Designing Perfect Event Merchandise: Common Do’s and Don’ts

Custom merchandise, particularly apparel, makes a smart addition to any type of organized event you might host. From corporate expos to retreats, local fundraising events to major conferences, custom t-shirts are a smart move for gatherings of all sizes.

However, too many events, whether hosted by a business, nonprofit, or association, fall short when it comes to their merchandise strategies.

Poor logistical planning and promotional strategies are both common culprits for an underwhelming merch booth or sales totals on the big day of your event. The most common problem, though, is poor design.

As an event planner or team member of an organization that hosts events, you likely agonize over the tools you use, and rightly so. For instance, choosing a new event management software is an important process with a huge impact on your event. But how much thought do you give to designing and offering your custom merchandise for that same event?

Of course, the merchandise you offer isn’t the most important element of your major events, but it’s easy to underestimate all the benefits that it has when incorporated strategically. Custom merchandise like t-shirts, bags, and hats can:

  • Serve as an additional (and cost-effective) source of revenue during each event.
  • Provide serious branding value by promoting your image in a direct way.
  • Deepen your relationships with customers, members, or donors by giving them a way to physically express their support of your work and their own values.

For nonprofits and other organizations that focus on doing good in the world, developing deeper relationships with your community is incredibly important. The only way to ensure your event merchandise is providing this kind of return, however, is to double down and focus on design.

Let’s walk through a few of the most common event merchandise design mistakes that organizations and businesses make on a regular basis and how to avoid them.

Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach

This is the most common design mistake that organizations make when trying to offer merchandise at events. You might carefully plan ahead to order your t-shirts and set up a great display, but attendees won’t take an interest if your shirt’s design is uninteresting to them or irrelevant to the event itself.

Here’s an example: Imagine you’re a nonprofit organization hosting an outreach event to target and attract a younger demographic of supporters. You want to offer merchandise for sale, so you bring along plenty of your classic branded t-shirts. On the big day, you sell only a few of them despite generating strong attendance and engagement. What went wrong?

Simply put, your merchandise didn’t interest your audience at that particular event. A single, relatively plain design is unlikely to attract attention.

Do think carefully about your event and audience

To continue with the example above, millennial donors and attendees are generally big fans of product fundraising, but they also tend to prefer a level of customization, flexibility, and unique design that you might not have offered in the past.

Besides, offering multiple options at your merchandise booth is a smart way to cover your bases at any event anyway. You should offer different t-shirt designs to ensure that anyone who might be interested in making a purchase will find one to suit their preferences. Consider these reliable design variations for making custom merch:

  • A subdued or minimal design featuring only your logo on the front, back, or pocket.
  • A more complex design that includes your name and stylized design elements.
  • A branded design that commemorates the specific event, like a 5k or conference.

Of course, the options you provide should be influenced by the type and tone of your event. A professional business networking event, a loud street festival, and a major protest or march organized by a nonprofit all call for very different styles of t-shirts.

Simply taking the time to think about who your target customer is and why they came to your event will go a long way to help refine your merchandising strategies.

Remember that for many organizations, particularly nonprofits, there’s nothing wrong with asking. Attendee and donor surveys should include a range of questions both specific to your event and their relationship to your work. How old are your attendees and donors? Why do they enjoy your events? What doesn’t interest them about your events? What’s their shirt size?

Use these insights to directly inform the types and style of apparel you offer next time!

The bottom line: Take your audience, their preferences, and their reasons for being at your event into consideration while designing new merchandise to offer.

Don’t over-brand or under-brand your merch items

Many businesses and organizations struggle with this common mistake, too. While much of the long-term value of paying attention to your merchandise strategies comes from the fact that branded designs generate greater brand awareness, there’s a fine balance to be struck.

Let’s say you’re hosting a team-building day or speaker series for a large corporate event. You plan to offer free event t-shirts as well as some additional merchandise for sale to your attendees. How much should you prioritize branding these items with your corporate logo?

For the organization or event planner focused on revamping their merch design strategies, this might be a trickier question than it seems. Consider the challenge at the root of this example:

  • Branded elements are an important source of the long-term value in creating custom merchandise for your events, but heavy-handed branding and excessive design can be a turn-off for many customers or attendees. If they’re unlikely to wear your heavily-branded t-shirt often, it’s not valuable as a promotional tool.
  • Event attendees often prefer minimalist t-shirt designs. Attracting more customers with an attractive yet simple design that doesn’t prominently feature your logo, however, will generate quick cash without the long-term promotional value that a bold and clearly-branded design might.

This is a classic merchandising conundrum that requires careful thought to avoid.

Do strike the right balance of branding and design

To recap, your custom merchandise should accomplish a few tasks:

  • Generate long-term promotional value for your image and brand.
  • Raise money at your events by attracting customers with attractive designs.
  • Appeal directly to your event’s audience and offer a few different design options.

Finding a balance between clear branding and simple design can be tricky, but considering your audience and the specifics of your event can help to guide your merchandise strategy.  

Taking all three of the above goals into consideration, you might solve the problem by offering a clearly branded t-shirt to employees at your retreat for free but also designing a line of ‘limited edition’ shirts, sweatshirts, or hats for sale. They might feature more subdued branding and simpler designs in appealing colors.

Your attendees will be happy to receive a free gift that makes them feel included in the team. Those who like your other design and are motivated to buy it will also be more likely to wear it long after the event ends.

The bottom line: Carefully weigh the importance of clear branding when choosing what merchandise designs to offer at your event. Your strategy should balance the needs of generating both promotional and financial returns.

Don’t make the customer’s decision too difficult

Whenever you offer branded merchandise at your events, don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re typically impulse purchases. It can be easy to unintentionally make the decision to purchase your merchandise more difficult than it needs to be.

High prices, poor selection, and uninspired design all create obstacles in your attendee’s decision-making process. Slowing down this decision by forcing customers to think about price, for instance, quickly kills their motivation to buy a t-shirt.

As an event planner, you know that it’s important to weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks of any decision that can affect how your events are planned, managed, and then experienced by your guests. Just think to the last time you chose new management software or a major vendor.  Your merchandising has the opportunity to enrich your guests’ experience, but only if you weigh your options and make it easier to decide to purchase.

Do promote your merchandise and offer bundles

There are a few strategies for making the decision to purchase your event merchandise easier for your attendees, including:

  • Create an eye-catching design for your event based on its overarching visual theming or branding. Unifying the visual styles of your event and your merch makes the decision to buy fit more naturally into engaging with the event. Branded, event-specific shirts for that year’s conference or expo are a great example.
  • Don’t be afraid to promote your merchandise in your event marketing materials. An image of your most attractive designs will help to generally raise awareness of your merch. Featuring your branded event apparel as a part of your social media promotions of the event is an easy way to do this.
  • Offer ticket and merch bundles to registered guests. Depending on the nature of your event, a physical or digital t-shirt order form might easily be incorporated into the event registration process. Create a limited edition ‘early bird’ design for these registrants!
  • Focus on offering the right number of choices. Offering too few choices at your merchandise booth can result in lower sales, as attendees who aren’t drawn to your one design will reconsider making a purchase. Offering too many choices of different t-shirt designs can overwhelm guests and become a logistical nightmare. Try to offer around two to four different shirt options and several different products.

The bottom line: Creating more coherent designs that fit with your event and promotional bundles that encourage engagement with your merch help to streamline your guests’ decision to make a purchase, resulting in more sales.

Don’t offer an impersonal or unengaging experience

Let’s say your team works around the clock to plan an extremely engaging professional event for your guests. Everything has been streamlined and made smarter, from the registration process to check-in to session scheduling.

You made sure to stock up on your classic branded tees, hats, bags, and water bottles prior to the event, but your final sales numbers are disappointing once everything’s been packed up. How could you have improved these results?

In this example, there’s a disconnect between an extremely personalized and engaging event and a run-of-the-mill merch selection that hadn’t been updated in several years. The solution is to refresh your merchandise design strategies by making it a part of your broader engagement strategies!

Do get your community involved in creating merchandise

Event attendees engage more strongly with elements and programming that are personalized to their preferences. Not keeping your finger on the pulse of your attendees’ preferences is one of the biggest event planning mistakes you can make, so personalization is the perfect strategy to keep in mind when designing new merchandise.

Of course, this doesn’t mean creating a separate t-shirt for every attendee or overwhelming your team with an unreasonable number of designs to order.

Instead, getting your community involved can make your job easier by simplifying the design process and giving you a clearer glimpse into what kind of merch your guests will actually want. Here are some ways you might do it:

  • Conduct a poll in the early stages of your event planning process as to what that year’s theme should be. Create a mockup event logo design for each possible theme and let your members, donors, employees, etc. vote for their favorite. Use this theme to guide the design of new merchandise for the event.
  • Design multiple new t-shirts for your event and let your registered guests rank their favorites! This is a direct way to gauge attendee interest in your merchandise and ensure that guests will engage with your designs.
  • Depending on the type of event you’re hosting, consider allowing attendees to submit their own designs. Your team can either select a winner or allow everyone to choose their favorite with an online vote. This is an excellent strategy for nonprofit fundraising events or corporate retreats.

The bottom line: Incorporate elements of direct engagement into your event merchandise design process. Allowing guests a sense of control and choice goes a long way to make your merch more engaging and appealing.


Custom event merchandise has the ability to generate a lot of value for your organization or business, but only if designed and incorporated into the planning process with these best practices in mind.

By carefully considering your audience and the nature of your event and then striking the perfect balance of branding and design, you can ensure that your branded apparel will catch the attention of guests. Making it easier for guests to choose to buy a shirt, and even giving them a voice in the design process, can go even further in helping your merch designs hit the mark.

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Kevin Penney

Kevin Penney is the CMO and co-founder of Bonfire.com, a company that’s reinventing how people create, sell and purchase custom apparel. He loves solving difficult problems, working with the Bonfire Product team, and hockey. He has over 10 years experience in digital media, design, and technology.

 

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