Marketing & Sponsorships

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Cancelled or Postponed Events? Market the Merch Anyway

14 Apr, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Cancelled and postponed events are bad enough but what do you do with boxes of T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia?

If you’re smart, you ramp up your marketing and use them to make money, regardless. Some event operators are capitalizing on a revenue stream in the COVID-19 climate and keeping their brand strong at the same time. You can do it too.

Quarantine, notes Promo Marketing Magazine, “has forced both events companies and promo businesses to be innovative, adaptive and nimble in ways they haven’t ever had to be before. The ones who can work remotely with little interruption are lucky, but there are still financial ripples through just about every sector. For in-person events, and the promotional products distributors who count them as vital clients, it’s not so easy. But it also hasn’t been impossible.”

Obviously, nobody can make events happen as scheduled, but those who make those events part of their lives can do the next best thing: buy merchandise as if we were there.

Technology has enabled many events to move online, offering virtual events, from bike races to marathons to 5Ks. And that has also allowed promotional products companies to fill event owners’ needs – albeit differently.

“What we are working with them on is creating a gift to send to these thousands of people around the world, to make them feel they were a part of the experience,” John Alagem, president of Harper+Scott, told Fortune. “That has been a positive.”

The NCAA’s March Madness, one of the earliest and largest victims of the virus in the U.S., might well be called Merch Madness at this point. Fanatics has been selling towels, flags, koozies, credential holders (for what?) and key chains, as well as other branded items, at a greatly reduced price.

The Kentucky Derby was supposed to run on May 2 but was postponed until September. Race officials rolled out a merchandise store on April 15 that includes more than 300 Derby items printed with the original May 2 date. The Kentucky Derby Museum will also donate 20 percent of the sales proceeds to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s TEAM KY and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s One Louisville: COVID-19 Response Fund.

According to Horse Racing Nation, merchandise includes apparel (T-shirts, polos, fleece, vests); caps; accessories (bags, socks, charms); glass and barware; home décor (posters, banners); party supplies; and collectibles (lapel pins, official derby glasses, logo pins, magnets and key rings). This sale also includes Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby glasses which typically are not in wide distribution at this time. 

“Due to its wide availability, the official glass has always been popular with collectors,” said Chris Goodlett, Director of Curatorial and Educational Affairs. “Consequently, limited production runs or mistakes can make these highly sought after at auctions and other places of public sale. Of course, 2020 has presented a unique situation. With the Kentucky Derby being postponed, these Kentucky Derby 146 glasses were produced with the original date, May 2. Will the date change increase the value to collectors?”

Only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: transforming lemons into lemonade is going to be the hallmark of the race – for now. It is also possible to make a charity investment.

“This moment in time represents a historically significant point in our lives,” said Patrick Armstrong, CEO Kentucky Derby Museum. “So how can we take this merchandise and turn it into a win-win for our community and the museum? We know first-hand how this crisis has impacted the heart and soul of this community and our state. Therefore, we made the decision to help by donating 20 percent of sales proceeds of the Kentucky Derby May 2 merchandise. The balance of the proceeds will help fund the Museum’s mission to educate Kentucky’s students about the importance of the Kentucky Derby – to our culture, community, and economy. We are in this together.” 

The Preakness – the second leg of the Triple Crown – has not released any information on a new date, nor on merch sales but is selling 2019 items at discounted pricing. (Pimlico Race Course, site of the Preakness, is currently being used as a drive-in testing center for COVID-19).

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo may have been postponed to 2021 but they’ll still be known as the 2020 Olympics. That’s a good thing, since the branded merchandise, already on sale, will not have to be changed. It’s easy, though, to imagine some enterprising designer coming up with a logo showing a crossed-out and corrected date.

It’s not just sports either. When South by Southwest (SXSW) cancelled for the year, it also put its merchandise up for sale and ramped up its social media campaign to publicize it.

For now, innovation is the most important ingredient in surviving COVID-19 with a brand intact.

Timothy M. Andrews, president and chief executive officer of the Advertising Specialty Institute, tells Fortune that some companies are finding innovative ways to still generate business.

“The promo industry is nothing if not creative,” he says. "One member suggests sending registered participants at a canceled event branded tissues with messaging suggesting it ‘blows’ that the event was canceled."

For some events that are smaller-profile than something like SXSW, Promo Marketing Magazine notes, but still a big-time revenue stream for promotional products businesses, many suppliers are offering discounted or free drop shipping: Let’s say a conference or education event (or perhaps in the case of this industry, a sports event) opts to go online, offering virtual participation. Had the event taken place in person, each attendee would’ve received a branded notepad, pen and backpack, or perhaps a T-shirt, hat and a golf towel. Rather than canceling or postponing these orders, customers can have them drop shipped to attendees’ homes, maintaining brand visibility for the customer. It’s not ideal, but ultimately it accomplishes the same goal set in the first place: keeping the brand in front of people after the event is over. A growing number of promotional suppliers have waived or reduced drop shipping fees, making it much easier for distributors to get products in end users' hands.

Other merchandise companies have delved into the student athlete market by creating promotions for high school seniors losing their winter/spring seasons because of COVID-19 quarantine measures. A recent effort came from Trailhead Designs, a screen printing and signs business in Damascus, Virginia. The company printed banners featuring local high school athletes whose senior seasons were lost due to school closures. The town hung the banners on its main street, winning widespread praise and boosting students’ spirits. Other merchandise companies have also been able to tap into the market of student athletes.

And it can help get over disappointment, Promo Marketing notes: “Penn State fans who have endured countless seasons of mediocre Big 10 basketball without so much a glimmer of tournament hope can fondly remember this overachieving season with official March Madness merchandise. Fanatics is selling Final Four Atlanta 2020 products like towels, can coolers, lanyards, ID holders, flags, stickers, keychains and more. Imagine strutting around State College with one of these bad boys, proudly telling everyone you know about how Penn State totally would have made a deep run all the way to the second round before losing by 20 to Marquette. What incredible times for Nittany Lions basketball. It’s really a bummer that these events were disrupted, not just for the people going, Penn State basketball fans enjoying what is surely a fluke, and sports fans from all over. But it’s great that these companies are still issuing merchandise as fun collectors’ items. In the case of the Derby, the proceeds go to a good cause.”

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