If the cap/t-shirt/stubby-holder fits, should you wear it?

It may be hard to believe in this age of blaring billboards, tasteless bumper stickers and even television commercials, but there was a time when the manner in which a law firm could market itself was severely restricted.

Those of a certain vintage will recall when business cards could not even have colour – black print on white card was the extent of advertising innovation.

Nowadays what can be done in the way of advertising a law firm is greatly expanded, and this includes merchandise. Keyrings, t-shirts and even frisbees have been emblazoned with the names of law firms both venerated and brand new.

Whether or not this attracts customers, and indeed customers that the firm in question wants, would be known only to the firms themselves. Like anything else, of course, it can be done well or poorly.

The good

Good merchandise can be a powerful and lasting method of advertising.

Many years ago I had a friend who was (briefly) a real estate agent. She had a bunch of ‘stubby wallets’ (basically, a foldable stubby cooler) made up with her name and number on them, and dropped them into people’s mailboxes; she got a lot of leads that way.

The potency of the merchandise can be shown by virtue of the fact that she did that around 1992, and some of my friends still have the wallets, and use them when guest numbers demand it. My friend’s real estate career, and indeed the agency for which she worked, vanished decades ago, but the merchandise continues to do its job.

In the legal realm, many Queensland lawyers will recall the legendary Minter Ellison golf umbrellas, to this day a sought-after and jealously guarded item among the legal fraternity and still sighted bobbing through the mall on a rainy day.

Whatever those umbrellas cost, they have repaid exponentially in decades of advertising as anyone who got one has kept it and continues to use it, and not just because they love the firm; they kept them because they were, and remain, brilliant umbrellas. They work, which is more than you can say for many umbrellas you can buy.

Similarly, the stubby wallets my friend handed out function very effectively in that they keep beer cold and are easily slipped into the back pocket of your pants when not in use.

Unless beer goes out of fashion in Australia, which should occur just after the inhabitants of Hell construct their first snowman, they remain effective advertising (apart from the fact that the business they advertise is defunct). Clearly, one factor in effective merchandise is that it should be useful.

In a similar vein is the merchandise pictured above. I received this at a Helix Legal function, hooked onto a fancy beer that I was given on arrival. It is basically a metal business card, which is also a bottle opener.

I suspect every person who got one of these has kept it, and these things will probably continue to do marketing for as long as my friend’s stubby wallets have. Useful, long-lasting and difficult to be misused, these are examples of excellent marketing.

The bad

In the back corner of our pantry is a box, and in it is a plethora of branded water bidons (the sort of water bottle that cyclists typically favour) which I have never used, but which my wife and I have not thrown out because we are not sure if they are recyclable.

Some of the businesses plastered across them no longer exist, and that may in part be due to the fact that the last thing anyone really needs is yet another water bottle. That these bottles are made of environmentally damaging plastic does not help; attaching your firm’s name to something which may end up clogging waterways and choking fish is probably not the way to get your name out there.

The same goes for stress balls, Frisbees and keyrings. Everybody has an oversupply of these items, and no one wants any more of them. Merchandise also comes in and out of fashion. Sticking your firm name on these things is probably going to annoy more people than it attracts; a good rule of thumb is that if an item is typically found in a showbag, you do not want your firm brand on it.

The ugly

One of the most common pieces of merchandise is the humble t-shirt (or cap), which – with a bit a screen printing – can be transformed from serviceable piece of clothing to walking billboard. As advertising, t-shirts have been very successful, because pretty much everybody loves a free T-shirt.

The problem is that, unlike a bottle opener, stubby wallet or umbrella, t-shirts can be worn anywhere, including fairly unsavoury establishments. You also don’t know, once a t-shirt is sent out into the world, who might actually end up wearing it.

A year or two ago, a mate of mine invited me out to dinner and the football with a client of his. We had a great night at dinner and went off to Lang Park to watch the footy, and ended up sitting behind two urban cowboys.

We could tell that they were cowboys (and not actual stockmen) because they were wearing their cowboy hats, which looked straight out of a Hollywood western – and were thus nothing like hats that actual Aussie drovers and the like would ever wear. They were also wearing them at night, and people who genuinely work the land are clever enough to take off their hats when the sun goes down.

Trouble started because my mate’s client – if you can believe her hide – was actually talking during the football. This did not go down well with the cowboys, which they mentioned at length; that prompted us to mention at length what they could do with their opinions about watching football in silence.

Thankfully things did not escalate, largely because my mate’s client was at least 10 times cleverer than the cowboys (and possibly their entire families put together) and verbally sliced them to pieces quite nicely.

She also, however, did what you do these days: took a photo of her would-be antagonists, and popped it up on social with a tagline something like, ‘misogynist jerks at the footy’.

The thing was, they were both wearing branded shirts, with the name of a business on them. I do not know if it was their business, a friend’s business, or where they worked, but up onto social media those shirts went, probably trailing hundreds of negative comments in their wake. Whoever’s business it was on those shirts took a severe reputational pummelling that night.

That’s the problem with t-shirts; if someone is wearing your brand, people think you endorsed it. If they act like jerks, or get into a drunken brawl, your firm name gets associated with it. In short, if you want to hand out t-shirts, be selective in who gets one. A reputation can be destroyed by a tweet these days, and if you lose control of your brand it can be disastrous.

Simply put, merchandising can be a powerful way to get your brand out there, but be very selective about what you allow your firm name to be put on, and who you hand it out to.

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