Marshall Atkinson explains why your shop isn’t unique, and how you can still make your business stand out from its competitors

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I hate to break it to you this way, but your decorated apparel shop isn’t like a unicorn: mystical and unique, the only magical creature in the land. Nope, sadly your shop is just like everyone else’s. Hunkered down, trying to survive, reaching out and searching for business in an ever-changing land of competition.

Sure, your marketing makes it sound like your shop is an amazing unicorn. Unique and singularly the best. Crisply white, proudly racing through a field of flowers, that single horn gleaming bright gold in the afternoon sun. “Discover the treasure of our amazing shirts! It’s a special sale! Wahoo!” What a beautiful and lovely unicorn song we’re proudly singing to a backdrop of rainbows and forest animals.

What your potential customers see is just the opposite though. An ancient, sway-backed horse, a cardboard horn duct taped to its head, standing in a weed-choked field, dropping stinky biscuits that will hopefully fertilise the flowers one day. “Oh, here’s another T-shirt shop e-mail blast with pricing.” Click. Delete. Yawn. There are too many cynics in our audience to be singing an old tired song about unicorns. Your message is getting deleted often before a single word or two is even read.

To truly separate yourself from the rest of the herd, don’t just endlessly push out “Sale, Sale, Sale, Sale”. Instead, try building your marketing campaign around some different archetypes that demonstrate your skill and expertise and hit on your main value proposition (a statement that outlines the benefit that you provide for your customers and how you do it uniquely well.)

Champion your inner wizard

In ancient stories, wizards are the ones that always know everything. Got a problem with a blood red moon and your harvest is dead? Call the wizard. Invading army of orcs on the horizon? Call the wizard. They constantly strive to understand their environment better to gain advantage. In the decorated apparel industry there are so many difficult techniques and unique situations that you could use to your advantage if you demonstrated your mastery of them in your marketing.

For example, instead of promoting a sale like you always do, try showing how you can print on dri-fit performance tees, which are immensely popular but difficult for a wide range of printers to use as they don’t understand the relationship between heat and dye migration.

But you do. You kick ass with this technique every day, as you know ‘the secret’. Other shops’ customers who had problems with their orders – where the white ink turned pink and the shop was clueless as to why this had happened – will understand immediately that you are an ink wizard and come running to you. Price isn’t as big an issue if you can prove you can print the job correctly. It’s a trust thing. After all, the cheaper guy is the one that ruined the shirts the last time.

Level up with better blacksmith’s armour

It’s a craftsmanship challenge. If you work hard to hone your skills as a printer or embroiderer to the point that your shop is known throughout the land as the absolute best, then customers will flock to you as they want that perfection in their orders too. People are tired of muddled, mis-registered prints that look like crap, or images that are not sewn right and look like some sort of bird’s nest. Can you be that shop that everyone points to and, in hushed tones of awe and wonder, says: “How do they do it?”

Your shop wields a mighty hammer and mystical anvil. It’s a finesse thing. Attention to detail. The right tools for the job. Laser focus and intensity in making sure everything is just so. Afterwards when the customer opens their box of goods, angels sing. Perfection. This of course does not work for people who are constantly beating you down on price.…so don’t worry about trying to get them as clients anyway. Find customers that appreciate your skills and will pay for them. Build your marketing campaign on how well you strike the anvil. Demonstrate why you have that legendary status. Charge for it.

Knights lead the quest

How are your shop’s leadership skills? Are you a wallflower, or are you out in front on some sort of quest? If you are, do so in a public manner. Share your story on a blog; take videos or thousands of pictures to document your journey. Your epic quest could be about anything really. It could be a creative quest linked to artwork or a decoration technique. It could be a civic quest where your shop is helping plant a community garden, hire and train inner city youth, or clean up a neighbourhood.

The point is that you are sharing your journey and heroic tale. If your shop has a higher purpose than just cranking out logos on stuff, share that adventure with the world. Describe the successes and failures. Make it relatable and don’t sanitise it. More people will want to join your quest, as they will appreciate the leadership behind your efforts. That’s your call to action!

All hail the oracle

Are you the person that keeps up with the latest trends? Do you follow the fashion and trade shows just to get a heads up on upcoming fashion trends and colours to help your clients? Do you scour the internet constantly looking for something unique that nobody has noticed yet?

If you are known as the go-to person when it comes to discovering the perfect garment or decoration technique, what are you doing about getting that trait circulating? Oracles work best when they share the knowledge, not when they keep things a secret. This is where a shop newsletter, Pinterest boards, blog or a simple ‘Ask the Oracle’ type column on your website could position you as the leading thought person in your local market. Nobody has to sacrifice a goat to ask you a question. Promise. Unless, of course, that’s your preferred form of payment. Baaaaa!

Laughing at the court jester

One way to get a tremendous amount of publicity is to build your shop’s marketing campaign around hilarious blogs, videos or photo set-ups. Warning: this is only for the brave. Of course, that’s what comedy is all about: being brave.

You have to do it right though. I’m sure we’ve all told a joke that wasn’t funny. I know I have – just ask my wife. The risk is the sound of crickets, or worse – people leaving in droves or not understanding your humour. If you have the confidence and a big bag full of hilarious ideas, what are you waiting for? Make a crazy shop video from a dog’s point of view. Film shirts being printed by gorillas. Show how all embroidery is sewn by a platoon of cartoon penguins. The more creative and fun the better. Just make it short. I have the attention span of a five-year-old you know.

The fire-breathing dragon

This is the last metaphor I promise…but it’s the best. Want to be known across the land as the biggest, baddest, ultimate beast to be feared? Do something no-one else will. Of course, you have to figure that part out. What no one else has touched yet, or been able to pull off. Once you do though, take your turn flying around the country laying waste to your competition in spouts of soul-searing flame. I love that image.

So, how do you build the dragon? Inventory your skill set. What can you do well? Then describe your idea for the dragon and how it will be completely different to anything in the market right now. Analyse the competition, your supply chain, what equipment you’ll need, your financial resources, how you’ll handle the marketing… Basically everything you need to get your dragon built, flying and the envy of everyone that may feel the heat. It’s essentially connecting where you are now to what you want to be in the future. A to Z.

Oh wait. That build-a-dragon idea above? That’s essentially just writing a business plan for your company that will allow you to innovate. Sounds more fun if you call it a dragon doesn’t it? If you execute your plan well, you can still lay waste to your competition in spouts of soul-searing flame. At least metaphorically.

Have fun storming the castle!

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.