Selling “The Brand”

By Bob Carver

Merchandising can be a vital part of the marketing landscape of a camp, and imprinted merchandise helps get a camp’s name out to the public. You want to do all you can to promote the “brand.” In the camping environment, our brand is our name and what we have to offer.


I spoke with several vendors and asked for comments and advice concerning promotional products. Here are some of their comments:

·         “I would say that apparel and promotional items are a huge part of marketing for any company. Even in a down economy, the promotional-products industry is growing as many companies need a new way to get their name out there, and gain an edge on their competition.”

·         “Everyone wants a souvenir to take home from camp, so look to purchase items for your camp that your campers specifically need, such as T-shirts, plush animals, water bottles. Buying odd items that will sit on the shelf will not help your retail or make for a happy camper.”

·         “We try our best to make sure the kids wear the shirts we produce long after camp is over. If money is spent on camp shirts that are worn and used just for that week, then it is wasted money. Most camps focus on saving a quarter to get boring art the kids will never like; it would have been better to skip the shirts and give them better hot dogs.”

Promotional Items
Promotional items are usually give-aways to attendees of a special event, donors, program leaders or friends. There are numerous choices in selecting a vendor. You probably have been inundated with mailings, e-mails, carrier pigeons and fliers dropped from hot-air balloons that claim to offer the best and cheapest promotional items. I’m talking about everything from an emu ballpoint pen with a fuzzy tail to a whoopee cushion imprinted with the camp’s name! Let’s not even go there! My recommendation is to find a small handful of suppliers, develop relationships so you trust them, and then rely on what they suggest. I admit that occasionally I just choose a good Web site and order directly from it, but that is not the case with the majority of items I use. One good example is imprinted lanyards. I’ve had such good luck, good prices and good service with one online company, so I use it every year.

Here is a list of items that have been successful:

·         Ballpoint pens--You can purchase pens that range in cost from 19 cents to several dollars each. The cheaper ones are usually purchased by the hundreds.

·         Coffee mugs--There is a wide range of quality levels with mugs. These are usually obtained for events.

·         Tote bags--This is a new phenomenon within the last year. Lightweight, non-woven poly totes with handles are everywhere. My daughter recently told me she purchased four of them at the local discount store, and she carries them every time she shops there. I recently ordered 100, personalized with a large imprint. A tote bag is an item that people will use almost every day.

·         Calendars--There is a wide range of these available as well. You can purchase everything from a small, inexpensive calendar for your shirt pocket to an expensive gift-type calendar for an executive’s desk. 

·         Banners--There is a variety of sources for imprinted banners. We order custom banners each year with our summer camp theme, and post them around the camp grounds.

Other promotional items might include magnets, jump drives, letter openers, pen lights, golf balls, pad holders, etc.

All of the above items are imprinted with the camp name. I also suggest including the Web address and phone number, if possible.

Apparel comes in all shapes and sizes, and can be distributed in various ways. One way is to give apparel to specific people. Each summer we provide the program directors (volunteers from our churches) an imprinted T-shirt with a specific theme, along with the title “program director” and name of the camp. They always wear it on the first day of camp. We also provide summer staff an imprinted T-shirt for each day of the week that is imprinted with the camp name, staff and sometimes the theme for the season. Every few years we imprint a nice polo shirt, cap or jacket, and give it to each of our board members. When we have special events at the camp, we give them as door prizes in a drawing.

The Camp Store
Another way of distributing imprinted apparel is through the camp store. We call ours the “Outpost Store.” We converted an old dormitory that sits in a prominent place on the camp grounds. This area has a lot of foot traffic on opening and closing days of camp. In fact, we only open the store during those times. It is by no means an ideal facility, so we have had to become creative in the way we merchandise.

My philosophy regarding items in the camp store falls into three types:

1.       An imprinted product with the camp name, logo, Web address, etc. We want our name out there. In fact, if you see a camper in the local mall wearing a camp T-shirt, you have been successful.

2.       Since we are a Christian camp, we provide inspirational gifts too. These items usually do not have the camp name on them. Examples include a cross necklace or a Bible.

3.       The last items are necessities. We always have a supply of towels, soap, toothpaste, etc., for campers who have forgotten these items. We buy them at the local discount store and sell them for a small amount over our cost.

The rule of thumb for the typical retail store is to mark up items by 100 percent. For example, if you bought a plush animal with an imprinted T-shirt and you paid $3 for it, the recommended selling price is $6. Also, keep in mind that in most states, you must charge sales tax and then report and pay those amounts to the state. I create a spreadsheet with every item listed. One of the calculations takes the purchase price and multiplies it by 10 percent. This amount is added to the purchase price as the real cost. It allows for sales tax and shipping. Make the markup from that point. Traditionally, we have included the sales tax in the total retail cost of the items, so it is not added later. Here is a sample of that spreadsheet entry:

Item                       Cost        Cost (+shipping/tax=+.10%)             Retail

Canoe T-Shirt       $6.50                      $7.15                                      $14.00-$14.50

Here are a few items that have been successful:

·         T-Shirts--This is a foundational product. There are many companies that provide some very cool designs. Find a couple of companies, and develop a relationship. It will pay dividends in the long haul. If you want campers to wear these shirts in public, you must use edgy designs. Some companies with great designs will drop in your name. Others will custom-design shirts per your specifications, or perhaps even suggest ideas to you. One of the best ways to “get a clue” about what is hot is to go to the local discount store and see what is selling. Walk around in public, and look at the shirts the kids are wearing.

·         Plush animals with imprinted T-shirts, ties, or ribbons--I sell almost 400 of these critters every year. Look for ones that are cute and feel good. Going to shows that feature this type of item gives you the opportunity to handle these animals.

·         Lanyards--I vary the type and color from one year to the next. They are always imprinted with the camp name and Web address.

·         Water bottles--I’ve had the best luck with polycarb bottles that hold fewer than 20 ounces and will fit the hands of school-age kids.

·         Caps--The low-profile cap is the most popular. When I put one on, it makes me look like a dork, but I’m not ordering these for a 63-year-old man!

·         Frisbees--These are always good for the store and for give-aways. Since we have a disc-golf course on site, we also feature a display of disc-golf discs, bags, towels, etc.

·         Jewelry--There’s a lot of cool inspirational and secular jewelry out there. Many are made of pewter to keep the cost down. Most of them retail in the $6 to $12 range. 


There are a number of other products, such as silicone bracelets, camp journals, bandanas, disposable cameras and imprinted drum sticks.

Merchandising And Display
No matter how large or small the store, it is vital to display items for sale in an organized and attractive way. For example, we found that a metal rack with shelves works best to display camp shirts and the six to nine different designs we have each year. To show what shirts are on the shelves, we place display mannequins along the entryway to the store, so parents and campers must pass those displays. You can make your own mannequins from PVC pipe mounted on a wooden base for about 1/6 the cost of purchasing the commercial type. 

It is very important that all items are marked clearly. Price each individual item (my preference), or at least have signs on the racks that clearly show the prices.  

Three or four years ago, we created a unique concept in marketing camp-store products. We have found that the majority of parents like to use the program, which began when they were sending packages to their kids at camp, only to have the packages arrive after their children had returned home. A company offered us a gift-bag program, but we said, “Hey, let’s do it ourselves!” Each year, it has grown in popularity. Outside the camp store, a display is set up to explain the “gift-bag” program. A parent--usually Mom--picks one or more empty bags. We have various colors--one for each day of the week. For example, if Monday is yellow-bag day, Mom gets a yellow bag and places inside it a handwritten note (on notetpaper we provide). She then takes the bag into the store, fills it with merchandise, and goes to the checkout. The basic bag cost is $3.50, which includes the bag, tissue paper, the note and some miscellaneous products like candy or a toy. After checking out, she places a name label on the outside of the bag. We then store all the yellow bags together for delivery during the Monday mail. By delivery time, we have completed the contents we provide, and have placed all the yellow bags in the mail-delivery boxes. It takes a summer staff employee a couple of hours each day to process the gift bags for delivery. Problem solved!

Recently I was walking in a large shopping mall and heard, “Hey, Bob.” Two junior high school kids from summer camp were wearing Camp Allendale shirts. When you capture a popular and edgy shirt, and you see your campers wearing them in the mall, you have been successful in promoting your brand. Oh, by the way, I had on a cool camp shirt too!

Bob Carver has been in camp management for the past 33 years. He recently retired as executive director of Camp Allendale in Trafalgar, Ind., to become the camp's marketing director. He can be reached via e-mail at