How we think about merch.
Today’s topic is another request from our year end survey: How do you design better merch?
Merch is a fun subject and something that some breweries completely knock out of the park. And others, well, they try (and in doing so, leave a lot of revenue on the table).
Your merch program can be a highly lucrative revenue stream if done well. So, let’s discuss this today.
I'm not going to into specific fashion trends here because they’ll change over the next year anyway. (Also, I’m wearing jorts as I write this. Literally. Right now. Jorts. My wife is horrified.) I’ll also try to skip the more obvious pointers (e.g. Hoodies sell better in winter than summer—revelatory!).
Instead, I’ll outline some evergreen things we think about when we discuss merch with our clients in the hopes that this helps your team create better stuff moving forward.
Let’s get into it.
Your merch is a direct reflection of your business
I’ve had the same Sam Adams keychain bottle opener for more than 20 years. It has dutifully opened hundreds (thousands?) of beers and every time I bring it out, I smile. (These days, it lives on the top shelf of my tackle box. And if I'm being honest, it's really only still there because my kids like playing with it when we go fishing. Aluminum cans rendered this old friend obsolete a decade ago.)
Now I'm not sure that it's reasonable to ask a t-shirt to last 20 years, but my point here is that you need to invest in high quality merch—quality shirts and hats, quality printing, patches and stitching, quality keychains, etc.
Whatever you decide to offer, make sure it's well made.
This is such an important point, that if you have a choice between offering cheap merch (junky, boxy shirts, poorly made stickers, cheap bottle openers, etc.) and selling no merch at all, you would be better off not creating anything.
Do not sell cheap merch. It is a direct reflection on your brewery itself.
Left Field is Toronto's baseball brewery. That sells their outfit short a bit, but this is what they're known for. And their merch program reinforces this positioning and story with every single piece.
I can't think of a single piece of merch they've ever put out that I wouldn't want to wear. Check out their entire store here.
Your merch can reinforce your positioning and brand story
What is your brewery’s Brand Essence, voice and personality? How are you positioned? What are your values and key messages?
All of these things can be reinforced by your merch. Not just in design, but in the actual artifact itself.
What are your fans into? What activity and/or lifestyle are you centered around? Thinking in these terms can allow you to go esoteric and fun here.
If you’re the fly fishing brewery, then go deep on that: Bandanas. Branded fly boxes. Sunglasses straps. Fanny packs. Branded waders. Or maybe sticker packs geared for specific places like a truck cap or a canoe.
You can do this with any lifestyle or hobby.
You know what your people are into, so have fun on this.
What style of XYZ should you buy?
Trucker hat or flat bill? Dad hat or an unfortunate bucket hat? 7 panel hat or snapback?
How do you stay up to date on the latest fashion trends?
Take it from me—again, jorts—it's not your job to know what type of hat or shirt is trending right now.
To stay up to speed here, I suggest following dozens of breweries you respect on Instagram and watch what they're doing.
Here are a few client shoutouts to get you started:
– Left Field Brewery
– Fertile Ground Beer Co.
And here are a few more groups (non-CODO clients) who produce great merch:
– Halfway Crooks
– Austin Beerworks
– Surly Brewing
– The Veil
I know this probably isn't as insightful as you might of hoped, but it works. You can’t know everything, so why bother? Focus on creating great beer and hospitality experiences for your fans, and let other folks figure out what type of merch does and doesn’t sell.
Then, borrow liberally.
Think beyond your primary logo (give your fans winks & nods)
There’s a place for logo’d merch. A big place. But if all you’re doing is slapping your primary logo on a bunch of shirts and calling it good, you may be missing out on sales to folks who don’t want to be a walking billboard, but would otherwise happily buy and wear a shirt.
This is where your Modular Brand Identity System really shines.
All of your secondary and tertiary marks—your icons, tagline builds and other bugs—are perfect for merch. These are exactly the type of winks and nods you can offer to folks who want to wear something cool and low key.
And beyond this, whenever we sit down to develop a dedicated batch of merch, we lean more into lifestyle and cool illustrations.
Think more band shirt than a corporate offering.
Is this design cool?
Does it relate (even in the slightest) to our brewery's story?
Go. To. Print.
Create merch drops & scarcity
Whenever your brewery orders merch, you’re balancing wanting to order fewer items (in case they don’t sell well) with the fact that you can get a better price by buying more units.
One way to reframe this scenario is to think of your merch along the lines of your brewery's pilot program: Purposely order small batches and promote them as such.
There are several benefits to this approach:
– You can test things out and see what pops. Does a particular shirt color, or style, or design sell out almost instantly? Then you know you might want to order more of that particular item the next time around.
– You’re also not left with hundreds of units sitting there gathering dust if you miss the mark on a particular piece.
– And finally, you’re introducing one of the most powerful nudges in all of advertising and Behavioral Economics theory—limited time only! If your hats are only available for a limited time, then someone might be more inclined to grab one now than if it was a year round staple.
Buy smaller quantities to see what the market likes. Take notes. And refine on your next drop.
Bonus point here: Let’s stay on the pilot batch / limited release beer analogy for a moment.
Is there a way you can create a merch series that will encourage folks to collect? These could be enamel pins, hats, glassware, special prints—anything.
If someone like a particular design, then they may be more inclined to buy the next one, particularly if this is framed as part of a growing (and exclusive) series.
Create a beautiful retail footprint (please exit through the gift shop)
If you want your fans to buy more merch, you should make purchasing said merch as easy and pleasant as possible.
One way of doing this is to create a beautiful retail experience inside your brewery.
I suggest looking for inspiration out in the world here.
Go to a Harley Davidson dealership to see how they merchandise shirts and lifestyle gear. Go to REI to see how they merchandise camping equipment. Or take your Goth son to a Hot Topic and check out how they merchandise chain wallets and eye liner.
Go to any store that has a similar vibe to your brewery (e.g. technical, outdoorsy, warm and inviting) and look at their retail displays. How do they hang shirts? Do they use mannequins? What sort of backdrops do they build? Do they take advantage of vertical space or is everything in bins? What sort of hangtags / retail labels do they use?
Creating a cool, inviting space in your brewery to house your merch can, in and of itself, help to sell more products.
Bonus point here: I’m always surprised when I see a taproom employee not wearing a brewery's shirt.
If you don’t have a uniform policy in place, especially amongst your front of house folks, consider at least asking that they wear one of your shirts during every shift. This will get more eyes on your merch throughout the day and hopefully help to move more products.
(And another piece of low hanging fruit: Put your merch on your taproom menus. If you've got cool stuff to offer, don't be shy about it.)
Should you sell your merch online?
Selling your merch online is a no brainer if you're established enough and have a large enough following to justify the increased overhead (eComm development, inventory management, product photography, fulfillment, etc.).
If you’re just starting out (so breweries in planning, specifically), you can probably find better ways to spend your money than on building a slick online store.
What is a large enough following to justify building an online store?
Great question. And I actually don’t have a clear answer for you.
If you’ve got 25k IG followers maybe? Or 5k newsletter subscribers. Or if you make more than 2500bbl per year, maybe?
Or perhaps you just have big aspirations on this front and want to set yourself up to scale now.
The real question is: Do you feel confident that your merch is strong enough and your brand is compelling enough that people would want to buy your merch from afar?
If so, get after it.
We wrote about breweries leaning into content marketing and email newsletters recently. If you have an engaged newsletter list, then selling your merch online becomes way easier (and measurable).
You still want to over-deliver value on this channel: Give your fans behind the scenes stories, sneak peeks at upcoming releases, etc.
But if your fans trust you, you're allowed to sneak in an ad every now and then. If people love what you’re doing and want to grab a hat, then this can be all the nudge they need.
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