Build Your Business:

Story Telling

November 24, 2014

One thing has become apparent to me over the years: The vast majority of people who buy decorated apparel have no real idea of what’s involved. Not only this, but they think every decorator is the same and the only thing that separates you from the others is your lower price.

This is the living definition of a commodity, where the market sets the price and sees no discernible difference between suppliers. This may be far from the truth, but it is the market’s perception — which is, unfortunately, our reality.

As decorators, we’re faced with the challenge of letting prospective and actual customers know why we’re the most trusted and valuable choice to create their garment graphics. This is no small task. According to the 2013 Nielsen Online Media Trust Survey, consumers today believe an advertiser’s message only 13% of the time. Essentially, 87% of our potential customers won’t trust the stories we’re telling them. What’s the best way around this?

Fortunately, we aren’t the only ones who have faced this dilemma. Advertising copywriters as far back as 100 years ago dealt with the same challenge. After much trial and error, they arrived at several successful approaches. These tactics can be used individually or be combined with others.

Everyone loves a story. One of the most famous examples of telling a story to sell a product goes back to the 1920s. At the time, Pabst Blue Ribbon was the best-selling beer in America. Schlitz Beer was floundering between fifth and eighth place, and had been stuck there for years.

That all changed when copywriter Claude Hopkins went to visit the Schlitz Brewery to learn how beer was made. During the tour, he learned about the seemingly extraordinary lengths the brewery went to in order to preserve and maintain the beer’s quality. The thing was, every brewery used the same meticulous steps to assure their quality, but nobody knew about them.

When Hopkins told the story and detailed the precision of each step, the market was fascinated. People were so enthralled with Hopkins’ narrative that Schiltz’s sales rocketed past Pabst Blue Ribbon in less than a year. Of course, all the other breweries cried that it wasn’t fair, but they looked silly in the process.

The lesson for apparel decorators is exactly the same. Few consumers know or understand the story behind what you do, the steps you take and the effort you expend to deliver great shirts. After I read about the famous Schlitz case, I began documenting my firm’s own process and was astonished to find we had 112 separate steps from beginning to end. Many of those steps seemed common sense to us, but when we began telling the story of “How Your Shirts Are Printed (Decorated),” our customers were equally surprised.

A key component of telling the story is articulating why it is important to the buyer. In studying influence and persuasion, people will agree with nearly anything if they know “the reason why” they’re being asked to do something. Most importantly, base this reason on an emotional decision, not a logical one.

For example, you may be printing youth shirts for a local elementary school. Of course, you’re concerned about the safety and welfare of those wearing your products. Safety is an emotional issue. This means you can tell your customer your shirts are a bit more expensive than the guy printing shirts in his garage, but there’s a good reason why. You use PVC- and phthalate-free inks, as mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Chances are really good the other guy isn’t even aware of the regulation.

You can use the same argument if you offer water-based inks as a more eco-friendly alternative to plastisols. Even though the premise is debatable, the perception is that non-toxic, water-based inks are better for the environment and the designs are nicer to wear.

The reason why comes in many forms. Sit down and really think about how your customers use your work. You’ll find many opportunities to apply this justification in your marketing materials. Since our last example focused on youth apparel for a local school, let’s continue with that.

The opportunity exists with nearly all school work centering on the use of parent volunteers. It’s almost always the same parents who repeatedly volunteer. They’re always super involved in their kids’ lives and short on time. They’re rushing to sports practices, events, PTA meetings and parent/teacher conferences. Anything you can do to free up time for them will be seen as a valuable contribution, which means they’ll be willing to pay for it. In your marketing materials, talk about the steps you take to make it easy to distribute the shirt order when it’s finished.

My firm prepared a simple Excel spreadsheet for each classroom teacher, who would fill in the students’ names and the shirt sizes they ordered. We would sort the classes based on size and then print out the list of names and sizes on Avery label sheets, which you can get at any office supply store. Since the list was sorted by size, we would simply sticker each shirt with the kid’s name and size, and pack them into a box for that classroom.

When the volunteers picked up the shirts, the boxes were prepackaged by class with every student accounted for. It’s amazing how few requests we got for missing shirts when we started doing this. We added $0.25 to each shirt for this service.

Educating consumers is all about conveying the reason why you should be their choice. It’s about their benefit of doing business with you. This also is part of your story. The powerful techniques of education and choices position them for maximum profitability. This is done by creating three tiered programs based on their situations.

You could call them your gold, silver and bronze packages, or something similar. The silver package is what most people will choose because it’s the middle-of-the-road package and, psychologically, can be justified as being neither cheap nor extravagant. This is what 70% of the buyers choose and it represents pretty much what you’re currently offering, with some minor upgrades.

The silver package should be priced about 10%-15% higher than your competitors. This gives you some wiggle room to lower the price if needed, but you rarely will if you play it correctly. Make sure you include some things that your competitors don’t and tell your customers why you do this. Remember, it’s about saving time and making it easy to do business with you.

The bronze package is a significantly stripped-down, economy version with cheaper shirts, bulk packaging and a clear, no-frills approach. Think about the discount airline model where you have to pay an additional fee for just about everything. The idea is that when they see all the add-ons, they’ll see the value in going with your main offering.

Remember to let the customer know the quality of the printing will be the same as the silver package, but may look different because you’re using economy or promotional-grade garments to save money. You want it to look intentionally cheap and price it about 25% less than your competitors. Use bulk packaging where the customer has to sort everything on his end after you deliver. You want it to look like a good price, but clearly at a sacrifice in the number of services included.

The fact is, you don’t want customers who get excited about this package. If you’re going to lose the work to competitors based on price, you want to drive their prices down to this level, thereby ensuring they won’t profit from the work.

Let the customer know that about 10%-15% of your customers go this route, but all of them step up to the silver package on their reorders. Make sure they know you’re offering this solution strictly out of economic consideration and it represents good, but not great, value.

The gold package is where the super profit lies. This package should be positioned significantly (50%-100%) higher than your silver package. This is the premium offering that should have built-in significant service. About 20% of your customers will go for the premium package because they only want the best in everything.

It’s important for you to recognize the potential for a gold package. For instance, an elite private school would be a perfect candidate for this. I’ve seen individual parents or a group of several parents foot the bill for the difference between the gold and silver packages because they are too busy to attend to the details and they feel they deserve a better-than-average package. There’s nothing wrong with positioning your services this way. That’s why they’re driving a Lexus or Mercedes instead of a Toyota.

The content of your marketing materials, website and email programs must be solely focused on the benefits to consumers. You must identify all the problems they will face and educate them on the solutions you offer. You want to make it as easy as possible to do business with you in as little time as possible.

By carefully studying all the steps in the process, you can effectively position yourself as the only possible choice for providing their decorated garments. Pose the questions your competitors can’t answer. At the very least, it will cause them to become more professional and up the level of service in your market. Even if you do not win every order, you’re effectively positioning yourself as the knowledgeable market leader who has the client’s best interest at heart.

Mark Coudray is a respected and well-known industry innovator and strategist. His works have been published in more than 400 papers, columns, features and articles in every major publication in the United States and abroad. Coudray has been an active member of the Academy of Screen Printing and Digital Technology since 1989, and has written for Impressions since 1978. For more information or to contact Mark, email him at