But the ubiquitous XL T-shirt with its lack of shape and flapping sleeves is hardly the stuff of catwalk style, and is more likely than a fitted variant to end up at the bottom of a drawer.
Spencer Newton, managing director of Stonepark, says: "Promotional items tend to be a couple of years behind fashion, but they are rapidly catching up as buyers begin to understand that consumers want style."
Alan Bainbridge, managing director of T-Print, adds: "People are more fashion- conscious now, even for basic clothing. The old days of one-wash throwaways have gone. The quality, fabrics and manufacturers are better."
The point of promotional clothing and accessories is that the items are coveted enough to be worn or used more than once, so it would be churlish to ignore fashion and consumer preferences. With this in mind, P&I has created a capsule collection for promotional items next summer that should withstand the recession.
There's no denying the appeal of a T-shirt in the promotional market, and this garment is especially suited to the summer months. But the on-trend look in 2009 will be all about slim-fit. This style has been building momentum for some time, most obviously in the women's market, but now men's items too are starting to loose their boxy shape in favour of something a little more styled.
While Bainbridge warns that the extra cost associated with these T-shirts may put some people off, Liz Karn, managing director of Merit Promotional Clothing, says the prices have come down on fitted T-shirts.
In combination with the slim-fit look, fabrics are changing. Whereas previously, heavier-weight fabrics were associated with quality, the improvements in fabric technology now mean good-quality, lighter-weight items are available - and will take off next summer.
Alison McKenzie, brand director for Fruit of the Loom, says: "Advances in modern spinning and knitting technology mean it's possible to knit quality lightweight fabrics using finer yarns and tighter gauges. The transparency issues have been solved. We're reducing the weight of our cotton/elastane Lady-Fit styles by 20 per cent and launching Lady-Fit Lightweight T and Lady-Fit Lightweight Hooded T in super soft 100 per cent cotton sheer fabric, 125/135 gm/m2."
Organic cotton T-shirts
The rise of the environmentally conscious shopper has been a major trend across retail, and the promotional market has responded well. While the conviction of some brands may be tested in the tougher economic climate, the popularity of the organic cotton T-shirt is set to continue next summer, despite its higher price point.
Dru Lawson, a sustainability consultant, says: "The challenge is for promoters to get the cheapest, so there might be a falloff as sustainable items are more expensive, but we're also seeing a focus on value. In this economic climate there's a difference between superficial quick deals and what's of real value. If you are giving real value, the message is much stronger than with a throwaway T-shirt."
McKenzie points to the growing number of businesses founded on ethical and environmental principles - such as organic bars, restaurants and food brands, cruelty-free cosmetic manufacturers and charities and NGOs - as proof that this market will remain important for promotions. Fruit of the Loom has responded to the need for value organic. "We've launched a range of more affordable T-shirts that use unbleached and undyed 100 per cent organic cotton. Every batch of yarn is certified by the Control Union to the Global Organic Textiles Standard," she adds.
On the street corner, the hoodie may be associated with ASBOs and feral youths, but on the high street its popularity has remained strong and its appeal has held among adults and children alike. While 'fleecies' continue to command the market, in the summer the hoodie option is more versatile, less bulky and far more on-trend.
This style can be incorporated in a range of products from tracksuit tops to soft shells. Newton says fleecies have fallen off considerably as soft shell has taken off. Because soft shells offer lightweight, stretch and waterproof performance, he says fleecies are now seen as a budget item.
The hoodie is particularly popular with the music promotions and merchandising sectors, according to McKenzie. So as summer brings the festival season, it's a key item. Fruit of the Loom is expanding its range to include a long-sleeve, hooded T-shirt for men. "This responds directly to customers' demands for a 'rock and pop' garment to sell into the music industry," she adds. Lawson points to the cut and detail of sweatshirts and hooded tops reflecting sportier styles.
The celebrity accessory of choice seems to be a child, and if the weekly trash magazines are to be believed, for Angelina Jolie and Madonna, the more the better. So it's not surprising that the promotional industry has started to tap into this market and will continue to do so next summer.
"Babywear is a favourite in the high-end gift market. People see a cute item and it's a no-brainer as a present," says Matt Peters, UK sales manager at Mantis. Because Mantis was asked for so many striped special orders of babywear, it has now added them to its stock.
And in this area, organic cotton is a choice fabric. "As more children have it drummed into them that organic is better, it will become the norm. Our sales are increasing year on year - and in 2009 there will be reductions in the price of many of our organic styles. Perhaps for bulk enquiries people will look for a cheaper alternative, but people always want the best for their children so organic cotton will still be a hit in babywear," says Peters.
Bags are often seen as a promotional item to give away and may be an add-on to other clothing. Traditionally, sports bags were the style of choice, but changes to consumer attitudes are filtering down to the promotional market. With an emphasis on reducing waste and cutting the volume of plastic carrier bags going to landfill, shoppers are being urged to switch to sturdier, reusable bags. As a consequence, the take-up of shopping and tote bags by promoters will continue next year.
"Bags have traditionally been either sports bags, rucksacks or portfolio cases. There is an increase in the tote bag market with the organic cotton. It's being pushed a lot," says Newton. He points to its value as a promotional item because of its repeated use now that many people tend to take their own bags shopping. Karn concurs: "We never get asked to do sports bags, it's more shoppers and natural cottons."
For fashion-oriented customers looking for something distinctive, it's all about bespoke manufacturing. Rather than buying off-the-peg, promotional clothing and accessories can now be made to order to offer a unique product. And as factories are more willing to handle lower-volume orders, this is becoming an economically viable option. Options include:
- Distressed, vintage-wash fabrics
- Rough-and-ready look with unfinished edges on seams
- Contrast stitching
- Custom neck taping
- Printed buttons
- Hoodies with contrast colours inside the hood and on the draw cords
- Baseball caps with panels and embroidery, or printing on peak and underneath
- Applique patches