Is t-shirt advertising a sustainable business?
Jason Sadler makes a surprisingly good living wearing other peoples’ t-shirts – $84,000 since launching his one-man ad service last January – but our experts are doubtful he can grow it into a larger, more sustainable model.
A year ago the 27-year-old Jacksonville, Florida entrepreneur launched a website – Iwearyourshirt.com – where he charged people to wear whatever shirt they sent him (read original story here). New Year’s Day was $1 and each successive day Sadler’s fee went up a buck, so this New Year’s Eve he will charge $365. Sadler made $66,795 for advertising on his back alone and another $18,000 in monthly sponsorships, where he charges $1,500 for an ad spot on his online monthly calendar.
“I’ve got companies that need more exposure than I can give in hours I can work in a day,” said Sadler, whose very first advertiser on January 1 was live video streaming website Ustream.tv, the same platform Sadler uses to broadcast his own live one-hour webcast to chat with viewers about the companies and the products displayed on his extra-large sized chest. So far his clients range from obscure bloggers and rock bands, to startups and established companies like Zappos, Prudential and Intuit. Comedian Bill Cosby even used him to try to get more people to sign up to his Facebook page.
“Every day I really try to give as much push and as much value without sales-pitching people,” said Sadler, who initially got the idea after seeing how many promotional t-shirts are discarded and thought he could offer the companies making them more value by actually wearing them around. “The value of doing all this content for $300, even if it only gets a couple hundred views on everything, is still pretty tremendous when you think about the grand scheme of things.”
For 2010, Sadler is doubling his daily prices – so it will cost advertisers $2 this January 1 and $730 on December 31. Monthly sponsorships will jump to $2,500. Sadler also hired a friend in Los Angeles to help tag-team on promotions, so now companies that buy spots will get two guys wearing their shirts and spreading the word virally online.
“If you were going to put an hourly rate on that from an ad agency you’d pay way more,” said Sadler, who will split the revenues 50-50 with his co-worker. In addition, Sadler said he will introduce “proud partnerships,” an initiative whereby he provides a special yearly promotion for a company. He said he has already inked a deal for an undisclosed amount with Tommy John apparel to exclusively wear their underwear throughout next year.
Sadler said the only downside is that he never gets a day off, which has interfered with his social life, in particular on the occasions where he has had to attend a wedding, or a funeral, or just wanted to take his girlfriend out to a nice meal. In order to free up his time, Sadler needs to spread the word on his unique business model and create more demand from advertisers for his shirt-wearing services. Then he could hire more people and maybe get a day off here and there.
“Everyone wants to get to their millions – I know I do,” said Sadler. “If I can do it through wearing shirts and other kinds of fun engagements, I’m extremely happy.”
TAKING IT TO THE EXPERTS
Mary van de Wiel, a branding expert and the founder and CEO of Zing Your Brand consultancy firm, was very impressed by Sadler’s entrepreneurial moxy and the simplicity of his service to advertisers.
“The whole online direct marketing business model is all about getting to know, like and trust people and just by looking at him with his big smile and goofy face you immediately feel you can trust him,” said van de Wiel, who called Sadler a “brand unusual,” referring to his ability to mold his business around his unique personality, but still offer value to clients.
“He’s actually doing something that’s win-win: he’s making a living and all the people who are getting their ads up there are getting a big benefit for a very reasonable amount, so he understands the power of leverage,” said Van de Wiel, who felt Sadler is on the cutting edge of a new kind of guerrilla marketing. “He’s like a pied piper leading the way in a different way of doing business. I get pretty excited about this, because I’m always challenging people to get out of their comfort zone, stake out their territory and live out loud.”
While she didn’t feel Sadler needed any help in getting publicity, Van de Wiel suggested he expand his marketing push beyond t-shirts to include caps, pants and other apparel. “For the average Joe Blow they just buy a day on the calendar, but if you want to get huge exposure you pay more and he actually comes in and he wears your whole wardrobe.”
Josh Hallett, a social-media expert and New Media Strategist at Voce Communications, said Sadler had “a unique and compelling story,” but was less enthusiastic about Sadler’s long-term prospects and didn’t feel he offered enough to entice major brands to advertise with him.
“It’s a niche thing that’s interesting to play around with, but I don’t know how many large brand managers are going to say I’ve got to make something like this part of my campaign for 2010,” confessed Hallett, who said Sadler would likely get more traction with businesses whose “Twitter following, Facebook fans or blog stats are relatively low compared to his daily traffic.”
Hallett said Sadler should do more in terms of educating his clients about how they can “activate” their sponsorship and realize a greater audience with the campaign. “It’s sort of a double punch where he is marketing or promoting a brand and the brand itself is then promoting whatever he’s doing to get a little bit of a larger audience,” said Hallett.
Hallett was concerned that by expanding the business and hiring others to wear the t-shirts, Sadler would lose that specialness that comes from his own personality. “As you get more people doing these shirts in different regions it almost becomes like a billboard company,” said Hallett, adding: “Do you reach that saturation point where doing longer Web shows or doing more Web shows during the day, do you begin to lose your audience, or fragment your audience?”
Advertising specialist Rob Gorrie, who runs his own digital ad agency Adcentricity, was also skeptical and referred to Sadler’s business as a “one-trick pony.”
“It could be seen as a little bit gimmicky and if it gets a little bit tired marketers may tire of the concept and move on in a couple of years,” said Gorrie, who compared Sadler’s efforts to those of a of a guy in the U.K. who embedded LCD screens in his jacket armpits.
Gorrie said that while these types of entrepreneurs can make a good living doing this, their businesses tend to evolve into more traditional, or run-of-the-mill type marketing companies, like the ones that employ street teams to run marketing blitzes.
Gorrie said it’s very difficult to maintain the interest of online viewers and that Sadler will have to keep innovating to make sure his business keeps its unique appeal.
“If you’re going to build a company around it, you definitely have to watch out for the risks that it will tire as a tactic,” said Gorrie, “and in that light you’re going to have to continue to innovate and come up with new concepts to be able to take to advertisers to keep their interest and to keep the consumer’s interest.”