Getting the T-Shirt Right

By Kate Young

Congratulations! You’ve been put in charge of the company t-shirts. You must be regarded as the creative one on the team, the style maven, the one with taste. Now get ready for the crashing realization that it’s tough to please everyone. It’s okay if you need advice on how to get the most out of your t-shirt effort.

Should anyone care?

Well…yeah. Of course, not all banks create promotional apparel. But if you do, by all means, put some thought into it. T-shirts have the potential to provoke an emotional response in a population of consumers who grew up wearing comfy shirts obtained through sports leagues, family reunions, schools, vacations, concerts, and company events. Done well, they have the power to generate a sense of connection, belonging, shared history—even loyalty. They can promote brand recognition, product awareness, and support corporate identity.

Deny it if you must, but the anecdotal evidence seems clear enough. You’ve seen the crowds go wild at sporting events when promoters throw t-shirts into the stands. And maybe financial services aren’t so different. Adam Nash, CEO of robo-advisor Wealthfront, has written eloquently about why t-shirts matter.

What do the numbers say?

According to a 2015 whitepaper by the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), wearables, such as caps, jackets—and yes, t-shirts—are the promotional product most likely to be remembered by the consumer. Putting that into context, promotional products are the fourth-fastest growing advertising medium, and in terms of expenditures, they’re ranked sixth among traditional and digital advertising media—behind television and Internet, for example, but ahead of radio and newspaper.

And what does the consumer want? Another PPAI study indicated that wearables were the second-most preferred category of promotional product, just after food gifts.

Will the shirt be worn?

Ultimately, the value of a promotional t-shirt depends entirely on whether people wear it. If they don’t, you’re spending way too much money on a bank-branded dust rag. But knowing what people will want to wear, as the fashion industry can tell you, is a complex calculus.

The elements that everyone thinks of are color, design, and maybe a clever slogan. In large part, those elements will be determined by your brand—so before you invest in emblazoning it on a shirt, you’ll want to make sure that consumers respond positively to it. Even if the t-shirts are meant for employees, remember that they care about their public image too. If you want them to wear the company shirt beyond the obligatory occasions, you need to provide something that won’t embarrass them.

Many people, for example, don’t feel comfortable in a t-shirt that has a large design its front side, as this can accentuate different body types. You might opt instead for putting a small logo or design on the front, and putting the large design on the back.

And speaking of body types…

Fit is critical. And here’s where things get complicated. Remember the days when a size-large unisex t-shirt seemed to make everyone happy? Those days are over, if they ever existed.

After years of designing and ordering t-shirts for various promotions, Kristin Sundin Brandt, CFMP and president of Sundin Associates in Natick, Massachusetts, has found that women tend to prefer shirts that are more body conscious and made from lighter fabrics. Promotional shirts may stand a better chance of being worn by women if they’re offered in ladies’ sizes—not just because they’re smaller than men’s, but because they’re cut and styled differently.

Age also makes a difference. While working on t-shirts for an event targeting millennials, Jim Gibbons, president of Gibbons-Peck Marketing Communication in Greenville, South Carolina, learned that the current style for men with an athletic build is to wear a size-medium—or even small—to accentuate musculature. He warns that millennial women will not wear t-shirts that don’t fit, and he was surprised by high volume of ladies’-small and ladies’-XS sizes he had to order.

Older generations, however, tend to favor a looser fit. “Among baby boomers, it doesn’t seem like you have to be that large to need a large,” Gibbons notes. “And XL is not uncommon. Generally, the sizing is based on the shoulders, which is not the largest part of many guys.”

If you want to simplify the ordering by going with unisex approach, be aware that in terms of absolute size, a men’s-medium may correspond with a ladies’-XL.

Sound complicated?

By now you may regret having signed up for t-shirt duty.

Jim Gibbons suggests that if you have a large staff, you might query them anonymously on their preferred t-shirt sizes, take the range, and extrapolate that to the population you’re purchasing for.

Scott Miller, CFMP and SVP of Riverview Community Bank in Vancouver, Washington, offers the following size distributions as the “ball-park estimates” he uses when ordering different cuts.

Unisex sizes Men’s Sizes Ladies’ Sizes
Small 4% 7%
Medium 17% 6% 14%
Large 31% 31% 28%
XL 28% 42% 31%
2XL 11% 21% 21%
3XL 8%


Any other advice? “If you don’t want to find it at Goodwill in a month,” Miller says, you should be prepared to pay up for the quality of the shirt. “Get a comfortable shirt your employees would want to wear over and over again. It’s not doing you any good if it’s stuck in a dresser drawer.”

Kate Young is the content editor of Email: [email protected]

A benefit to individual membership in the ABA Bank Marketing Network is the ability to converse through the ABA Bank Marketing Network Groupsite–a members-only discussion group. The thoughts expressed in this article reflect the collective wisdom of Groupsite responses to the question, “I’m finally doing something I’ve resisted for years, giving away clothing in a promotion…specifically, t-shirts. We’re thinking about ordering mediums and extra-large sizes. Should we order more than these two sizes?” Join in the discussion today.