Building sales in the licensed collegiate or school markets isn’t easy, but Brayden Jessen, of Zome Design in Spokane, WA is going to help you do just that. He knows the importance of capitalizing on the moment and what it takes to market collegiate apparel. Brayden is most famous for his “Gonzaga Exists” T-shirt design that ended up on local news stations AND Jimmy Kimmel Live (see the video below). Find out how he made that possible, on this episode of Success Stories.
A Transcript For The Readers:
Many apparel decorators design, print, and produce orders for the collegiate or school market. Building more sales is a game that everyone wants to win.
On this episode of Success Stories, we’ll speak with Spokane Washington’s Brayden Jessen with Zome Design on how they build a better platform for this unique market. What goes into making their program successful? What about marketing or distribution?
We’ll get a behind the scenes look at one of the Northwest’s best shops and how they tackle this end of the business.
So Brayden, welcome to the Success Stories podcast.
Hey Marshall, thanks for having me. I’m super excited to talk about merchandise and everything along those lines.
Yeah. I can’t wait to get into it, but before we really get it. Going to start the discussion with an outline of a little bit about Zome.
Where are you?
Who are your main customers and what really separates you from them?
Sure. Yeah. So as you mentioned, we’re up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest in Spokane Washington. We really focus ourselves on the design aspect of it and more of a retail quality product. So, you know, doing the nicer shirts, retail styles, we’re constantly trying new things like water-based or foil or anything that’s really going to wow our customers.
We have in-house production, five automatics. And so we’re ready to roll when these retailers hit with hot market stuff.
And so, and you do high schools, colleges. That’s kind of like a theme too, right?,
Oh, sure. Yeah.
You know, you have online stores for them. How are you marketing and selling and bringing in that business?
One thing we’re really focusing on this year is pairing down niching, not being everyone’s screen-printer. And I think that’s how we kind of grew to the size of the words that I would take anything on. You know, you’re a PTL mom. Selling elementary schools, or if you’re a corporate executive, we’d hit you.
So we’re really trying to focus more on that retail, higher quality, lots of breweries restaurants, distilleries. I love being able to go into a brewery, talk about swag and have a beer with them.
And or if you’re pitching a new brewery, the worst-case scenario. Is, you had some good beer, even if they don’t choose to go with you, it’s kind of a, it’s a fun thing.
And it makes you really enjoy it doing what you do. I mean, we do lots of, you know, school stuff, but you know, you can’t, you know, dealing with it. PTO presidents that change every year are hard.
I’m looking for long term customers that can really build that relationship with that when they leave that brewery to the next brewery or wherever else they go, they are taking you along their journey through life.
That’s great. And I’ve had a beer with you in a brewery, so I appreciate your enthusiasm.
I know. I feel like we should be having a beer right now.
That’s great. So, let’s talk about how you’re kind of recruiting these folks.
I know you do stuff with the university there. How are you getting more schools? You know, your higher-level customers.
How are you kind of doing your lead gen and getting them involved, but kind of knowing what you’re doing,
Kind of depending on the school or the demographic you’re going after, um, you know, a lot of times these universities will have, if you go, if you look up their RAs, they’ll have their email and contact lists right on the website.
You know, sometimes because we are a licensed vendor, that’s a really big deal for any screen print shop. And they’re very hard to get. They do not want to add on any more licenses. So what happens a lot of times is the licensing and trademark coordinator will refer them to three or four shops.
They don’t pick just us, you know, they want to be fair to the market, but that really does kind of give you that niche of getting referrals as a good source. And, you know, there’s a lot that goes into being a licensed vendor. And so we have tested over time that we’ve proven to do a quality product. Turn on time. Good feedback to the departments to be able to maintain it.
Year over year, we have lost universities because we didn’t do any volume. So we don’t do Montana University or Boise State anymore because we didn’t hold the level of volume down there.
It’s just hard when you’re up in Spokane, you’re not on the campus group.
So I think the big thing is being involved in the campus.
You know, I go to the Eastern tailgates. The tail and you know, the games and trying to meet the new marketing directors every year or every few years.
And the new marketing directors come up or athletic departments just constantly being, they’re going to their fundraisers.
You know, that’s kind of a policy that I have for myself. Well, drips for all clients go be their customers. For sure.
Go get involved in their events, build that personal relationship. Otherwise, you’re just a phone call.
You know, from some random vendors, they don’t know where you are.
Here again, it’s tailgating. I think you’re introducing the theme.
Many shops tackle licensed apparel for colleges or even, you know, some high schools have their own licensing. Right. I don’t know if that’s in your area, but what does it take to really do this right?
To really do it right?
You have to know, you know, it starts off at the beginning, you know, making sure you’re partnering with good suppliers, have good inventories that can deliver quickly making sure that, you know, for the universities, it’s really big deal to have Fair Labor Association, knowing where the products are made.
The other big deal is with…It’s different from the retail stores versus the campus departments is all the retail requirements, just becoming a licensee is a hurdle of itself having marketing plans and making sure you have the right insurance, fire bits, and everything, then it comes down to every design that you do for the university has to be approved through the school.
And that can be a challenge. Some schools are very quick to respond within a couple of hours.
Some could be days, and you’re calling them trying to get approvals because you have that event, date that isn’t changing. And so that’s one thing that when you have a hot market, Thing going on that trademarks and the licensing department has Nike.
They have all the big players submitting designs to them. And so you are held up, you cannot print that design until you get approval. And if it slides through, it can be, you know, you can lose your license.
And so there’s a lot of things at stake to really pre-planning and making sure your art department, your sales team, and everyone is really dialed in and getting those approvals as fast as possible and making sure your clients know upfront the hurdles you have.
And like right now, some schools aren’t even allowing face masks.
I’d like to have you share that story about, the Gonzaga design, you know what I’m talking about yeah.
About how you came up with that, how you promoted it, how you got it through licensing so quick and just share that because I think it’s truly indicative of trying to like, “Oh, here’s a fantastic idea. We’re going to bring it to market. And then we’re going to really blow it up on social media and drive sales.”
And I think a lot of people would really appreciate that story.
Yeah. You know, and I think that’s what really got us going, and being known in Spokane for Gonzaga shirts was the hot market thing.
So what I, me, and my team, I should say, we’re constantly watching the news and what’s happening in the sports teams. So the one that really set it off for us was my sales manager, Zane Troester, was watching and saw that Gonzaga was possibly going to be ranked number one for the first time in school history.
And I, you know, I was not sure about it because you never know sometimes college rankings people, so you don’t mean anything. Um, so he had this idea of Gonzaga top dog, and so he had the art department do this design. It was okay. You know, and, um, I wasn’t sure, but what we did the key is once it hit the news we were ready to go, we had a design, it was preapproved for if they became ranked number one, so we already had approvals.
We had press releases and everything ready to go. We got it out to the news media and the key is really having those contacts already, ready to go. So the reporters Gonzaga is right.
Number one every day, it’s on the news radio, whatever else they’re looking for. Other things to add to it, they can say, Hey, local screen printers, Zome Design and it’s also making t-shirts that then you can find in the grocery stores. It became a huge deal. They bring their crews out, you know, you call up ABC channel and then you tell three major stations in the city.
You tell them that the other news crews are there and it kind of a, it’s like a line forms a line kind of thing that we always say, you start building up your own hype and that, and so once it hits the news, it’s five o’clock, six o’clock, 10 o’clock.
While the reporters are out there they’re tweeting, they’re putting on their personal Facebook, they’re doing little Instagram lives. And so you start just getting this massive presence on social media that really starts building hype. And then, and what starts happening is people start going to the grocery stores or calling in and being like, I want the shirt that was on the news.
So, you know, as soon as we get things out there and we come up with some trends that we find the other competitors or other people try to come up with some kind of design of her own, but there’s, wasn’t on the news and people will specifically call it and say, I want the shirt on the news. So what we do is we also try to make it very easy to acquire that product.
So not everyone wants to go down to the mall. Not everyone wants to come out to Zome Design.
We’re out in an industrial park where there are 20 buildings that all look the exact same were a nightmare to get to. So we want to make it as easy as possible.
Grocery stores are in every neighborhood. You can walk down while you’re buying all your other grocery items. Right at checkout, they hang these t-shirts so I have to check it out and you see that Top Dog t-shirt sitting there.
And the other ones with the grocery chain are budget-friendly merchandise. It’s not your $30 T-shirt…it’s your $12, $15, maybe $18 t-shirt. And so people see it and like, that’s cool. I remember seeing it on the news.
It’s that social proof.
So while that’s happening, we are also retargeting people through Facebook, social media, and we have them on our online store available for sale at retail prices.
So for those people that have families that are out of town or people that watch the news or see the articles on YouTube, they can have a place of buying it and we ship it out retail.
And for that, it’s great for us because it’s retail price points. You know, you’re making, you know, say 15 bucks shirt instead of seven bucks a shirt.
And you did that also with that whole, uh, the exposure you had on jeans, correct?
Yeah. So, sorry. Backtrack. It started with Top Dog. That’s what, what kind of it, so I get on these tangents, right?
So it started with Top Dog.
That was the Top Dog was huge. We doubled our best sales ever just from that one thing.
So we became known as the guns, I guys, right. Uh, in town and the stores would call us, ask us, Hey, what’s next? Hey, what’s next?
So when Gonzaga hit the Sweet 16, Jimmy Kimmell went on his thing, talking about Sweet 16 teams, and then he starts talking about, there is these teams we’ve never heard of like this Gonzaga, you know, mispronouncing it or whatever.
And, um, it was kind of this little joke. Well, Of course, the new stations obviously picked up on it, but the mayor of our town went to Gonzaga University with the president of the University and declared that Gonzaga was an actual school that he declares it, you know, visit Spokane, our local visitor center.
They got involved and said, “Hey, Spokane, we need you to get on social media and do hashtag Gonzaga Exists.”
So it just went viral and I saw that I was like, Holy crap, this is an opportunity.
So we just really quickly came up with the design, hit it out to all the, all the news channels. And then guess what, that’s another story they can tell.
They can now come down and film our presses printing when you built all the stations, talking about it. And you know, it was interesting on that one, we pitched it to the grocery stores and they weren’t really sure they’re like, well, the Jimmy Kimmel thing is kind of interesting, but we’re not really sure.
So what we did. We told the group, the new stations. Yes. It will be available at your local grocery stores.
So then all of a sudden, as soon as those things aired, people were going down the grocery stores asking for those shirts and when they were going to arrive. So sure enough. You know, a couple of hours afterward, my sales manager started getting all kinds of emails asking for, “Hey, how soon can we get shirts?”
And so that’s why it’s really important to partner with suppliers is they can get you quick and they’ll already have your ducks in a row. So we already had barcodes ready to go holograms in stock barcodes in stock.
So we were ready to roll as soon as it hit.
And then the great thing about that whole Jimmy Kimmel thing was that then somehow it made it to the, to his show the next night on the new, on his show.
He said, “they’re even making shirts” and he featured…showed our online store for Gonzaga apparel and then scrolled through it real quick. And so then it just wasn’t even bigger.
People from all over the country started trying to find out how to get this Gonzaga Exists Shirts.
People were posting all over the country that Gonzaga Exists, even if they’re in Florida or Texas or whatever else.
And it just kind of went viral.
We decided, “Hey. We’re really good at getting the local stations. Why not contact him?”
So we somehow found out through the local affiliate network, some show producer, I can’t even remember the whole details. It was complicated, but we ended up next day airing shirts down to his show’s producers the next night.
So it was like, this is the third night in a row. Now they’re talking about Gonzaga.
He holds up the shirt on his show saying, “here are the shirts they’re making” and does a whole spoof about it. And then he goes, Hey, We have make it our own shirt. And he basically took our design Gonzaga on it, you know, Gonzaga Exists and he changed it to Con-Zaga…Con-Zaga.
So, you know, it was pretty funny, you know, um, seeing him, um, you know, ripping off our t-shirts concept became a big deal again, all over the news channels. And so it was just, it just kept going and going. We’re appointed to where he even came or his, um, what’s a psychic’s name. Okay. And did like this whole investigation of the school reporting back.
Um, and so it was like a week-long thing. It was pretty awesome.
So here are you just taking and seizing the opportunity and not really knowing where it’s going to go, but you keep pushing it. He keeps pushing and keeps pushing. And I think a lot of people. Just don’t take that step.
They don’t put their toes in the water. They don’t take their risks, they don’t do this type of stuff. And that’s the reason why they don’t get the sales that they have.
Would you agree with that?
Oh, 100%. We are constantly pushing new concepts and ideas. The stores have gotten burned a couple of times just ordering like a Gonzaga basketball shirt or, you know, use your Washington football shirt.
They’re really looking for that hot market and for something different, you know, every once in awhile, we’ll get. You know, maybe something for St Patrick’s Day. “That’s my lucky Zag shirt.
You know, a few stores were older or something, but what we can really come up with that thing.
And the key I think, is building the social proof and having people see it on their Facebook and their Instagram on their local news channels.
And I’ll tell you this the people that buy at grocery stores are way different than the people that buy at like a Nike store.
You know those are, those are fanatics that are buying the Nike official, you know, coaches, sideline gear that pays $40 for us thinking t-shirt you get the moms, the grandmas, everybody that saw that cute shirt that was on TV.
You know, they want to have it while they’re sitting at home, especially now, you know, if we haven’t gone to like a festival this year, you know, um, people really want to build a show that pride, but I’ll tell you what. I think it goes back to the t-shirt being one of the best promoters social products there is, or best advertising mediums, zeros.
Because right now you don’t see Gonzaga talk about Gonzaga Exists.
You don’t see any marketing campaigns about them being number one.
But if you go to any major event in Spokane, I will almost guarantee you whether it’s a concert, whether it’s a football game, whatever it is. Yeah. You will see a Gonzaga Top Dog and Gonzaga Exists.
You know, when I go to the tailgates at Eastern Washington University, that 2010 Eastern National Championship t-shirt is still being worn to this day.
So, I mean, this one, the shirt I’m wearing right now, a Top Dog, 2013, I still have it.
I’m a t-shirt guy, but you know, it’s like that. I remember printing that first t-shirt that, that one order or that one t-shirt did more sales and some of our best months ever.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. And I got started in Florida working for a shop and we did all the shirts for Florida State University. And I remember like 8 million football games where I’m just looking at the crowd around me right before the game starts.
And I’m going, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Like everybody’s wearing the shirts that I designed and that we printed and it made me feel so happy just to know that they, they don’t even know that I designed that shirt, but I appreciate their money. Thanks.
Yeah, exactly. And you know, it really builds back to that social proof of not even just that t-shirt, that you printed its people start remembering, seeing Zome on the news and I’ll have, I’ll be at a restaurant or a bar or some event and people are like, man, you guys are crushing it, people that don’t like comment or share your stuff.
You don’t even know you…you’ve forgotten about them and all of a sudden they are seeing it.
And so what is that doing for you?
Where your brand, when people constantly, when they’re going onto the new station website, you know, whatever else gets that constant recognition that you know, I’ve seriously, I’ve seen people out there be like, yeah, you guys are crushing it right now. I need to order some hats for you. You know, we should, we should chat sometime soon.
Yeah, exactly. And one of the things that I’ve talked about previously in other social media, my blogs, and stuff is, what I call the 90-9-1 rule, which is about 90% of the people will see what you’re posting on social media.
Only about 9% of the folks are, will like, or comment or share or retweet or whatever it is.
And then, but here’s the kicker…only 1% of the folks out there in businesses and social media are actually the ones creating the content.
So if you’re the content creator, if you’re the one posting that video about the shirt or the photo or the customer testimony or whatever, you’re at the top of the pyramid and everybody’s watching what you do.
So you need to be creating this stuff. And I think your testimony right here about the success with these shirts is exactly that you’re creating that content.
That’s driving all this, all the views and all the comments and future sales. And that’s exactly what, I’m what I mean.
All right. So let’s pivot and let’s talk about sales these days with the pandemic because schools aren’t open. They’re all online. I don’t know what’s going up in your neck of the woods, but how are you, uh, changing kind of what you’re doing?
The recipe a little for today’s sales. What are you doing?
Yeah. I’m nervous about the foreseeable future, not even just today. When you’re starting to see, you know, events in January and February getting canceled. And so I’m just looking at every major event that we have that normally has shirts.
Some of these universities that used to order 5,000 shirts are now ordering 168 shirts.
So I’m trying to be really proactive and thinking outside the box, what can we do?
People are in their homes, you know, how are people living? You know, are people going to buy Gonzaga t-shirts if there is no Gonzaga basketball next year? Right?
So as we all are doing, we’re, you know, we’re, we pivoted to facemask early on and really looked into it, the legal requirements of making sure you have all the proper instructions and the disclaimers on your packaging and stuff, just to make sure we are covered as much as we can.
We got licensed as soon as we possibly could. At first, the universities weren’t allowing face mass that was too kind of a touchy area. They decided to allow it. So we went to that process.
It was quite the process of getting sure requirements for insurance, even right. Insurance guys were puzzled by it. And I was talking to other licensees and their insurance guys were having problems and it wasn’t just my guy.
So we finally got that in place. The collegiate licensing is very specific on fair labor. So like this puts down what face masks you could even provide. And so it was, it was quite the ordeal, but I knew it was coming.
So we’ve been working on this since. You know, March, April, May. And we finally now have facemasks going into the retail chains.
It just started. So we’ll see how it goes. We’ve already been starting to get reorders that, um, but you know, facemasks are completely different than t-shirts.
Um, how are you going to hang a facemask in a store? Right. So we had to work on packaging and facemask kind of a low price point. So what can you do to get your price point up?
So I decided let’s do a two-pack, but then, you know, so we designed a face mask, one we could do quickly. Um, a lot of people are doing these overseas options or, or long, you know, full custom the problem with the grocery shop stores.
They don’t want to commit way in advance. They don’t want big orders. They want to test it small, see if it sells, then they want to reorder and they want it quick.
So that basically meant we have to bring a face mask that comes from one of the local suppliers that we can turn quick and decorate in house.
And so that was a challenge. That was definitely a challenge, but we finally did it and got it.
Store’s got the correct licensing requirements, set the samples out, and got it approved and gets in the store.
So yeah, no, I’m looking at what other options we could do to, you know, make it better. But right now it’s, it’s tough, you know, not knowing what’s going to happen.
And so constantly just looking, how has Gonzaga, how is Eastern Washington University?
How are they pivoting? Is there something we can do? Is there some tagline in the news, you know, that we can do to support the teams and just reminding people that the licensing sales, I mean, the licensing sales are getting, or the royalties are getting up there?
I mean, some of these schools are 14% or so, so. But, you know, how can you, instead of getting down on the increased costs, decrease costs, how can we turn this and pivot it into a positive, well, 14% is now going back to the university.
And we know that all of these sports teams are going to have massive deficits from canceled sponsorships to whatever else.
So what’s like, what if we could say, “Hey, buying a facemask is not only keeping you safe and protecting you, it’s supporting your local sports teams and your local athletic departments. So. Keep supporting them that the schools are still there.” The players are still here. And how can we support, you know, our local school pride, still giving back to the departments and trying to take as many positives out of the negatives that we can?
Are you screen printing the masks or using transfers? What are you doing?
So we’re, screenprinting them. We have bought extra jigs for embroidery to build and embroider them, and we are also doing different kinds of transfers.
So I think it’s really important for people to know what transfer you’re using is safe between the products that are gonna be touching to face reliable, quick-term, full-color options are really key.
And so that’s been kind of a thing. So for like these, these, uh, Gonzaga ones, we have been doing a heat transfer, but unlike t-shirts when it goes big, And you have 3000 t-shirts to do. We can stick them on auto.
They crank, when you have 3000 facemasks, you have to individually heat press. That’s a challenge, you know when you haven’t even done an order that big, when we first started, we got an order for the schools, for the universities directly into the thousands, and then after heat pressing it, now it has scorch marks.
So then we’re. Going back and steaming all the facemasks to remove the scorch marks, you know, then you’re individually packaging them with the safety deals on them. So, you know, a few of the few first orders we did, we might have underbid a little bit, you know, not realizing what I was going to be like, but you pivot and you adjust and you talk to the schools and, you know, kind of talk to them about what issues you have and you just pin it. Right.
Okay, great. Uh, so lastly, what’s the secret behind a good marketing program for schools and universities? It’s really true.
I know we talked about the, um, uh, the TV stations and the social proof and everything, but what else are you doing?
You’re building a marketing schedule marketing program using Instagram, like specifically, what are you doing?
It kind of depends on, is it, are we talking, you know, the retail store chains or are we talking, you know, university departments, um, this year is gonna be a challenge and we’re trying to figure out if the students aren’t there, are they going to be needing, you know, the merch?
So we used, you have to be proactive and start before the school year starts constantly pitching new ideas to the stores.
Again, I think that it is really key to, we just release our press release to the grocery store or to the news stations the other day, and hopefully, get them to come out.
You know, sometimes they come out, sometimes they don’t sometimes, you know, you never know when your idea is going to flop, then that news anchor you have that great relationship gets a better job offer. They leave and you’re starting from scratch.
So it, some of this might sound like an awesome idea, but yeah, it’s been a lot of work over the years. And I can tell you this, that you just have to keep being on it. No, multiple people, the stations and not rely on one sales channel. You know, you have your Instagram, you have your Twitter.
I mean, We’re looking into tech talk. We don’t have anything yet, but you know, just constant.
It’d be looking for traffic sources and constantly willing to pivot because things change.
Sometimes you think you have the greatest idea in the world and it flops.
I’ll tell you a crazy story. So my sales rep that deals a lot of the stores has a dog.
Okay. It’s not a bulldog-like Gonzaga’s dogs.
He made a Gonzaga outfit, a little basketball for his dog, took a picture of it, though it was the cutest thing ever, and thought it would make the greatest t-shirt in the world. And I’m like, Oh man, you sound like every nightmare customer of ours that comes in. Right?
So he gets the stores on the phone. I’m listening to his pitch. This idea of everyone is a bulldog at heart and says, cute little puppy wearing a Gonzaga T-shirt.
I’m like, there is no one’s going to want to wear a photo t-shirt of some little puppy. Well, you know, sometimes his crazy ideas have huge sales.
He pitches it.
I went by my sign department, they’re printing posters of his dog on it!
I’m like now we’re printing posters of this darn puppy wearing a Gonzaga shirt.
Well, what he did is he told the stores I’ll, I’ll print you free banners to help you market these shirts. What can we do to help you market the shirts?
So few stores bit off. You wouldn’t believe how I’ll bet you, he did $4,000 in sales, not huge, but that’s a decent chunk of some weird idea of printing a dog on a t-shirt.
And it’s just, how can you help your customers?
How do you help your retailers sell? So they’re not afraid of being stuck with shirts that don’t sell because, in those grocery stores, you think about all the little old ladies out there that love, I think that’s just the cutest little puppy. Love those shirts.
And it was just, it was a crazy story, but you just have to constantly be thinking outside.
Have you ever seen a collegiate t-shirt that had a picture of a puppy on it? I think that’s where you find those successes, you know, otherwise, you’re, you’re, you’re competing with all the dot coms, you know, the name brands, the Nike to Under Armour, the adidas.
And so how can you compete against them? It’s having something that you need, you can’t buy anywhere else. Perfect.
That’s the best answer we could have. And with that, we’ll close. So yeah. Thank you so much, Brayden, for sharing your story of success with us today.
If someone wants to learn more about what you do or how you can help them, what is the best way to contact you?
I think that I’m on Instagram quite a bit at Brayden Jessen. B R A Y D E N. Jessen, J E S S E N.
You can hit me up there, send me a direct message. Um, our company, we. We were trying to get better, um, uh, posted more often.
So at Zome Design, it’s Z as in zebra, O M as in Mary E S that’s Zome Design, or you can also email me email@example.com
Awesome. Thank you so much. Love hearing that story. Appreciate you, buddy.
Thanks, Marshall. I really appreciate it.