As businesses begin to embrace the idea of deeper and more meaningful brands, the opportunities to create lively, authentic connections with your customers are getting pretty exciting.

The most important aspects of a company’s identity really are intangible, and can be conveyed at least as effectively by the quality and style of your customer service, special events, community involvement, etc. Still, inspiring customers to keep, use and otherwise invite your brand into their lives probably means a few objects they can actually hold in their hands.

Print-on-demand, the ability to create custom items as needed—rather than in large quantities in anticipation of future needs—has become one of the defining phenomena of this digital age.

Here are a few things that make POD so marvelous:

  • Minimum purchase quantities can be as little as one. ONE!
  • Design ideas can often be uploaded and previewed as a comp on a producer’s site for free.
  • POD eliminates the need to manage physical inventory.
  • The range of products available is constantly growing.
  • It can be used as an inexpensive prototyping tool if you do plan to go a traditional production route.
  • POD vastly increases the promotional possibilities for budget-strapped teams and businesses.
  • POD is great for testing pricey ideas.
  • Many POD items can be sold and delivered directly from the producer’s website (though commissions are usually low).
  • Some producers offer a “white label” sales experience you can integrate with your business website, allowing you complete brand control.

And here’s quick a behind-the-scenes look at a print-on-demand order going from button click to finished product, aired by Bloomberg last year in a story about Zazzle, a fast-growing POD “department store”:


Print-on-demand is not only fed by the rapid progress of production processes like digital and 3D printing, but also by the increasingly global access the internet provides. Producers, designers and consumers around the world can connect, create and distribute in unprecedented ways, especially if we are willing to listen to and learn from the many new perspectives and voices.

I don’t know whether Estudio Manifesto Futura used print-on-demand to assemble the impressive array of materials they designed for Maminena, a boutique hotel in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. I suspect they made use of some, at least. The photo below is just a tiny sampling to show a range of ideas. Digitally printed fabric, for example, can now be purchased in sizes as small as 8″ x 8″ on materials from silk to cotton to upholstery-weight canvas. To see more from this project, visit the Manifesto Futura portfolio page (the hotel website is under construction at the writing of this post).

Maminena Hotel branding by Manifesto Futura

Beyond caps and tee shirts, there are binders, pillows, postage stamps, even skateboard decks. Day by day, systems are getting easier and more flexible, allowing you to freely experiment, and add and remove concepts with very little material waste. You can also begin to scaffold ideas that a decade ago would have had to wait until the time and/or money were there.

Chipotle Skateboard on Zazzle

Selling stuff

POD items can be offered for sale to your customers, and also to a general public that doesn’t know you (yet). This is because the growing print-on-demand industry is led (and fed) by sites like Zazzle, iMakr (3D printing) and Spoonflower (digital printing to fabrics, wall coverings and gift wrap). They’ve been working hard to discover, attract and serve increasingly satisfied customers: product quality, shopping experiences and shipping choices have been improving steadily. Though commissions on sales through these sellers tend to be low, you may just come up with something with broad appeal. Bigger sellers have also been known to negotiate better commissions.

Beyond the logo

To promote your business and build your brand, there are two basic routes you can take. One is to simply create stuff with your logo on it, and there are definitely tons of situations where this is plenty. If your business is a local favorite with a supportive customer base, we’ll happily wear your logo-fied tees and drink out of your logo-fied mugs. The other approach is to reach past your logo to the core of your brand, which is your company’s values: consider developing some more-abstract visual devices that represent the feelings and ideals associated with who you are as a business or team.

I wrote a little about this last year, in Design Consistency: Relax a Little. In that post, I also provided links to some great, practical resources for values-based brand building, so have a look if this is something you want to pursue.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas for logo-free directions you can take. Do one or all, or come up with your own (let me know what you create):

  • a repeatable pattern
  • a set of colors
  • a logo-free illustration—a mascot that is a critter, or not
  • something a buyer can customize
  • ?? (your amazing idea here)

You are not stuck with these forever (unless you want to be). You can change them with the season or your next growth step. If you’re being consistent about expressing company values through customer service, you’re probably being consistent enough.

Be willing to do more than slap your logo on a product. Consider ideas people will really keep and share. Invest the time to think about what you represent, and what POD products are relevant to your customers.

Here’s a great example of a logo-free brand device, spotted by the CreativeRoots blog. The illustration is by Ross Bruggink.

Absolut Chicago packaging design

For Absolut, the colors seem to go every which way, as you may have seen in their evolving print and billboard ads. By involving customers through campaigns that honor regional cultures, as well as Culture-with-a-capital-C, they have nailed Value as Brand. They can even step completely away from their logo. It still holds together.

Rock bands are some of the greatest logo-free brands. Most operate far outside any sort of brand book. It’s telling, then, that so many succeed at creating an inspired stream of visuals that are consistent with their identity. Fans collect their posters, tees and other schwag at least as much as they buy their music.

In fact, highly respected marketing and social media consultant and blogger, Mack Collier, tells businesses to “Think Like a Rock Star” in a fantastic book you should add to your marketing library. Use it to dig for, expand, and maybe even redefine the kinds of connections you want to cultivate with your customers.

It’s my hope it will also inspire you to experiment with the boundaries of your brand.

I recently advised a home organization startup, and in a brainstorming session, we discussed the products they planned to offer clients. In their case, it became clear a few of the products could be customized with a unique surface treatment that would appeal to customers, adding beauty to their surroundings while also (very elegantly) spreading the word about the company’s services.

At this stage, I can’t tell you more about my home organization friends, but I hope I’ve inspired an idea or two for a project or business of yours. Incredible and creative use is being made of the increasingly available products, and the costlier processes, such as 3D printing, are more and more within reach.

As you look for ways to grow your business, explore print-on-demand as a potent way to connect with your market and build your brand from the inside out.

Would you like help expanding your business identity to print-on-demand products or other marketing materials? Contact me!

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