A fan is worth a thousand followers.
A fan shows up to support you, sings your praises to their friends, and brings consistent enthusiasm to your audience.
Anyone blessed with even a small army of these fans—from creators to businesses to media companies—has probably considered making and selling merch.
T-shirts, plush toys, phone cases, backpacks. There’s no shortage of opportunities to make merch that makes your brand a part of people’s lives, creates a new revenue stream, and turns your fans into ambassadors.
But where do you begin and how do you make the investment in merch worth your while?
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Beyond revenue: the true value of merch for brands, YouTubers, and creators of all kinds
Zack Honarvar is the cofounder of Fan of a Fan: a company that develops merch strategies for creators and brands, from rising star YouTubers like Yes Theory to direct-to-consumer companies like Olipop.
For Zack, merch is about more than just creating a new revenue stream. It can create opportunities to:
- Identify your true fans and build more meaningful relationships with them through physical products
- Delight (and grow) your audience with free giveaways
- Partner with other creators and brands for product drops
- Encourage fans to create content as they share photos and videos of your merch with their own followers
- Generate free word-of-mouth advertising as fans discuss your products with others they meet
But above all, and when done right, merch helps fans feel connected to what your brand embodies and to others in your community.
Fans of Yes Theory have shared stories about wearing the creators’ Seek Discomfort merch for their first day at a new job (under their suit), even for the birth of their first child, because of the optimism and personal growth the brand represents.
“One of our fans wrote to us about how their flight got canceled and the next flight was hours and hours away,” Zack says. “They saw someone at the gate wearing a Seek Discomfort hoodie. They ended up becoming really good friends with that person through those several hours that they were stranded at the airport together, just strictly over the fact that they were mutual fans of the channel.”
While diehard fans might get their wallets out for a t-shirt with your logo on it, Zack says the most meaningful merch has the potential to transcend your fanbase and resonate with new audiences.
Coming up with a merch strategy that works for you
Merch is as versatile as you want it to be. It can be a source of sustained revenue through your own merch store, the catalyst for a collaboration with other brands, or a free gift you offer loyal customers.
One of biggest decisions you’ll make with your merch strategy is whether to sell under your existing brand or launch it under a sub-brand.
Selling merch under a sub-brand
In some cases, it may make sense to create a spinoff brand for your merch, such as Yes Theory’s Seek Discomfort.
“The advantage of this approach is that it can grow an audience beyond your existing content and products,” says Zack. “Sales might be slow at the start, but by building a sub-brand you’re giving it a longer tail of success because it’s drawing a clear line between your products and your creator brand.”
This approach opened up Seek Discomfort to pursue collaborations with brands like Bose, Lululemon, and Timbuk2 backpacks—opportunities that Zack thinks might not have been possible had the brand just been portrayed as “Yes Theory merch”.
Selling merch under your existing brand
In the case of Atticus the poet, another client of Zack’s, it made sense strategically to leverage the name he made as a writer with an ecommerce website where fans can find his books, t-shirts, temporary tattoos, and even a link to his own brand of wine.
“Atticus has a clothing line that’s a little bit more merch-based,” Zack says. “But then he also has a line that he sells in-store and online called Poet Wine. And that’s something outside of his ‘Atticus’ brand. You can pick and choose what you do and how you do it, so some things you might start as separate businesses under sub-brands, and some things you might sell more to the direct fan base and audience.”
The merch is integrated into the content shared on Atticus’s Instagram account, where the bulk of his followers are, with products tagged to make the content shoppable.
Whatever approach you decide to take, making great merch ultimately comes down to one thing:
Create a product that you’re proud of, that you want to stand behind, and that you hopefully also want to use or wear.
How to create must-buy merch
Creating merch can be as simple as putting your signature logo on a t-shirt or hat. But there’s a process you can follow to produce fresh merch concepts that resonate with your fans and even new audiences:
- Brainstorm and validate product ideas
- Design and mockup your products
- Choose a print on demand partner or find a manufacturer
Let’s use our own brand, Shopify, as an example to show you how to go from idea to prototype.
If you don’t know, Shopify is a platform that powers the businesses of over a million entrepreneurs, giving them all the tools they need to start and grow their own independent brand.
Shopify’s brand is about independence, resilience, creativity, and, of course, getting down to business. Using that as a starting place we can begin the merch-making process.
1. Brainstorm and validate product ideas
Over the years, your brand has built a relationship with your audience that includes symbols, feelings, running jokes, and quotes that might make for good merch ideas.
Even better, why not ask your audience about what they’d actually buy?
“We always recommend that the creator or the brand ask their audience what they want, or even let them decide between several options. You can ask through IG stories or email or communities, or even texting. ‘Would you prefer a hat, a board game, a t-shirt, or a hoodie?’” Zack says brands can often find themselves in their own bubble. “They live in LA and don’t realize that most of the time in other cities and places in the country it gets cold in the winter. They probably wouldn’t think about selling fuzzy sweatpants.”
Polling your audience for feedback has the added benefit of making them feel like they’re a part of the process and the products you eventually create.
So, we did this with our own audience on Twitter to see what they’d want to see in potential Shopify merch.
Based on the feedback we received, a few of us at Shopify got together to think up and prototype some merch ideas:
- Shopify bag logo t-shirt/crewneck/hoodie. The Shopify bag is our iconic logomark and an obvious design to serve up for fans.
- Minding My Business dad hat. A cheeky play on words about how entrepreneurs are often heads down working on their own businesses. Putting this slogan on a hat seemed to fit.
- Cha-Ching hoodie. “Cha-ching” is the sound Shopify makes when you get a new sale. What would that look like as a design on a hoodie?
- Independent crewneck. Independence defines many of the people who use Shopify to power their business. It’s a powerful word that connects with our brand.
- Shop Small, Thing Big tote bag. The perfect tote bag to take with you while you’re shopping at the independent businesses in your community.
- “Ask Me About My Business” t-shirt. A simple way for independent business owners to share their identity with others.
- Shoppy hoodie. Shoppy is the unofficial Shopify mascot that was created during one of our company Hack Days event many years ago.
2. Design and mock up your products
While most merch companies offer design services, Zack recommends taking on the design yourself, if you can.
“You’re probably better off sourcing your own designs, because you’ll understand your brand far better than someone who is just learning about your brand for the first time in the last week or two, and is going to come up with a design for you.”
You can hire a merch designer on Upwork or tap your network for a designer, but keep the following tips in mind:
- Provide context. Tell them what kinds of products the design will be for, who your audience is, and share any brand guidelines you have.
- Clearly explain what you want. Over-communicate what you’re looking for and be sure to use subsequent revisions (you should get at least one or two) to improve the design, providing concrete feedback every step of the way.
- Create a mood board. Curate inspiration, examples, and references to help the designer know where to start.
Many print-on-demand companies have mockup generators you can use to create your products. Placeit also allows you to create lifestyle mockups of your designs that you can then share with your audience for feedback.
Just like asking your audience for product ideas, you can also get design feedback the same way to not only make your audience feel involved but to make sure you’re going in the right direction.
3. Choose a print on demand partner or find a manufacturer
Once you’ve gotten feedback on your product mockups, you can start thinking about how you’re actually going to make your merch.
There are two common options:
- Print on demand. You can automate production, shipping, and fulfillment with a print-on-demand partner. This is low-cost, low-risk, and easier to set up and manage. The tradeoff is that your products and customization options are limited depending on the service you choose.
- Manufacture from scratch. You can find a manufacturer for the specific product you want to make, get it produced, and hold your own inventory to sell (or work with a third party for shipping and fulfillment). Naturally, you’ll have more options and flexibility to create the exact product you envision, but it will be a bit more capital intensive.
Let’s dive into each approach in detail.
Using a print-on-demand service
If you choose to go the print-on-demand route, Shopify integrates with several popular print-on-demand services.
Most of these services are free to start on (you only pay for the products when a customer orders). Each one contains its own catalog of products, but you can generally find t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants, phone cases, and the staple apparel items and accessories across the board.
For our products, we used Printful and ordered some samples to test it out. Even if you don’t want to go the print-on-demand route long-term, it’s a great way to prototype merch, try out a merch store, or power a giveaway.
Always order samples for quality assurance before you start selling. Colors might look one way on your computer screen, but show up differently in person. You can reach out to your print-on-demand service’s customer support if you’re ever unsure.
Finding a manufacturer to partner with
Alternatively, you can also find a manufacturer to partner with to create your products.
Compared to print on demand, you can think further outside of the box as to how you want to design your products. You can make uniquely designed hoodies or even your own board game.
There are many companies like Fan of a Fan that make merch for creators and brands, and it’s a good idea to shop around before picking a partner to work with.
Here are some of the things to keep in mind before signing a contract with anyone:
- Ownership of intellectual property. Who owns your brand’s IP, the designs on the clothing, and anything new that gets created as a part of this partnership? You’ll want to make sure that you retain the rights in case you part ways with the partner.
- Compensation structure. Is it a fixed cost or is it variable based on profit revenue share? Revenue share models are the most common when working with merchandising companies and can be anywhere from 15% to 50% of your revenue.
- Commitment. Zack suggests that you never sign anything long-term with one partner. Come up with a trial period (e.g. three months or one product drop) and use that to determine if this partner attends to deadlines, produces quality products, responds to emails in a timely manner, and is all-around reliable. After this trial, you can evaluate whether to continue working with them.
- Hidden costs. From beginning to end of a product launch, go through any hidden costs that may come up, from warehousing costs, picking and packing fees, shipping fees, design fees, website management fees, and customer service fees. You don’t want to sign a rev share agreement and then have all these surprise costs sneak up on you.
How to sell your merch
Marketing merch is a little different than marketing a traditional product—mostly in that you’re selling to existing fans first and new customers second. That also means you have a guaranteed audience of potential customers.
Here are just some of the marketing opportunities you can consider for selling your merch.
1. Word of mouth
Great merch is its own marketing. If a fan buys your product and wears it often, chances are people will ask them about it.
But it has to be a high-quality product. “If you’re selling merchandise, that’s real-estate that you now have on your fans, who are walking around and promoting your brand,” Zack says. “But if you create something low quality, then they’re only going to wear it once or twice.”
The more someone wears your merch or pulls out your product to show others how amazing it is, the more exposure you get. So make merch worth showing off to generate more word-of-mouth buzz.
2. Integrate your products into your content
The content you create is another natural place to plug your merch. Whether that means wearing your merch in your videos, promoting it directly in social media posts, or building it into the creative concept of your next piece of content (such as a contest prize).
If you build your merch store on Shopify, you can sell your products more easily in your content by integrating your store wherever your audience lives. Here are some of the channels you can explore and approaches you can take:
- Instagram: Tag your merch in your posts and stories and curate your own Instagram Shop on your profile.
- YouTube: Share links to your products in your video description or cards, with a call-to-action at the end of your video itself.
- TikTok: Partner with other TIkTok creators to get them to create content with your merch.
- Buy button: If you have a separate website or blog outside of your merch store, you can embed your products or collections there as well.
The best way to go about connecting your merch to your content is up to you—you know your audience best, after all. For Seek Discomfort, that meant hosting a fashion show in their backyard.
3. Remarketing to your existing audience
What about spending money to promote your merch through ads? In other contexts, you may want to run prospecting ads—fishing for new audiences to purchase your products—but with merch, retargeting is your friend.
Retargeting lets you promote ads to your existing audience based on specific criteria, such as whether they follow you on Instagram or have already made a purchase. Many ad platforms (Google, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat) allow you to run retargeting ads, as long as you have their advertising pixel installed on your website or customer emails you can upload to build an audience of fans to retarget.
“That’s where you’re going to have really high engagement and ROI,” says Zack. “Whereas with prospecting, most of the time people aren’t going to buy merchandise from someone they’ve never heard of before. So that’s where the bulk of your energy from paid media spend should go.”
Needless to say, if you’ve been building your email list, that’s definitely a channel you’ll want to use to promote your merch.
4. Run a presale
Nothing builds hype for a new product quite like a presale campaign. A presale is when you give your audience the opportunity to purchase your product before it’s available so they can be the first to get it when it drops.
The advantage? You can gauge demand before investing in stock and even create a sense of scarcity or urgency to encourage fans to get in early.
“Yes Theory has done this a lot, especially earlier on when they first started,” Zack says. “We would create a couple items of clothing that were our samples. We would do photo shoots in them and hold no inventory. Then we would put the site up for 72 hours, sell for 72 hours, and shut the site down. From there we would start communicating through email with our audience, so that they knew where we were in the production process.”
Make merch your fans will rave about
There are many reasons to get into the merch game beyond the additional revenue stream it can create. Merch connects your fans to your brand, gives them a chance to show off their enthusiasm for you, and makes them feel like a part of something bigger.
It’s a business idea where you can apply your creativity in fresh ways beyond the content or products that brought your fans to you in the first place.
Illustration by Eugenia Mello