How to make merch for your brand: A step-by-step guide

Reading time: 13 minutes

Customers love when you give away free swag. And, regardless of what type of business you are, you need to know how to make merch. What you might not realize is that your most loyal customers will even purchase special merch from you — they engage more personally with your brand, and you have another source of revenue!

There are endless options to create and sell custom merchandise that captures your brand. So to help you, we made this step-by-step guide that covers how to make and sell merch.

  • We’ll walk you through how to create merch that achieves your marketing and revenue goals 
  • Then, we’ll give you a reliable process to make branded merch decisions into the future.

Table of contents

What’s business merchandise?

Business merchandise refers to products that a company sells or uses to build business or promote its brand. These items can include anything from t-shirts and hats to mugs, pens, or even keychains with the company’s logo or name on them. They’re often given away or sold to customers as a way to advertise the business and create brand awareness. Think of it as stuff that represents and promotes a company’s identity and offerings.

When it comes to custom merch, we can differentiate between two types of business merchandise:

  1. Branded merchandise (also known as promotional merchandise) that businesses make for marketing purposes. 
  2. Retail merchandise that business owners craft with the intention of selling them directly to customers to generate extra cash

Branded business merch

Branded merchandise is your brand’s sidekick, the Robin to your Batman. It’s the promotional products emblazoned with your brand logo, your brand colors and other branding elements specific to your business. 

This kind of business merchandise isn’t made to make money by selling it. Instead, it’s commonly distributed for free at trade shows and different events or given as complimentary products to customers. The main purposes of branded business merch are to:

Custom merch, tote bags with business logos

 Vistaprint promotional tote bags; branded business merch

Retail business merch

While branded custom merchandise plays a supporting role, retail business merchandise takes the spotlight as the main character in your business narrative. Businesses sell these products specifically to generate revenue. 

While it might not have your logo plastered all over it, retail merchandise still holds power in its ability to connect with your audience and reinforce your brand identity.

Custom design on a t-shirt

An example of retail merchandise. Source: Vita_k13

Why do you need merchandise: the importance of well-designed merch

Each type of custom merch brings different benefits for your business.  

For instance, well-designed branded merch can…

  • Increase brand visibility: Merchandise serves as a mobile advertisement for your brand, exposing it to a wider audience as people wear or use your branded products in various locations.
  • Boost brand loyalty: Offering merchandise creates a sense of belonging among customers, fostering loyalty and encouraging repeat purchases.
  • improve brand recognition: Consistent exposure to branded merchandise helps reinforce brand identity and make it more recognizable among consumers.
  • Act as a marketing tool: Merchandise acts as a tangible marketing tool, allowing customers to interact with your brand physically and creating lasting impressions. Moreover, you can utilize it as giveaways or prizes in promotional campaigns, helping to attract new customers and reward existing ones.

On the other hand, retail merch helps your business…

  • Extend the product line: With retail merchandise, reach a wider audience by offering a broader range of products. 
  • Add new revenue generation: Selling merchandise can be a lucrative business revenue stream, providing additional income beyond core products or services.
  • Differentiate the business: Well-designed merchandise sets your brand apart from competitors and creates a distinctive identity in the market.

But whether you’re looking to master the art of branded merch or want to dedicate your time and efforts to crafting retail merchandise, it’s vital to ensure top-notch quality in order to reap the benefits. 

So, once you commit to one or both kinds of merchandise, you’ll want to be sure you make it efficiently and well. Here’s how. 

How to make and sell merch: a step-by-step guide

In this section, we’ll tell you exactly how to make merch successfully. But before we go any further, let’s dive into what makes business merchandise successful. 

When it comes to branded merch, success hinges on one key factor—how your target audience perceives it. 

Helpful questions to consider:

  • Do they love the design?
  • Is the product itself something they actually want to use?
  • And perhaps most importantly, are they proud to flaunt your brand wherever they go?

For retail merchandise, success is more straightforward. It’s all about those sales numbers. A successful retail product is one that flies off the shelves, leaving customers satisfied with its quality and eager to return for more.

Now let’s step through the entire process of making merch, from researching the market and gathering merch ideas to pricing and effectively marketing your merchandise to customers. 

1. Research the market, including merchandise options, and gather merch ideas 

  • Conduct market research to identify trends, customer preferences and potential gaps in the market.
  • Brainstorm innovative and creative merchandise ideas that resonate with your target audience.

When it comes to crafting irresistible merch, understanding your audience and your market is key. Here’s how to zero in on their preferences and create merch that hits the bullseye:

  1. Start by getting to know your audience inside and out. Who are they? What do they love? What makes them tick? Dive into demographics like age, interests and lifestyle to build a crystal-clear picture of your ideal customer and what merch they’d be most excited to get. 
  2. Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not in the world of merch. Are there any emerging trends or popular themes that your audience can’t get enough of? Stay ahead of the curve and incorporate these trends into your merch lineup to capture their attention.
  3. Remember that one size does not fit all when it comes to merch. Take a personalized approach by offering a variety of options that cater to different tastes and preferences within your audience. Whether it’s different styles, colors or designs, give your audience the freedom to choose merch that speaks to them on a personal level.

It’s crucial to keep an eye on what your competitors are up to. If you’re aiming to produce top-notch branded merch, consider attending events where your competitors are distributing their custom swag. For retail merch, take the time to explore what’s currently trending among your target audience by checking out what’s popular in the market. You can use Google Trends or related social media tags for that.

Another way to assess merch options and spark ideas is to check out printing services like VistaPrint. To generate ideas, check out our selection of clothing and bags and promotional products available for customization and print.

Here are a few merch ideas:

  • Custom apparel: From cozy hoodies to stylish caps, outfit your crew in branded threads that turn heads.
  • Example: Custom-designed t-shirts featuring quirky slogans or eye-catching graphics.
  • Tech accessories: Keep your audience plugged in with branded tech gear that’s both practical and stylish.
  • Example: Custom phone cases or sleek laptop sleeves adorned with your logo.
  • Drinkware: Make sure your brand is front and center whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a refreshing sip of water.
  • Example: Branded coffee mugs or trendy water bottles in vibrant colors.
  • Tote-ally awesome totes: Say “goodbye” to single-use plastics and “hello” to eco-friendly totes that showcase your brand wherever they go.
  • Example: Reusable shopping bags or stylish canvas totes displaying your logo.

2. Clarify and hone your merch designs 

  • Collaborate with designers or use design software to create visually appealing and on-brand merchandise designs.
  • Consider factors such as color schemes, typography and brand messaging in the design process to personalize your merch.

Now that you’ve got a handle on your audience and gathered some killer merch ideas, it’s time to bring those concepts to life with some eye-catching designs. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of designing merch that’ll make your audience swoon.

Make sure you’re up-to-date with the latest design trends

You need to produce current, trendy pieces to make your custom merch the talk of the town. Before you draft your merch design, check out the latest graphic design trends. It’s a way to appeal to a fashion-forward audience and a great opportunity to stand out from any competition that offers more dated designs.  

Freehand graphic design trend merch

A custom calendar that taps into the freehand revival graphic design trend. Source: jullyromas

Bento box grids graphic design trend tote bag

A custom tote bag design that taps into the bento box grid graphic design trend. Source: Ilka A.

However, don’t get too caught up in trends alone. It’s crucial to keep your target audience in mind. While anime-style illustrations and cluttercore might be the buzzwords of the moment, they may not resonate well with older customers seeking elegant, minimalist designs in the business merch they rely on daily.

Here are some tips for different broad demographics…

  • Youthful and vibrant audience: If your target audience is young and trendy, consider bold colors, playful typography and quirky graphics to appeal to their energetic vibe. Think bright neon hues and funky geometric patterns for a merch lineup that will stand out.
  • Minimalist and sophisticated crowd: Conversely, if your audience leans towards the minimalist side, opt for clean lines, muted tones and elegant typography for a sleek and sophisticated look. Think timeless classics like black and white designs with minimalist logos for merch that exudes effortless style.

Match your trends to your target audience’s preferences! 

Decide whether you want to DIY your merch or collaborate with a professional designer

Now that you’ve got your merch designs mapped out, it’s decision time: Do you roll up your sleeves and take on the task yourself, or do you enlist the expertise of a seasoned professional?

DIYing your business merch offers the allure of complete creative control — you bring your vision to life exactly as you imagine it. For entrepreneurs with a knack for design or a desire to get hands-on with their projects, this approach fosters a deep sense of satisfaction and ownership. Additionally, DIY merch is a budget-friendly option, particularly for small businesses aiming to minimize expenses. However, DIY endeavors also prove to be time-consuming, requiring significant investment in learning design skills and executing the production process. Without professional expertise, there’s a risk of producing subpar results, potentially diminishing the overall impact and quality of the merchandise.

If you’re looking for a simple online graphic editing tool to create your merch design, try VistaCreate by Vista. 

Partnering with professional designers for your business merch, on the other hand, brings a touch of expertise and finesse to your creations. Their seasoned eye for design ensures that your vision is realized with precision and flair, saving you time and effort in the process. However, this quality comes with a price tag, and budget constraints may limit the scope of your collaboration. 

If you decide to take this route, make sure to find a designer who has a style that matches your vision and give them a detailed brief so that the outcome matches your desires. 

Incorporate graphic design best practices to make your merch design visually appealing

To ensure your merch design pops, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Simplicity is key: Keep designs clean and uncluttered for maximum impact.
  • Balance elements: Strive for balance in composition to create visual harmony.
  • Choose colors wisely: Opt for a cohesive color palette that complements your brand and appeals to your audience.
  • Prioritize legibility: Ensure text is easy to read and not overshadowed by other elements.
  • Focus on branding: Maintain consistency with your brand identity through logos, fonts and messaging.

For more design tips, check out the VistaPrint blog — there’s plenty of practical information to help you create a great design for your business merch. 

3. Produce the merch using your custom designs 

  • Choose a reliable vendor to produce custom merch
  • Order a test batch to ensure quality of the final product

When the design is ready, it’s time for the most exciting part of making merch — bringing it to life! 

And again, you’re faced with another choice of either DIYing the production or delegating the process to professionals. 

While the allure of DIY production may beckon, it’s worth noting that this route is best suited for ultra-small batches. DIY production demands significant time and resources, diverting attention from other aspects of your business. Besides, maintaining consistent quality across DIY-produced items can be challenging, potentially leading to variations in the final products.

So, we recommend partnering with a professional printing company to produce your business merchandise and be sure it comes out exactly how you want it:

  • Professional suppliers are equipped with the expertise and resources to ensure top-notch quality across all products.
  • With professional production facilities, scaling up to meet increasing demand is a breeze.
  • Professionals operate with streamlined processes, delivering products with faster turnaround times.
  • While initial costs may be higher than DIY methods, economies of scale and bulk pricing options often make professional production more cost-effective in the long run.

When choosing suppliers, evaluate them based on factors like quality, cost and turnaround time to ensure a seamless production process.

Tip

Request samples and prototypes from potential suppliers to verify that the final products meet your quality standards before committing to production.

Getting a hands-on look at any product that will ultimately bear your branding is important. With an actual sample product, you can compare quality and feel before you place a full order and get exactly the standard of product you and your customers expect — and without the guesswork.

To save on costs, narrow down your options to your top two choices for each product.

After finalizing your product choices, it’s time to order. To make the ordering process as seamless as possible, here’s a list of criteria you’ll need:

  • Product
  • Quantity
  • Colors
  • Sizing (for apparel)
  • Artwork

When you have your custom merchandise ready, you may start using it for your marketing purposes. But if you want to sell merch, read on to find out how to price and distribute your merch effectively! 

4. Put a price on your merch 

  • Analyze pricing strategies based on production costs, competitor pricing and perceived value.
  • Find the margin that makes the most sense.

If you want to sell merch, remember that merch should make you money. Finding merch that gives you room for a reasonable markup is important.

The price you charge directly reflects your brand and company ideals. For example, an upscale coffee house might want a luxury wood-grain coffee tumbler and have customers willing to pay a premium price. On the other hand, a café known for affordable prices might have customers who want a more budget-friendly option.

To find the margin that makes the most sense, it helps to work backward and begin with the price you plan on charging customers. For instance, you’d need to find items with the following per-item price if you want to sell that budget-friendly tumbler for $15:

$10 at 50% margin = $15

$10.75 at 40% margin = $15

$11.55 at 30% margin = $15

Take action: Remember to include shipping costs — both from the vendor and to customers if you’re selling online — in your total item cost pre-markup.

5. Distribute your merch among clients 

With a clear pricing strategy in place, you can start selling your products and making that money jiggle! To make the most sales:

  • Set up an online store: Create a user-friendly e-commerce website or utilize platforms like Shopify or Etsy to sell your merchandise online, reaching a global audience.
  • Use social media: Promote your merchandise on popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and TikTok to reach and engage with your target audience.
  • Partner with influencers: Collaborate with influencers or brand ambassadors who have a large and engaged following to promote your merchandise to their audience.
  • Create bundles and packages: Bundle multiple merchandise items together or offer package deals to increase the value proposition for customers and drive sales.

How to use merchandise in your marketing strategy

Merchandise serves as more than just a logo-bearing product — it’s a strategic asset in your marketing arsenal. 

To make it really work, you need to pinpoint the exact role your merch will play. Whether it’s boosting brand visibility at events or rewarding loyal customers with exclusive perks, clarity on purpose ensures focused execution.

Improve brand visibility through branded merch

Turn every merch item into a walking advertisement for your brand. Whether it’s a branded hoodie sported by your team or a sleek water bottle carried by your customers, prioritize designs that grab attention and spark conversations, amplifying brand visibility wherever they go.

Branded tote bags

Branded tote bags. Source: Ruaran

Increase brand reach by gifting your merch to influencers

Leverage the power of influencer partnerships to extend your brand’s reach. Gift your items to influencers in your niche and encourage them to showcase it on their platforms. Their endorsement can introduce your brand to new audiences and build credibility among their followers.

Reward customer loyalty and increase return purchases

Celebrate your most loyal customers with exclusive merch perks. From limited-edition releases to loyalty program incentives, use merch as a tangible expression of gratitude that reinforces customer loyalty and fosters a sense of belonging within your community.

How to use merchandise to improve work culture

Merchandise isn’t just for external promotion — it’s also a powerful tool for fostering a positive work environment and boosting team morale. Here are the key benefits of incorporating merch into your workplace culture:

  • Fosters a sense of belonging: Branded merch creates a sense of unity and belonging among team members, fostering a strong sense of camaraderie and teamwork.
  • Rewards and recognizes achievements: Merchandise can serve as a tangible reward for hard work and achievements, boosting motivation and morale among employees.
  • Builds brand advocates: When employees proudly wear or display company-branded merch, they become walking ambassadors for your brand, spreading positive word-of-mouth both in and out of the workplace.

You can distribute your business merchandise among your employees on many occasions:

  • In the welcome pack for your new employees
  • On holidays like Christmas, Easter, etc.
  • On company anniversaries and other important corporate dates
  • During corporate events like team buildings and work parties
  • On employee birthdays

Conclusion

On the exhilarating journey of crafting merchandise that leaves a lasting impression, there are three essential ingredients: strategic planning, creative design and effective promotion. Let’s recap the thrilling ride and uncover the secrets to success:

  1. Strategic planning: Plot your course with clear objectives in mind. Whether you’re aiming to boost brand visibility, reward loyalty or ignite sales, a well-defined strategy sets the stage for success. Dive deep into your audience’s psyche to ensure your merch hits the mark and resonates with their hearts.
  2. Creative design: Let your creativity run wild as you dream up designs that capture the essence of your brand and captivate your audience. Embrace graphic design best practices to ensure your merch stands out in a sea of sameness.
  3. Effective distribution: Sound the horns and rally the troops — it’s time to spread the word! From social media blitzes to influencer shoutouts, leverage every tool in your arsenal to amplify your merch’s message. Make waves in the marketplace, and watch as your brand rises to new heights.

By weaving together these three threads — strategic planning, creative design and effective promotion — you’ll create merchandise that doesn’t just turn heads but captures hearts.

Ready to make merch for your business?

Check out all your merch options and bring your brand to life. Let’s go!