T-Shirt Marketing : This Is How Smart Companies Have Cracked The Code

If you have surrounded yourself with people who work in the Tech space, chances are that you discovered about quite a few companies after seeing your friends wear their t-shirts. Sporting a cool tee that a company sent you isn’t a new practice but off late, a lot of small companies have discovered that it is an awesome and cost-effective way to grow user base and awareness about your product.

Benchmark it to Your Standard PPC

When we use the word cost-effective we must also answer the question, “effective compared to what?”The question can have broad implications but within the purview of this article, let’s say we consider a PPC (pay-per-click) campaign. An independent survey article tells us that for the year of 2015, the average cost per click for a PPC campaign came out to be 1.58 USD. The same survey shows the average cost per conversion to be almost 30 times more at 44.50 USD. This was just for perspective, we will come back to these numbers later.


Let’s have a Head to Head

“Single Grain got more than 500K dollars in revenue just by giving away t-shirts”, writes Sujan Patel in a post you can find here. MailChimp’s merchandising strategy is another success story. With high quality and beautifully printed t-shirts, their merchandise has been the most sought after.

Single grain’s widely popular t-shirts
Single grain’s widely popular t-shirts

However, Mailchimp and Single Grain ran two very different t-shirt campaigns.

Mailchimp’s Limited Access Approach

Mailchimp wanted to keep it limited, they made the t-shirts so good that anyone who looked at them couldn’t resist the temptation to get one. A chimp carrying mail wearing a hat was just too cool to not want. MailChimp would only give out their apparel and merchandise at special events and get-together or conferences.


Single Grain’s All Out Approach

Single Grain on the other hand would hold free t-shirt giveaways for their customers and new signees. People were seen wearing their t-shirts in a variety of different social settings, translating to a superior brand recognition. Sujan Patel mentions that Single Grain generated over 980K dollars of revenue from new customers signing up via their t-shirts. More surprisingly, 250K+ of this revenue was just from curious customers that joined in after seeing him wear the t-shirt at different places.

Key Learnings

What is it about t-shirts that makes them compelling as a marketing tool?

  1. Pride: One singular emotion with clothing has always been about pride. This easily explains why brands are such a big deal in the apparel market. If your customers are proud of what they are using, they won’t hesitate in wearing it.
  2. Conversation: People love t-shirts that help them hold a conversation. “That’s one amazing shirt you’re wearing” is a comment we often imagine people telling us while we are trying to find our right fit at the store. Clothes are an expression of what people feel, and when expression drives conversation, people find genuine value in that.
  3. Usability: It is one more thing that saves you some time and money. On top of being a great mode of expression, t-shirts also solve a problem that most people have of not knowing what to wear on a day that is neither special enough, nor mundane enough. You’re just solving one more of their problems, hence they will love you back.

There are many more reasons why people would find value in merchandise.

Contribution to Goodwill

Another way to look at the method of t-shirt marketing is it’s business growth contribution. As mentioned above, it provides a very clear and noise free avenue for conversation about the product. T-shirts, unlike hoardings, are faster awareness drivers. Mainly because people who see others wearing your t-shirt instinctively think that the product must be really good for someone to endorse it this way. This already puts you in their good books even before they have googled your name or asked the other person what you are all about. I like to call this “Spontaneous-Goodwill”

The Academic Marketing Standpoint

If I take a very academic standpoint, t-shirt marketing helps me serve 3 main prongs of marketing

  1. Promotion: The “spontaneous-goodwill” that we talked about in the earlier paragraph is the prime focus. It puts you right in their good books and for anyone wearing your t-shirt out there in the social jungle, they sure have really good things to say.
  2. People: Again, spot on. The people who are your customers are always more likely to be in peer groups who are also your potential customers.
  3. Place: You are right where your customer is most easily going to notice you. Location isn’t a barrier, your ambassadors are taking you to all the right places.

For your reference, here are all the 7 Ps

Marketing ps

The Road Does not Lack Challenges

That being said, t-shirt marketing, given its effectiveness, has its own challenges. The challenge is more about setting your end goals right. If your goal is word of mouth, you’ll surely get it. If your goal is referrals, it might involve a little more effort however in the consequence of word of mouth, it is probable that you’ll get referrals. But, if you aim to get paying customers for a high learning curve service (most freemium SaaS’s); the legwork of onboarding and engagement still needs to happen at a later stage – a t-shirt campaign can’t get you there.

Single Grain talks about intensive revenue growth from their t-shirt marketing campaign however something you could easily miss is their neighbourhood. They lived and worked from a place that had thousands of people working on tech-startups and  hence the impact was much wider compared to many other places where you are more likely to be in.

Quality Matters

Another point worth keeping in mind is the quality of apparel. Good quality goes a long way along with good design. Remember when we drew parallels with the fashion industry in the beginning. People love wearing a plain tee with no branding if it gives them the comfort they are looking for. If you cut cost by using crappy material, chances are, you’ll end up in a sump anyways.

SendGrid: It’s All About the Community

Single Grain and Mailchimp were good examples of revenue generated through t-shirts and a buzz through controlled distribution of merchandise. Along in the research, you’re also probable to come across a company called Sendgrid. They are into the business of email automation, a space similar to what Mailchimp occupies.

I have seen Sendgrid to have an extremely pervasive community outreach. This article talks about Sendgrid’s developer evangelist program and how it helped them and scrolling down you would realise the amount of importance they paid to community outreach.

I was recently in conversation with a developer. He found sendgrid’s t-shirt campaign so effective that he quoted,

“Wherever I went, be it Brazil – a market where most developer tool companies are unknown commodities, India or, the US, there would be at least one person in the room wearing the Sendgrid t-shirt. I have been in awe about how they crossed the geographic and language barriers so effectively.”

Reaching out to a community and driving genuine, concerned and actionable conversation has been the key to Sendgrid’s success and their t-shirts were used as a very effective way of initiating this conversation along with their hackathons.

Set Your Priorities Right

T-shirts as a commodity, their design and their logistics come at a fixed cost and the success and failure of this commodity basket relies on what you make of it. If a t-shirt is your end point, if it’s the commodity that you’re luring your users to, chances are that you’ll fail. But if you treat that as a node, as a pivotal point in talking to your customers, and target groups, listening to them and generating enough value for your brand to become a matter of pride and thought leadership, the effective forgone costs of marketing can be enormous.

Consider the Cost

I live and work out of India and if you’re here, trying to do a t-shirt marketing campaign becomes easier. The low production cost per t-shirt at a given quality helps a lot with the overall customer acquisition cost. A t-shirt that would normally cost you 10-20 USD to make depending on where you are in the US and how you make it, the same quality can be bought for 3-8 USD in India, shipped to your doorstep. Companies like Alma Mater provide a really awesome solution to the t-shirt sourcing problem, you would probably want to check them out.

This is where we get to compare it with a standard PPC campaign. With the right kind of t-shirt marketing, you indulge in a genuine conversation with your users, build significant trust and a repo within a community and at the same time, induce more people to have conversations about your product. Not only is it cheaper to do a t-shirt marketing campaign, but the recurring rewards available here are enormous if you do your giveaways in the right way. Comparing a 12 USD t-shirt that has the potential to drive so much conversion every time it is out there to a 44 USD average conversion cost per lead, the effectiveness is clear.


I am not pitching a t-shirt campaign as a replacement to your Adwords. The outreach of Google is unparalleled. All I am saying is that old ways won’t open new doors. If you’re looking for marketing techniques that can spread better awareness about your product and give it a human touch that websites and videos cannot, this is certainly a direction that you should be looking in.


To sum it all up, t-shirt marketing is awesome. It gives you an outreach to the right people, at the right place and in most cases, at the right time. It strikes conversation and helps immensely with the word of mouth if your users wear it often. But at the same time, you have to keep in mind what your end goal is, and how you’re planning to get there. Good quality, right perspective and an efficient execution are critical to a t-shirt campaign’s success.

We are giving away t-shirts at Appbase.io as well! Here’s what it looks like.


Visit us at appbase.io/tshirt.html to experience the next generation of real-time databases.

[About the author : Parth Trivedi is  Technical Content Curator at Appbase.io]

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