Wear Your Brand Out: How to Use Clothing to Promote Your Nonprofit

Yellow wristbands. White shirts with a red plus sign. Pink shirts. Pink hats. Pink gloves. Heck, pink everything.

Despite those vague descriptions, you likely know what nonprofits these products are associated with because they have effectively used clothing and merchandise to promote their nonprofit and brand. Even if your nonprofit’s primary objective isn’t achieved through sales, you can still use clothing to promote your nonprofit’s mission and brand.

For example, the NPO that I was Executive Director of underwent a massive rebrand last year. After being part of another organization for more than 30 years, we broke off and established our own nonprofit, complete with a new name and look. One of the ways we went about establishing our new brand was to introduce a new line of clothing that featured a simple design and the new name/logo of our organization. The design was simple, the colors were bright and the brand name was clear and clean.

The response to the first batch of clothing we sold was overwhelming. At our big five-day summer camp, we sold more than half of our inventory in the first two days. By the end of the week, we only had a smattering of sizes available. I expected the inventory to last past the camp and into some of our fall events, but before we knew it, we were planning a second order. Even though the students we worked with didn’t have much prior exposure to the brand, they instantly took to the new name and merchandise. The connection they did have was to the organization, our services and the experience they received at our services.

Here are three lessons that I learned from my experience to help your organization increase the visibility of your mission and brand through clothing and merchandise.

Free Advertising!

Having other people wear clothing or use branded-merchandise is a simple and effective way to advertise your organization. In fact, most of the time people will pay you to wear your nonprofit’s name on their body. It’s the same strategy employed by Nike, Ralph Lauren and countless other clothing manufacturers. For some people, it is not that they are just wearing a quality clothing product. They want to be associated with the brand name on the clothing.

At our annual summer camp, we give each student a camp shirt. These are designed for the theme of that summer’s camp with dates and event name on it. However, when we made our clothing, we want something timeless and a design that isn’t tied to a specific event, but instead just tied to our nonprofit as a whole. The three different designs we used contained four different words: our nonprofit’s name and the three-word slogan. They are simple, but sharp looking.

Be Mindful of Your Products

For our first go-around we chose to sell sweatshirts, long-sleeved shirts and tank tops. This way we had some variety to appeal to everyone’s fashion sense. We also picked a variety of colors so we’d have a good selection that fit our modest $2,000 budget. After the initial success, we started to plan for our second-year sales plan. We added a few non-clothing items such as water bottles, stickers and pens—all useful items for our our target audience of junior high and high school students.

One of the options we passed on was sweatpants. I have no doubt that those would have sold out quickly. Sweatpants are awesome to wear, but they are not part of a look we want associated with our nonprofit. Sweatpants are lounging clothes and not the professional, leadership-oriented look that we aspire for. We didn’t want our brand to be on lazy day attire, so the idea was nixed. Don’t just think about whether the item will sell, but if it will portray your nonprofit’s brand the way you want it.

In the same vein, be sure that you are buying quality products. It might be tempting to go with the cheapest option to maximize your profits, but make sure you get products that last. If people buy a water bottle and it melts or breaks, it does you no good and will likely give that person a negative impression of your organization.

Know How to Get Sales

Your clothing and merchandise are useless if they aren’t getting into the hands of your audience. It’s also important to know the market. Don’t overextend your budget and have hundreds or thousands of dollars of inventory just collecting dust. Pricing is key. We worked with vendors and design (keeping it one-color printing!) to keep the individual unit price down so we could sell everything for $20 or less.

And people can’t buy your product if you don’t have any to sell them. Make sure you monitor your inventory and have a good variety of styles and sizes. After we sold out of several sizes, we decided to make a second order after camp for anyone that wanted an exhausted item, with a $5 charge for shipping. Be flexible in case you strike success and always be as accommodating as possible.

Merchandising, if done properly, can greatly enhance the profile of your nonprofit. It gets your brand and mission out to the public more and isn’t a massive expense. The merchandise can also provide you with an additional revenue stream to help your bottom line (which is also the goal of every nonprofit). Start small and build from there. Every bit helps in the overall mission of your nonprofit—and if all works well, your organization as a whole.


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

September 15, 2014

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