Are You Building a Brand or Just Handing Out Free T-Shirts?

Are You Building a Brand or Just Handing Out Free T-Shirts?


It’s that time of year again! Your co-workers are suddenly sporting new laptop stickers and wearing more t-shirts than usual (even for a startup office). You’re sending more followup emails than ever before, you’re actually paying attention to what #hashtags your friends are using and your inbox is full of “exclusive invites”.

You guessed it, it’s conference season. If you close your eyes and listen very carefully, you can almost hear it: “Free t-shirt? Free t-shirt? Free t-shirt? Here, have this free t-shirt, champ!” Somewhere along the line, we started mistaking brand building with handing out free swag at conferences.

Here’s why that’s a major problem (and some ideas for how to fix it).

1. You’re Providing Empty Value

Don’t get me wrong here. I love free stuff! I’ll put your startup sticker on my laptop, I’ll wear your t-shirt, I’ll drink out of your branded water bottle.

In fact, I recently found a Jonas Brothers t-shirt in my closet and wore it to the movies because I was out of clean clothes. Just so we’re clear, I do not like, nor have I ever liked, the Jonas Brothers.

I got the t-shirt from a radio giveaway (I was trying to win tickets to a hockey game for a friend). I didn’t ask for the t-shirt - it was just a consolation prize. Similarly, when you hand out free t-shirts at a conference, you’re providing empty value.

A. There’s nothing special about the t-shirt. Likely everyone that walks past you is going to get one, too.
B. No one is going to wake up on Monday and think, “Man, I can’t wait to wear that t-shirt from that company I barely know anything about!”
C. No one is going to be sitting at their desk on Monday and think, “Man, I wish I had my t-shirt from Company X right now. I could really use it.”

Takeaway: The average free t-shirt (or laptop sticker, or water bottle, or…) doesn’t provide any type of real value. Well, other than the fact that I didn’t have to do laundry before going to see the movie. Provide something of substance if you want to build a brand, something they’ll use every day because they want to - not just because they’re out of clean clothes.

2. What Does a T-Shirt Say About You?

Anyone who has met me in person, knows that I wear jeans and a hoodie to work almost every day. I’m channeling my inner Zuck. Of course, under my various hoodies, I’m almost always wearing a geeky t-shirt from Busted Tees. Mario and Zelda references abound. Anyway, I think the way I dress says a lot about me and I’m sure the way you dress says a lot about you, too.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it defines my personal brand. I’m laid back, I don’t take myself too seriously, I say “awesome” and “cool” too much, and I start emails with “hey” - no matter who I’m talking to.

Your startup t-shirt says a lot about you as a company as well, whether you realize it or not. Black or white with a logo on the chest? Conservative, maybe even a little boring. Heather grey with a tasteful version of the company mascot? Fun and interesting, but still sits at the adult table on Thanksgiving. Inspiring quote on the front with a small logo on the back shoulder? Value-focused and exciting.

Takeaway: Your swag says a lot about you as a company, whether you realize it or not. So, if you’re going to give out swag, make sure it truly speaks to your brand. Use swag as a brand building tool and be purposeful about it. Maybe, just maybe that t-shirt will end up as more than “just a gym tee”.

3. A T-Shirt Does Not an Advocate Make

Wearing a Jonas Brothers t-shirt as a 21-year-old in 2014 didn’t make me feel good about myself. And I would definitely never consider myself a Jonas Brothers advocate. I might as well have had someone write, “I was too lazy to do laundry today” across my forehead.

Let’s say, for example, you hand out 1,000 t-shirts at SXSW. Maybe 700 of them won’t end up lost in the convention centre (or in the garbage because no one wants to carry a swag bag around all day). Now you have 700 people who might wear your t-shirt. Generously, let’s say 75% of them wear it at least once. That’s 525 people. You’re down to almost half.

And of those 525 people, how many of them are familiar with what you do? How many of them actually engaged with your brand during this exchange? When asked what their t-shirt is about two weeks later, how many will respond with confidence? How many will end up saying “Oh, it’s from some company at SXSW”?

Takeaway: Just because you can convince 525 people to wear your t-shirt once or twice before they inevitably throw it out or lose it in a move, doesn’t mean you’ve built an advocate or spread the word about your brand. Always know the difference and focus your efforts.


At this time of year, it’s free t-shirts at conferences. In September, it’ll be something else. The point is that we need to collectively stop investing time and money in things that are not, in reality, helping to build our brands. A free t-shirt is a free t-shirt and most people will gladly take it from you, but you haven’t moved your brand forward because you haven’t inspired anyone.

So instead of printing another 1,000 t-shirts, focus on activities that spread your vision, that tell people about your core values. Start a blog, start a Twitter chat, donate those 1,000 t-shirts to people in need - whatever.

What matters is that you’re purposeful about everything that represents your brand, swag or otherwise. Without creating an engaging experience around that free t-shirt, it’s all wasted effort. I never thought I’d write this, but we all need to heed the JoBros’ unintentional warning and get serious about building brands people are going to want to advertise on their t-shirts.

Photo Credit: Roo Reynolds

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