What Florida tee-shirt shops can teach us about brand identity

A brand’s identity and its iconic elements obviously have a functional purpose of identifying the brand. But I’m a believer that there is great potential in brand identity elements being leveraged as a tool for self-expression as well, providing additional promotional opportunities for a brand and creating deeper connections with audiences.

On a recent trip to central Florida, I found many examples of this idea. The area surrounding Disney World has become a surreal merchandising ecosystem built on the back of one of the most iconic consumer brands. From flea markets to trinket shops with giant wizard- or mermaid-facades, branded merchandise — especially tee-shirts — is seemingly available inside some establishiment along every mile of the area’s highways.

Using the tee-shirt examples found in many of these shops, I’ll examine the opportunities to use a brand’s logo and iconic identity elements in a more flexible manner, to create relevance (rather than fragment visual equity) and demonstrate the potential to use brand identity elements for self-expression.

Tee-shirts are the ultimate example of stretching and customizing iconic brand identity elements.

Just how far can a brand stretch the use of its identity elements, without doing harm?

Let’s start with the obvious: there are many reasons someone may buy a tee-shirt.

Often a purchaser rationalizes a need:
I need a shirt.

Perhaps a tank. Or a tee. Or a polo.

Something to wear to school. To work. A running shirt. A pajama shirt. I need a gift for someone.

In addition to the physical need for a shirt, people want to make a statement.

They want to tell the rest of us something about themselves.

For example: “I’ve been there.”

Or: “I like this.”

“I believe this.”

“This is who I am.”

“My sense of humor.”

“We’re together.”

The message on the shirt doesn’t describe the shirt; it describes the wearer.

Tee shirts are the original “like” button. They allow the wearer to say something about themselves through the shirt.

Therefore, the opportunity for a consumer brand goes far beyond simply featuring a logo. Few brands (outside of many fashion brands) have an identity that is so inherently cool or communicative, that adding the logo to an otherwise generic piece of apparel ads much value.

I don’t mean to imply that some people don’t want apparel with a brand’s logo on it. Some people like the classics — simple brand icons that are more about the brand than about a specific message.

I suspect those who gravitate more toward tee-shirts with recognizable consumer logos and icons are more often going to be existing, big fans of the brand, and/or employees.

It’s important to provide options for fans, employees, and others who want merchandise simply with the logo on it. This isn’t a bad approach. Rather the point I’m making here is more of an examination of the other end of the spectrum, where brands allow themselves to be more expressive.

On this spectrum, I imagine most branded tee-shirts (and other promotional items) range from simple and iconic uses of brand elements, to expressive uses of brand elements:

The opportunity for most brands willing to play on the expressive side of this spectrum is related to giving audiences a way to say something about themselves — and use the brand’s identity to do so. The result helps the brand be more relevant to the wearer, building a deeper affinity.

Below are some ways Disney does this very effectively, using princesses and Minnie Mouse.

For example, princesses.

Princesses provide a common denominator between the Disney brand and a very specific audience.

For example, my daughter doesn’t (yet) feel a strong affinity for Disney, but she likes princesses. A Disney princess tee-shirt gives her the opportunity to express her interest, and gives Disney an opportunity they can use to build a deeper connection.

Of course, highly-sophisticated and complex merchandising programs like Disney’s take it much further, allowing for nuanced expression around the idea of princesses:

She can pick her favorite princess.

Or have all of the classics.

Maybe she wants to feel like a princess.

Maybe she wants to look like one.

Maybe she’s into a specific princess.

Or maybe she’s into a specific visual style.

But in all of these, the message isn’t about a brand. It’s a collaboration between the brand and the wearer. The brand lends its equities and associations to create a platform for the wearer’s self-expression. The wearer shares the brand’s message, achieving their own personal desire for self-expression and the brand’s desire for promotion.

Let’s look at another example. Minnie Mouse is a classic visual icon from Disney, as well as a symbol associated with ideas like cute, feminine, etc. While touring the gift shops and flea markets, I came across a wide array of Minnie offerings that not only included various messages related to Minnie-based self-expression, but also applied to different types of apparel, usages, styles, etc.

For the diva Minnie.

For the mini Minnie.

For Minnie me.

For Minnies with a Mickey.

For fans of bling.

Or those just looking for something comfortable.

There seems to be both a strong consumer pull for Minnie related apparel, and in return a strong push by licensing and merchandising teams to use Minnie as a platform for self-expression. The result is a variety of messages that allow wearers to say something about themselves, and many shirt styles to fit various functional needs and preferences.

While the examples above focus on tee-shirts, the principles are relevant to any media or channel where audiences have the opportunity to leverage brand elements for self-expression. Not just apparel, but also social media, accessories, products, etc. As another easy example: brands can design social media postings tailored for audience self-expression. Such postings are not to the brand’s audience, they’re built for their auidence. They’re not meant to communicate, they’re meant to be shared.

And the inverse is true as well. Within media and channels where a brand is trying to identify itself, or build its own visual equity and recognition, it’s probably best to avoid being overly expressive and focus on core brand identity elements used in a consistent manner. Think about awareness advertising, interfaces, vehicles, signage and other places where brand-recognition and identification is typically more important than extension.

In summary, wherever and whenever audiences are communicating something about themselves, there are likely opportunities for brands to help the audience leverage the brand’s identity and equity for the purpose of self-expression. I believe this creates a more relevant connection than using identity elements in a more traditional manner, and allows users to also be collaborators and promoters rather than spectators, all while encouraging deeper relationships and engagement.

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