Making merch work for your brand and your fans

Your artist brand is the face you present to the world, and your fans are the people who represent it.

The embodiment of this is your music merch: the CDs, T-shirts, hats, and other items your fans take home to forever remember the amazing show you performed.

Of course, music merch is more than branding, it is one of the major revenue streams for indie music artists. That's why it's important to make informed decisions when considering what merch to offer, and it all starts with your brand.

If your artist brand represents you in an authentic way, your fans will connect with it and be inspired to support you. If you give them good merch, they'll buy it, wear it, and become your brand ambassadors, which means they're marketing for you. That's how their friends and folks in their network might become aware of you and inclined to jump on the bandwagon. This is how a fan base can grow, which means you’ll have more fans to spread the word to more potential new fans, who will buy things and help generate more revenue. More revenue means you get to continue to do what you love.

So what's in a brand and how do you start to develop one? Let's analyze some of the things you can tap into that will help represent you in an authentic way. It starts with a few questions.

What's your vibe?

Is your music inspirational? Mystical? Motivational? Is it angry? Lighthearted? Are you focused on a political, religious, social, or environmental cause? Are you happy? Joyous? Dealing with emotional strife?

What are your values as an artist and a person?

Do you have a high moral compass or do you gravitate toward debauchery? Are you rebellious or do you go with the flow? Are you self-serving or humanitarian? Are you telling fictionalized stories or speaking from personal experience?

What inspires you?

Are you inspired by love and relationships? Science and technology? Particular music or visual artists?

What’s your style?

Are you edgy or trendy? Conservative or hip? Glam or goth? Old school or traditional? Sexy or nerdy? Understated or flamboyant?

How would your fans describe you to potential new fans?

Band XXX is so... loud! Raging and energetic! Mesmerizing and inspiring. Mellow and moving.

Whatever the answers are to these questions, you need to own them and then brainstorm how to translate your ideas into a design.

Whether you are designing your assets yourself or working a graphic artist, developing a clear idea of what your brand represents will provide the best results. If you're a peaceful soul you might want to avoid blood, daggers, demons, and dark colors being reflected in your brand. If you’re more of a understated type, you probably don’t want neon colors in your brand. If you’re a heavy metal artist, you’re most likely not going to choose a logo with a purple bunny in a flower field (though the irony could be interesting). If your genre is hip hop, you're probably not going to have a cowboy-themed brand – unless you're a hip hop artist exploring country-western themes. The bottom line is you want your brand to make sense with your overall persona so people can relate to it.  

Whether you’re an artist with an established fan base or you’re still building one, you can engage your fans by inviting them into your world and asking them to participate in this process. Get them to vote or give feedback on CD/T-shirt art or logos you’re considering. Or take it one step further and have fans submit designs and reward the winner with an incentive. This is a great way to establish your authenticity and give fans a means of connecting with you.
As you home in on the specifics of your artist brand, you need to integrate them into every aspect of your marketing, including your album art, website, social media content, and of course, your music merch.

Speaking of merch...

As mentioned, merch is a crucial revenue stream for artists, and serves as a great marketing tool – IF your fans are wearing it. Now that you’ve got this great new brand, logo, and artwork, you need to incorporate it into something your fans will want to proudly wear. So before you invest in a specific merch item, take a step back and ask yourself: "Does this piece make sense with who we are, our music, and the vibe we embody? Will our fans want to wear it?"

In addition to the design you create, choose items of decent quality. Some will argue that it doesn’t matter, that if people love you, they'll buy whatever you offer. This may be true, but you might lose some interested customers who just don’t want to spend money on another stiff white T-shirt, or who may actually buy the shirt and let it sit in their drawer, which will not help to promote your brand. Not to mention, it reflects poorly on you if your wares shrink two sizes or fall apart in the wash.

Maximizing your merch business means making smart decisions about the merch you offer, where you source it, and how you keep track of the data surrounding your merch sales.

Once you have your merch in hand, you’ll need a way to effectively run your merch table. This means transacting with both cash and cards; tracking inventory; and understanding what sizes, styles, and quantities your fans are buying. Tracking what sells, what doesn't, and where your best profit margins come from is part of being good at the business end of your music career.

Vanessa Ferrer is a successful businesswoman with over 15 years’ experience in finance and artist management. Ferrer founded InFocus Artist Management in 2009, and after managing several touring clients and consulting with high-profile industry professionals, she developed and launched Merch Cat in 2015, a musician-friendly one-stop tool for artists to sell and manage merchandise at live shows.

Follow @Merch_Cat on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.