June 13, 2008
We interview Christine from ‘Retro Campaigns’.
TM: When did you decide that t-shirts was your thing?
RC: It didn’t actually start out as a business venture. Really, I just wanted to own a shirt from an old campaign, like Robert Kennedy’s (one of my heroes), for myself. After searching every place I could think of, I came up empty. Campaigns from the past used colorful and imaginative buttons, bumper stickers, posters, etc., but t-shirts are relatively new in terms of political promotion. So I thought, “Why not make some myself?” I created a handful of designs and got positive responses from friends who encouraged me to think about actually selling the shirts.
But I’m no professional designer by any means, so I was very fortunate to know a fantastic designer who has a keen interest and skill in “retro” style art and who liked my idea. He took my designs and ideas and turned them into the first batch of designs. This was in July of 2007.
How long have you been in the t-shirt biz? And what have you learned?
RC:We launched officially in December 2007, but pretty much the only people we told were our family and friends. We thought it would be a good idea to have them view the site first and see if they spotted any problems or had any suggestions. We started advertising in January of this year.
I’ve learned a ton. Not just about t-shirts but about business in general. I guess one of the biggest lessons is that no matter how great (you think) your shirts are, people aren’t going to magically start buying them just because you opened for business. It takes a lot of time and effort to get your name out there, and keep it out there.
And don’t quit your day job!
TM: What made you decide to make a business out of “retro campaigns” rather than current ones?
RC: I’m a big political history buff, and America has a wonderful tradition of unique and colorful politicians throughout its history. I think it’s a fun way to remember them and maybe also shine a light on some of the candidates who lost the race, like Eugene McCarthy, Wendell Willkie, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Adlai Stevenson, etc. I think it’s unfortunate that many of these people are remembered now only for losing their election(s).
Wendell Willkie for instance made huge contributions after his loss to Roosevelt. He traveled the world in 1942 as Roosevelt’s representative and reported back to the president and to America in frank terms what he saw throughout a world in the grips of war. “A military victory, as such, will not be enough … We must win the peace,” he famously said. He so firmly believed that it is the duty of Americans to debate and question government that the press dubbed him ‘America’s Private Citizen Number One’.
TM: Which design is your favorite?
RC:I really like the Adlai Stevenson “Hole in the Shoe”design. I think it looks great and I love the story behind it. During his 1952 presidential campaign, a photographer caught a picture of Stevenson with a big hole in his shoe. “Better a hole in the shoe than a hole in the head!” he said to the guy, a remark typical of his quick wit. The Stevenson campaign went on to use that as a symbol of Stevenson’s down-to-earth character, work ethic and frugality. Today that image is part of our political history. There’s even a statue based on that photo at the Central Illinois Regional Airport!
TM: Were you ever able to get your hands on a shirt for one of these campaigns at the time of the campaign?
RC:The only original campaign shirts I own are from campaigns I’ve worked on or candidates I’ve supported, but those are from the 90s.
TM: Do your run your label alone or do you have a team?
RC: It’s just me and a designer. Generally how it works is I’ll come up with an idea for a design and he’ll make it happen. I handle all the business stuff, and the orders and advertising.
TM: What was it like seeing one of your shirts worn on tv? I’m guessing you had a huge increase in orders.
RC: Amazing! Just a really cool feeling. I’m a big fan of comedian Greg Fitzsimmons so I found him on MySpace and offered to send a sample of our shirts. He ended up wearing one on VH1’s Best Week Ever in January and has worn a couple more since, most recently in May.
Yeah, we got a huge increase in orders. We even had someone get to our site by searching “Greg Fitzsimmons t-shirt.” I told him he’s a fashion icon now!
TM: What would you say your niche is and what has been your best marketing vehicle in targeting that audience?
RC: Generally people 18-40 or so who have an interest in politics and political history.
The best success we’ve had in reaching that market has been with Facebook. It’s been fantastic. The ability to target so specifically makes it a dream for advertisers.
TM: What’s in the works for the future of Retro Campaigns?
RC: More and more designs! We have another batch ready to shoot in the next couple of weeks, and then it’s on to the next ones. There’s a potentially endless supply of ideas for shirts based on political history.
TM:You’ve gotten a fair share of exposure all over the net. What tips could you give to others trying to promote their t-shirt labels?
RC: Work, work, work! Contact every t-shirt reviewer and blogger. Treat them all with respect and courtesy, and always offer to send a sample. Find out their names if you can and try to also mention something specific to their site in your introductory letter. And if they review you or mention you, be sure to create a section on your site to link back to them.
Try to expand depending on your niche. For instance, we are politically inclined so I spent a long time researching political sites/blogs and then e-mailed hundreds of people. From this we ended up getting a mention on DailyKos, which resulted in tons of hits, and a host of other sites, some of which put our banner up for free just because they liked our company.
I also created a list of fashion sites/blogs/magazines and e-mailed each of them. From this we got mentions on some popular fashion sites like Shirt Snob and Trendi Blog.
Don’t expect to get responses back from everyone you contact, but keep track of everyone you’ve e-mailed and don’t hesitate to e-mail back the people who haven’t responded. It might sound obnoxious but if you do it politely enough people are usually okay with it. Many review sites are inundated with requests like yours and sometimes you have to persevere just to get noticed.
Make a MySpace page. I had never used MySpace before but I’ve found it to be a hugely helpful resource. I initially “friended” comedians and bands and non-profit organizations that I liked, and then as you get more friends, and leave comments, it leads to people then requesting you, and then you can leave comments on their page, and so on. I spend about a half an hour a day on MySpace, adding friends, leaving comments, etc. I also write 5 MySpace bulletins over the weekend, one for each day of the following work week, and I post them 3 times a day. We get a lot of hits each day just from bulletins.
As I mentioned earlier, Facebook is awesome. You can create a page for your company for free and you can place an ad for as little as $5. It’s based on a bidding system (CPC/CPM). The key to making it work is careful keyword research and creating an eye-catching ad. $5 might not sound like much, but if you put the work in, it can really do a lot for you.
There’s also a relatively new ad service called Project Wonderful that I’ve had success with. It works with a number of blogs and you bid on ad space (Cost Per Day). They work with a lot of t-shirt sites so it’s a great place to start, especially if you have limited funds, because you can bid as low as nothing, and if no one else is bidding on that spot, you get it for free! (At least until someone comes along and outbids you.)
Basically, when you’re just getting started, take advantage of every free or low-cost resource available, and be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on promotion.
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