What can the Rugby World Cup teach us about merchandise?

Is it all the team’s fault though, for lacking the firepower and grit to get through to at least the quarter finals? Or could the organisers have done something differently to improve their chances of selling the merchandise?

Social media stars and musicians totally get the benefits of merchandise. It’s not just about flogging t-shirts to your fans; it’s now about creativity and sharing. Social media gives us the ability to comment and join in the conversation, which has changed the way fans interact. Only brands and sports organisers seem not to have caught up yet.

The RWC merchandise looked like it had been dreamt up by committee months, maybe even years, ago. A rather anodyne logo, some corporate colours and that seems to be pretty much it. But social media gives fans a high level of flexibility and immediacy. They want what is being discussed today, not what was planned last year. So in order to sell well, merchandising needs to be as current as todays twitter conversations. It needs to be able to adapt to changes during a tournament.

This means that license holders need to learn to relinquish their hold on their brand image… just a little. If they can ease up on their strict rules, they can tap into the inventiveness of their fans. At the RWC this could have meant sharing the wry humour of the defeated England fans, and the teasing of the surviving home nations for a week or two longer. 

Most fans have a second team in any tournament, whether it’s a grandmother qualification, married to someone from another rugby nation or are just supporting the underdogs. Technology like print-on-demand means that fans can put their own slogans on a t-shirt or hoody and share it with their friends. If someone wants to buy even just one, that’s possible. The license holder or event organiser can even allow this in their own shop.

It’s not quite as immediate as in-game betting, but in-tournament merchandising is possible. With inventive fans and timely delivery, new merchandise can be available in time for the game the following weekend (assuming you don’t run out of great grandmothers).

It’s not just the RWC, most licensed merchandising is failing the fans. The Yorkshire branch of the Tour de France found itself with a £750K of excess merchandising. It seems this was ordered in an attempt to cover a funding gap. Perhaps a better idea would have been to combine this bulk order with a print-on-demand approach, so that fans also had access to a choice of colours, styles and sizes? Bulk ordering in advance does, of course, mean you have merchandise to sell alongside the race route. But funds have to be committed upfront for this. With print-on-demand, fans can join in, adding their own ideas, sharing and spreading the word, before buying it.

From our position on the design and t-shirt production line, we see that creativity always surfaces somewhere. It appears regularly on our site and we have to police it in behalf of the brands. And yet we all know that the black market has thousands of cool designs. Fans create and want these. Then they buy and wear them. Brands can’t police this and they lose out, not only on the revenue, but also on the innovation.

In the end, now that New Zealand has won, what can the Rugby World Cup teach us about merchandise? Perhaps that more planning should go in to flexibility, not an inflexible standard. Effort should go into harnessing the creativity of fans, not policing the borders of the brand. That way, when the team crashes out, you might not sell any more kit, but you might find that fans pitch in with some amazing ideas instead.

Philip Rooke is CEO of Spreadshirt

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