At Pop2Life we don’t work with vendors, we have longstanding professional relationships with trusted partners. And one of our favorite partner calls to make is to Swagdog, a trendsetting,branded merchandise manufacturer based in Baltimore, MD, because it means we get to giveaway awesome promotions to our event attendees - spreading happiness beyond the length of the experience. It also means we get to work with President Russ White and his killer team.
Swagdog and Pop2Life have collaborated on some of our most epic brand experiences for clients such as The Walking Dead, HGTV, Comedy Central, and Food Network, including Cupcake Challenge and Tiny Tailgate. When we work with Swagdog, we know that our attendees are going to get custom, one-of-a-kind, you guessed it, swag to take home with them. There’s a mutual desire to accomplish great things for our brand partners and their consumers - ensuring that everyone who interacts with our experience leaves with a memory (and a maybe a T-shirt or two...)
I got the chance to interview White, to discuss the history of the company, his take on event apparel trends, some of the coolest experiential activations he's ever worked on, and how the industry has changed over the last 20+ years.
A South Park 20 Experience brand ambassador poses in her Swagdog shirt at NYCC in October 2016
What's the Swagdog story? How did the company get started?
My personal story started at University of Maryland, I was selling t-shirts for what I'll call "beverage money" and it was pretty successful and a very quick start to the entrepreneurial world. It was immediate gratification and became addicting. As I grew the business, I expanded by selling, mainly to beach stores, along the east coast. My business partner, Michael Shock, and I have designed and sold together since 1993. We grew the business through sales, but then wanted to control production, so we started to produce in-house and other companies began asking us to produced for them, too.
Over the last 24 years, we've pivoted from dealing with retail stores to dealing with corporate costumers. We aimed at helping to solve problems for corporations and marketing companies, which ended up being a more fulfilling hit for our company. Everyday is different when we're working alongside agencies like Pop2Life, because we never know what you guys are going to throw at us - and its fun! Our business is solving a problem and it happens to be a t-shirt, a pen, or a mug, but, in some cases, what we produce is totally unexpected. Having a partner that understands the business like Pop2Life makes our job that much easier. You give us the whole picture and say "solve it."
Where does the name Swagdog come from?
We came up with this name for our web presence in 2006 and we liked it so much, we transitioned the whole company's name. We were trying to come up with a brand that was a B2C, so it had to be something quick and catchy. I'm kind of a traditionalist and it took me a little while to get used to being called Mr. Swagdog, I'm the type of guy that wears khakis and a polo everyday. The name was so catchy that people came to us and we knew we had to change the whole company to that name. The logo is fantastic, I think it helps our brand. Although, we do get a lot of people asking if we sell dog products!
Swagdog popcorn ready for The Walking Dead fans at the season seven premiere in October 2016
How do you define your services?
We are promotional product problem solving - we try to figure out what your needs are and then solve that problem for you. If you have an event that has 5,000 people attending and your budget is $5,000, well then my job is to come up with the most creative product to service the people that are going to that event. Or if you are trying to do a giveaway for your executive team and you need the best The North Face jacket for a certain amount of money, I'll find it.
It's all about taking the needs of the customer and combining it with the knowledge that our team has. We have been doing this for a long time, so there is almost nothing we haven't seen. We listen and we take the information you have and solve the problem that you have for you.
What is your most popular product?
T-shirts. We have the capacity to sell well over a million t-shirts a year. That is our bread and butter, including screen printing and embroidering in-house. We love doing everything to meet our customers' exact specifications.
How has the industry changed for you over the last 10-20 years?
The ability to find anything immediately on the web, which has been both a plus and a negative. I think it helps people identify what they want quicker and get it to us, but on the other hand it causes issues because people will find stuff that is on a site that maybe is not feasible to produce in their time frame.
The technology of putting logos on merchandise has gotten faster and the communication with customers has become much more crisp. We take an order, then can quickly send them a virtual mock-up of what they are looking for. The level of touch and communication via multiple channels has made it easier over the years.You're never really offline because if the email, text, or phone isn't dinging you're not making money.
Our business has evolved over the years to a two or three week turn around and in some cases 48-hour turn arounds. The way we deal with this is by not charging rush charges, because this is something we can control. Our job is to know that you are having an event and what your timeline is, so we can plan ahead and choices get limited as time gets tighter. Our business is moving faster and faster every year.
HGTV Lodge brand ambassadors hand out Swagdog fans in the sweltering Nashville heat in June 2016
Tell us about some of the coolest brands you've worked with. What made the experiences stand out so positively?
I think some of the coolest projects that we worked on would be the The Walking Dead for Pop2Life, there are a couple of really big fans in our staff so they were ecstatic, the Star Wars Convention. Harley Davidson... We work with a lot of fun runs, charities, and local businesses and just wrapped up a project customizing more than 10,000 book bags for a literacy organization.
How does Swagdog's services improve a brand experience?
I read a survey about 15 years ago that asked, "What do customers want?" and, believe it or not, price didn't even crack the top five. Our customers, especially Pop2Life, have reputations, hard deadlines, and pre-established expectations with their own customers. When we take on that responsibility, we have to achieve it every time, logistically dotting our i's and crossing our t's to make sure the product gets there as expected. That to me is everything because then my customer sleeps well at night. If you can call Swagdog and don't have to worry about anything from there, then that's great - for me and for you.
If you were to advise a brand that is looking to implement apparel manufacturing services for the first time, what advice/guidance would you give them to start the process?
First, I'd get together with then for lunch or a sit down meeting to figure out what their needs are, what they have done in the past, what their looking to do in the future, what their pain points are, and how we can help. It takes a good conversation to get there and getting to know each other is part of being able to help solve the current and future needs for the client.
We have a website that has more than 500,000 items and it can be overwhelming. There are 20,000 pen choices alone. Although I can say, "You can go look on our website", it is the best use of your time to actually talk to us to figure out what you're looking for and narrow it down.
There are literally 15 types of baseball hats and you're thinking, "How could there be that many?" But if you tell me, "I'm looking for a hat for a charity softball game and I need it in a specific color and I like the one that snaps on the back, not the ones that have the clip..." I can narrow it down for you. When people go into sensory overload, they opt to not make a choice, but if we talk through two or three options together, then they make a choice every time. My job is to narrow it down to help you make your decision.
AMC's Preacher cross-country live screenings included custom Swagdog fans, food, and beanies