This time it’s hyper-personal. Get ready to take customisation to the next level with Marshall Atkinson

Hyper-personalisation. What the heck is that? As apparel decorators, you are used to decorating shirts with quantity. That’s the established norm. Shops everywhere shy away from doing anything that doesn’t ‘feed the beast’ and keep those presses humming! But something interesting is happening with the notion of marrying technology and our industry that may just have some profitable legs.

Here’s something I want you to consider. Today is the slowest day for the world for technological change. Smart people everywhere are inventing new ways of working, printing, communicating, and processing information. Tomorrow will be faster than today. The next day will have better tools for us to use.

In this article, I’ll be connecting some things that I see today with some possibilities for the future. Will I get it right? Who the heck knows? But I’m willing to think about it and write down some thoughts.

What is hyper-personalisation?

Simple. This is a personalising the garment to a unique individual. Very small decoration runs. Usually just one piece, but the print edition can be more if there is a unique something about it that is made to be for someone with a specific change to the garment.

Hyper-personalisation: The present

Our industry personalises garments in a multitude of ways. We heat-press names on the back of football shirts or embroider ‘Larry’ on the right chest of some mechanic’s work shirt. Those standards have been around for a long time. You may even produce those types of orders in your shop. These are personalised and decorated garments intended for one person. Eleven-year old Mary on the football team, or Larry who is going to fix your brakes. But you can also send in a picture of your dog or cat and this can be reprinted on a custom pair of socks or reimagined as a renaissance noble in a fake oil painting.

Our industry is also moving very quickly into the print-on-demand space to support the online stores’ gold rush. Previously, retail would print thousands of garments and hold them in a warehouse for distribution. Now, all of that is outsourced and the shirt is printed on the day or just after the order is placed by a third party vendor. Everything is moving to the sales unit of one. Companies like Inkthreadable and Teemill are springing up to help people with their online stores.

Hyper-personalisation: The future

There are few things that I think are going to start creeping into our industry and it is going to be exciting to see. The technology either exists right now or is being developed to make these possibilities a reality.

The power of variable data

Let’s take the recent Bernie Sanders meme as an example. If you didn’t keep up with this pop culture trend, Senator Bernie Sanders attended US President Joe Biden’s inaugural event dressed in his ‘Vermont best’ and sat patiently waiting for the hoopla to commence. His pose, mask on, legs crossed, huge handmade mittens in the foreground, went viral. As a result, people everywhere jumped on the trend and spliced Bernie into all sorts of crazy photos and events.

For example, I made a pic in a few minutes where I layered him into the chest-bursting scene from one of my favourite movies, ‘Alien’. And look at the image, where Bernie has been added to a screen print shop scene. People understand this idea.

Now, imagine that instead of Bernie and the screen printer, the variable data is a high school leaver’s photo that will be inserted into an existing graphic design template. The school leavers shirt gets an update. 

Bernie Sanders patiently watching a screen printer at work

They all look the same, as it is based on the same master graphic, but it is hyper-personalised to that individual graduating student. For commercial use, this has to be automated to work and mastering the workflow funnel is the tricky part. The final result: An online store sells the shirts, pulls in the data, and pushes it out to be printed at 400+ shirts an hour speed on a school-colour tee. The beauty of this is that the shirt can retail for more money as it has customised value. Hyper-personalisation adds pounds to the sale. Now, imagine that same scenario for fans of a rock band, professional sports teams, fundraising, popular memes just like the one with Bernie Sanders, event swag, a clothing brand, a tourist attraction or a theme park.

Hyper-personalisation doesn’t have to be images

It could be sponsor logos for an event T-shirt. Imagine there is an event where you gain access to different classes or networking opportunities. At commercial print speeds, the event goer’s shirt is hyper-personalised and printed with a one-off design change that adds their name, company logo and some fun icons that allow them entry into the different segments for the event. They get a branded souvenir and don’t have to wear the clunky name badge with the lanyard.

Or maybe the order is for a local 5k run. Usually, everyone gets a commemorative run shirt that they immediately pin the race number sheet onto in order to help them track their time for the event. What if every runner had a hyper-personalised race shirt with their race number already printed on the shirt, and maybe something on the shirt recognising their status as having run that race in previous years? The beauty of hyper-personalisation is going to be linking the data somehow with what is going on in the garment decoration.

Hyper-personalisation is scarcity

People will pay more for things if quantities are limited. Look at the success of Supreme or Johnny Cupcakes. In retail, smaller print editions for a design increases the demand and value to the consumer that is a fan of the brand. With today’s digital print technology, the art can easily contain individual art watermarks or even simple ‘Print 23/300’ tags below the image to safeguard the value of the garment. The limited edition aura creates the
higher value to the consumer.

Hyper-personalisation is a collaboration-driven experience

Imagine the power of marrying a brand with an idea, image, or verbiage from a consumer to an actual product. We’re seeing that now with brands such as YR Stores that have interactive kiosks at stores, events, and trade shows. They aren’t selling the printed product, they are selling the experience of hyper-personalisation.

YR Store is selling an experience, not a product

The live design experience drives its success

You may remember YR co-founder Tim Williams’s presentation from the first ThreadX in Palm Springs, California a few years ago. He spoke about using the hyper-personalisation idea with a pop-up store and selling digitally printed shirts for about $120. He is using the same DTG printer that you probably have in your shop. It isn’t the ink on the T-shirt that the consumers are buying. It is hyper-personalisation and a better experience.

YR has evolved and has been doing this with some of the biggest brands in the world, such as Nike, Adidas, Kiehl’s, Google, Star Wars, Oreo, and Levi’s, to name but a few. The live design experience drives its success. The backend production uses the same tools you have in your shop. Dye-sublimation printers, DTG printers, and embroidery machines.

Hyper-personalisation is for your customers

Think about your customers for a moment. How could you use this idea to deliver something new and exciting for them? Can you imagine the excitement and power they will feel when they get to control what goes on the shirt? What if you could deliver that experience? Many of the ideas in this article are already in existence. Someone else could be slowly marching towards gathering your customer segment into this new hyper-personalisation idea. It’s time to start researching and brainstorming.

Marshall Atkinson

Marshall Atkinson is a production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting and co-founder of Shirt Lab, a sales and marketing education company, with Tom Rauen. He focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability.