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Promotional Headwear

By Joshua Rhett Miller

It's undeniable that headwear gets the message across when it comes to promotional products. Just about everyone has at least a hat or two, and their message always reaches the recipient at eye-level. They're low cost, high visibility and hide messy Mondays! What more could you ask for?

Whether you're walking down a busy street or clinching a subway rail, chances are you'll see hats of every color, shape, size and texture covering almost half the hurrying heads. Hats have become a T-shirt of sort - just about everyone has a few packed away in closets, stuffed into beach bags, or thrown into backseats, just in a case a "bad hair day" suddenly pops up or the cap happens to make your outfit complete.

In the promotional products industry, headwear is just as indispensable. Your potential clients - just like every other avid sports fan - needs a new NASCAR, NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, or WWF cap to show their allegiance. Or, if that won't fit the bill, a company-emblazoned visor, bucket hat, safari hat or headband should do the trick. Whatever your choice, hats are clearly part of today's fashion scene and shouldn't be ignored when brainstorming your next promotional program.

So Many Caps, So Little Time
We all know about baseball-style caps. They make up about 90% of the headwear industry. They're everywhere in every size, shape and color.

Now it's time for something completely different, from the surging visor to the slumping bucket hat - and a lot more. Many other less-traditional styles, ranging from sombreros to fezzes, were considered, but we decided to stay away from novelty hats for the most part, since their promotional applications tend to be somewhat limited. Instead, we've focused on the pillars of non-baseball-style caps: buckets, visors, knits, safaris and other such haute headwear.

So if your company decides to be a mad hatter but wants something a bit more unique than the standard baseball-style, where do you go? According to Steve Susa of Paramount Headwear, the answer is a no-brainer:

"What we've seen in terms of trends in the last year has been a double in visor business," he says. "At one time, the only people wearing visors were guys playing golf. Now it's become much more of a younger fashion item. I always laugh when I see a school bus go by and see all the kids with visors turned upside down and backwards. You know it's a fashion trend when visors are on every school bus in America."

Visors Are Huge Right Now
promotional visor, headwearA large part of the visor's recent success is its versatility. "Visors simply appeal to almost everyone," continues Susa. "They're actually more of a women's item, almost 70% of the visors we sell are going to women." But visors are a good fit for just about any promotion, because no longer are they simply a piece of foam or plastic that looks only slightly better than it feels.

"I'd say visors are a great idea for a promotion because today's visors are much more hip and athletic than versions in the past," notes Susa. "You know, you used to see most visors worn on the beach by older consumers, but now companies like us are putting a much greater emphasis on cooler, more stylish visors. It's opened up a whole new market. I wear a visor now in the summer, but years ago I would've never considered it because the shape, the material and the look were simply unappealing."

Others agree: "Visors are huge right now," says Kevin Adams, vice president of Adams Headwear. "It's not just 16-year-old kids wearing them anymore; they've become popular across our marketplace. Bucket hats have seen their peak, in my opinion, with regards to sales. Visors have taken over that spot."

Earth Tones And RWB
Even the slickest hat can crash and burn at the point of sale if its color, material and imprint aren't carefully selected and refined. And with thousands of dollars at stake in just about every large-scale deal, anything short of meticulous care and a flare for guessing "what's next" will usually land your next promotion on it's head.

First, consider color. Warning: If you've even thought of bringing back those once-snazzy neon shades, you may want to reconsider.

"The basic colors like white and navy are still the best color combination because they're especially denim-friendly and khaki-friendly," says Susa. "But there are no neon colors happening right now, that's for sure. Basically, khaki, stone, white, navy, and black are selling nowadays."

Just like every other industry, the tragedies of September 11 affected headwear as well. Buttons, pins, bumper stickers, car decals and such aren't the only products proudly displaying red, white, and blue.

"The color combination that's hot right now is certainly red, white, and blue, for obvious reasons," Adams says. "Anything with those colors or anything with a flag on it is selling very well right now. Aside from that, a popular color over the last few months - and going forward - is stone. It's nothing too exciting, but it's definitely passing khaki in terms of sales."

With so much similarity in color selection amongst headwear, Johnny Ko, president of Ko Sportswear says the shade of your hat can be the best way to get a heads up on the competition.

"I've noticed that most companies carry basically the same styles, so everyone is copying everyone," notes Ko. "So now, some companies within the industry are using color to set themselves apart and say, 'I have this color, you don't.' For example, companies are using pastels to differentiate themselves from the usually strong colors like red, black and royal blue."

Whichever color you choose, definitely give the basic shades a good look before trying to wow your clients with periwinkle, crimson, or nutmeg.

"When we're selling ad specialties, most people go with black, navy, green - things men and women would be interested in wearing," said Steve Angeline, general manager of Pacific View International. "When you get into lighter colors, customers tend to shy away because men aren't as likely to wear that. So basic is definitely better."

Another industry veteran agrees: "As far as color goes, it's still navy, khaki and white," says Cindy Ward of Cap America. "They're the top sellers right now. There aren't any ground-breaking shades going on right now, it's more of a back-to-the-basics revival."

A Material World
Next, think about what material you'll use. Typically, the softer the material (especially cotton and cotton twills) the better. But sometimes an unusual fabric will work just as well - maybe even better, says Susa. "Believe it or not, knit visors are extremely hot right now. It's the use of fabrics that make certain items work, not just the style itself."

Fabric options essentially fall into three categories: pure cotton, cotton blends and nylon & synthetics. Within pure cotton, chino twill, distressed twill, denim and relaxed twill are top sellers. In cotton blends, twill is the top choice (65% poly/35% cotton), trailed by poplin, which has the same make-up as twill but is much more breathable. And as far as synthetics go, polyester and nylon dominate the non-cotton arena.

Maximize The Message
Finally, think about the reason you probably considered headwear in the first place: imprint capabilities. Just a few years ago, your message or logo was limited to the crown and maybe the back, just above the closure. But what a difference a few years make.

"When I started years ago, embroidery and imprints were only on the front of the cap, that was it," says Ward. "Now we're putting imprints on the front of the cap, the bill, both sides of the cap, across the back seam, everywhere. It's not just the basic front-panel anymore, it's all over the hat."

Since the first objective in any promotional product is to get your message out, the advancements made by hat manufacturers with regards to imprints have been both remarkable and lucrative.

"We're putting designs on hats now with stitch counts of 17,000-20,000," says Mark Blutstein, vice president at Reliable of Mil-waukee. "Three years ago, the average stitch count for a hat was around 7,000. Even designs on the front of a cap have increased to 9,000-10,000 stitch counts. So the trend we're seeing is that people really want a highly-decorated hat. It used to be just NASCAR-related items, but now we're seeing virtually all corporations want detailed headwear."

With the increased stitch count, Blutstein explains, the opportunity for additional corporate tie-ins grows dramatically. Blutstein says his clients are becoming increasingly creative with secondary promotional messages, like an Interstate Batteries logo affixed to the side of a NASCAR-licensed hat.

But above all, customers are searching for eye-catching, quality merchandise instead of some of the flimsy, no-thrills headwear of years past."

The imprints we've had the most success with have been high-density embroidery that's really stacked - not flat embroidery, but something that has definition and sticks out," Susa says. "Those types of decorations are selling very well. Stacked, high-definition embroidery simply gives the hat a neater finish and cleaner look."

A Tip of the Cap
"Headwear is the perfect promotional product," Adams declares. "It's worn a lot, it's at eye-level … if you want to show your logo off, hats are probably the best place to do it, so make sure your hat is going to be worn."

To ensure your hat gets valuable head-time, never skimp on quality or the hat's overall fashion appeal. "A hat gets so much exposure," says Angeline. "Many more people see hats. If someone's walking down the street or at a football game, a lot more people are going to see that rather than a guy using a promotional pen in his office. We in the industry used to call it a 'walking billboard,' and I still keep with that. It's a great promotion for basically the entire year, and whenever you can get someone to wear your logo, it's a pretty good ad right there."

Of course, too much of a good thing can mess you up, too. Adams says going overboard with your hat's design can cause even the most intricately-detailed piece of headwear to land in the back of the closet - or even worse, the trash. "What happens in the retail and license world does not necessarily reflect what's going to happen in the corporate world," he notes. "It's very conservative. What sells, really, are your basics. When someone's doing a promotion, they don't want to get too crazy with stripes and patterns and textures. If you're going to do 2,000 hats and appeal to the masses, stick to the basics."

Adams continues: "I try to explain to promotional product salespeople that at the very least they should give their customer a couple of options - a good, better and best option. Because if you're going to put your logo - the image of your company - on a product, then do yourself a favor and put it on something of good quality. Otherwise, it may end up in a closet or the trunk of a car. If you want people to wear your product, spend the extra money, put your logo on something nice and make sure it's going to be worn, because the whole idea is to get your logo out and about."

Flexibility And Fashion
Another part of the hat's universal appeal within this industry is the vast flexibility it offers. Sure, you might think a baseball cap is pretty much a baseball cap, but that's not all there is to headwear.

"With hats, customers can customize the product anyway they want," Ward says. "That's one of our biggest advantages. Clients can get exactly what they want for every and any promotion."Once you do finalize your hat's design, it's a safe bet your message will reach enough minds to make even the most pedestrian promotion a success, according to Blutstein.

"The hat is almost like a T-shirt," he explains. "For 50 years it's always been popular. It's not a fad, no matter how you slice it. The hat and the T-shirt are still two of the most popular things companies can [use] as a promotion."

Heading Toward The Future
So you're sold, right? Hats are now on your short list of possible upcoming promotions, correct? Well, here are some current trends to help hone your next pitch:
  • Sandwich bills, with a stripe of another color embedded into the cap's bill, are flying off the shelves, both in retail and corporate settings. "Anything with a sandwich visor is very popular right now - sales are booming," says Adams
  • Knit visors are becoming a craze of late, both for their wearable flexibility (you can wear 'em regularly, backwards, and to the side) and the comfort that knit material provides. "We're seeing a much greater interest right now in knit visors, so we've introduced that concept to many of our accounts," notes Susa.
  • Play the links. "I see the sports market within hats taking off soon, especially in golf," says Ko. "Because of Tiger Woods, everyone seems to be at least a little interested in golf right now. I look in magazines, and everyone's paying attention to the game. Golf was once an older game, but now that younger people are getting involved in the sport, there's going to be a big market there."
  • Consider classics and favor fashion, no matter which head-topper you select. "The only trend I've seen within our industry is that companies are going for a more fashion-oriented, low-profile, and casual look," said Melissa Anderson of ERB Industries (asi/51204).
"There's more of a focus right now on getting back to basics."

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Joshua Rhett Miller is assistant editor of The Counselor

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