Advertising is not an easy game. Think about the skills it takes to make a great advertisement:
- Know your product
- Know your customer
- Know graphic design and branding principles
- Know how to write compelling copy
- Know where to distribute it
- Know how much to pay
- So on and so on…
But great ads are everywhere!
Of course, everyone living in this society has some degree of ad blindness. You simply don’t see the great ads that are all around you because there are so many of them.
It’s a bit like a supermarket shelf.
When you’re in the supermarket, you don’t take a perfect inventory of every product and price. You scan the aisle and look for the things you want, and probably leave some space to allow yourself to find things you weren’t expecting. Packaging, here, is the advertisement – food packaging is a billion-dollar realm of science.
But as M&R CEO Danny Sweem likes to say, the t-shirt is the perfect e-commerce product.
It’s light and virtually indestructible so it ships well. It’s customizable for virtually any audience. It’s not a “must-have” so customers are okay with waiting for a couple weeks. The total addressable market is massive since 99.9% of people on earth wear clothing. There’s a low barrier to entry so any entrepreneur can make a killing with the right design and advertisements. In other words: the t-shirt is a truly powerful medium for commerce.
But I’d take a step further than that.
We’ve joked before that “the logical conclusion for any human activity is quality custom merchandise”.
But it’s…not really a joke?
Think about it. The internet has unlocked a lot of potential for people to start independent businesses. But what happens when your business is primarily content that consumers can simply look at for free?
What if your “business” is, um, kind of being in front of a camera? What can you sell?
You can sell your own custom branded merchandise.
In fact it’s so common it’s almost become a bit of a trope: the VC-backed company Fast, a one-click payment provider, was lambasted for selling Fast-branded black hoodies and sweatpants.
It’s kind of a funny look, too.
Someone just wearing a dark shirt that says “Fast” on it, or sweatpants with “Fast” printed on the legs six times. The jokes write themselves and such.
Well, it turns out Fast wasn’t growing fast enough. Their merchandise was probably the most profitable business activity they did.
Merchandise has always been a “sweetener” for lucrative businesses. You’ll see it at coffee shops, dispensaries, breweries, restaurants and other community and business hubs. People like to show that they’re part of a tribe, even if it’s just the local bar down the street. But it’s definitely new to have merchandise be the entirety of your revenue-generating business activities.
Anyway – on to the ads.
Best T-Shirt Ads: Liquid Death hires … a child
Liquid Death sells water in a can. You do not need an advanced business degree to understand that selling water is a bit of an uphill battle.
Yes, the bottled water market is a multi-billion dollar business. But most people can (and do) simply get their water from the tap. Water isn’t exactly a lifestyle commodity.
Well…until Liquid Water made it one.
If you watched the Super Bowl earlier this year, you saw Liquid Death’s absurd (and memorable) ad. The general schtick is simple: the song “Breaking The Law” plays. Opening shot: a cold can. Second shot: a blonde boy slams back a Liquid Death, head fully tilted backwards, exaggeratedly pouring the water straight into his mouth.
A bunch of kids party like they’re at a heavy metal show in slow-motion to raucous music, drinking Liquid Death and spraying it everywhere like it’s champagne after they’ve won a Formula 1 race. The setting seals the deal by way of juxtaposition. It’s a suburban home with neatly trimmed grass and a Golden Retriever. The final shot is a kicker. It’s a pregnant mom that takes a big swig of Liquid Death and smiles as she looks at the chaos unfolding.
Tagline? “Don’t be scared. It’s just water.”
Piggybacking off a successful ad campaign like this is the purview of the big, expensive, professional marketing firms.
Budweiser got years out of setting a trend and then wringing it dry (“wassup,” the Bud frogs, even the horses).
But what Liquid Death did next surprised me: they started a Facebook ad campaign to sell merchandise.
Yes. The logical endpoint of all human activity is not water in a can. It’s quality branded merchandise.
So Liquid Death hired a 6-year-old child to illustrate one of their t-shirts. And honestly? It’s one of the best t-shirt ads of all-time. Would you expect anything less from Liquid Death’s A-list team of marketers?
Best T-Shirt Ads: Terminus Tees shows you a screen
Ah, Terminus Tees. It’s hard to know where to begin telling the story of Jon Ladd and his Georgia-based shop. Are they a film studio, a print shop, an advertising agency? Um, sure.
If you haven’t watched the video of Jon explaining “the screen ad,” then you’ve missed out on a genius bit of insight into marketing and human psychology.
The strategy itself is fairly simple. Make an offer they can’t refuse. Then upsell very creatively. They get into a conversation quickly with the customer! Start asking questions. Do they really just want black shirts with white ink?
“Only 29% customers actually took the deal,” Jon said. Are a ton of customers actually getting 100 shirts for $399? No, because that’s not actually the specific deal they’re looking for – they’re looking for someone to guide them through getting a bunch of shirts printed.
We like this strategy because:
- It’s engaging. Generating a bunch of leads that are looking for 100 shirts? Yes, please.
- It puts a lot of work on the calendar. A bunch of 100+ shirt jobs coming through the doors is a great utilization of your shop.
- It lets you use excess inventory. This whole thing started because Terminus had a bunch of overstocked black tees. Lemonade from lemons!
There have been several iterations of this ad in recent years (including a newer one with a mascot holding the screen). It’s a tried-and-true method, but Terminus really perfected it.
Two special mentions: Portland Gear and Feels So Good
If you’ve seen Feels So Good’s marketing (formerly Fine Southern Gentlemen), you probably remember it. The distinct tone, colors, and designs all stand out.
Portland Gear takes hyperlocal printing and turns it on its head with witty commentary, carefully curated imagery, and genuine humor.
With a massive following and a super clever angle on merchandise, Portland Gear has stood out by having a voice and an opinion. Check them out.
Best T-Shirt Ads: Bad knees, good ad
So let’s get to the last ad. It’s from BadkneesTs out of Bloomington, Indiana. I’ve seen this ad a few times in my feed and it’s always stuck out.
Instead of going upscale, hiring a marketing firm, and doing some sort of slick branding, BadkneesTs simply leans into their schtick.
And this is a very lucrative schtick.
Niches are an incredible tool for print shops because there are infinite designs you could print. Keeping your focus on a narrow niche – like animal prints with encouraging words – means you can keep your marketing budget slim.
“You gotta have a gimmick if you want to get ahead” is the famous line from Gypsy, and it’s incredible advice. Why try to be something you’re not? Lean into it. This is a big world, and someone is into what you’re doing.
So why choose this ad?
Because it demonstrates something very clearly: knowing who you are and who your audience is makes the work of marketing and advertising a lot simpler. This doesn’t have to be rocket surgery.
Bonus: How to look at ads from your competitors
Do you know about Facebook Ad Library? This is the simplest way to see every ad on Facebook from anyone.
Here’s how it works. You can search for topics (keywords like “local sports”) or for specific advertisers (such as Portland Gear, pictured above). Then, you can see every ad for that keyword or from that advertiser.
This is a great way to get ahead of the curve, see what your competition is up to, and even get inspiration for your own advertisements.
Finally, check out this “faux vintage” ad from Silkshop Screen Printing:
The Weekly is Printavo’s weekly newsletter by Printavo’s content creator Luke Gardner.
Focused on the custom apparel industry, The Weekly takes a microscope to the topics that matter: from sales and marketing strategies that work for print shops to analyzing the state of the industry.
Each week we tackle one major topic and share our best resources, ideas, and curated content from dozens of conversations with print shops around the world.
The Weekly is how to get schooled in the print game without paying a dime of tuition.