VOL. 129 | NO. 25 | Thursday, February 6, 2014
By Amos Maki
In 1996, the company known as Champion Awards and Apparel first waded into the world of e-commerce by operating a merchandise website for the Memphis Mad Dogs, the Canadian Football League team that was partly owned by FedEx founder, chairman and CEO Fred Smith.
Roger Webb operates a manual screen printing press at T-Shirt Champions. The company recently rebranded from its former name, Champion Awards and Apparel.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
Champion ended up selling just $339 in Mad Dogs merchandise on the Web, with most of that going to Smith and his associates.
But CEO Mike Bowen remained focused on e-commerce, and since 2001, the company has bought more than 100 domain names and considered multiple business name changes he hoped would better showcase the company’s reputation as a premier custom T-shirt printer.
In January, Champion Awards and Apparel made the leap, announcing it was rebranding itself as T-Shirt Champions, a name created to emphasize its focus on T-shirt design. The rebranding effort included a new website, tshirtchampions.com, to make it easier for customers to design and order T-shirts while giving employees more time to engage in customer service.
For T-Shirt Champions CEO Mike Bowen, the name change lifted an “albatross” from around his neck. Bowen said the company’s previous name, which was created when he merged his mom's Champion Trophy and dad's Custom Printed Tees companies, had made it difficult to easily describe the company’s focus. T-Shirt Champions creates around 1.2 million shirts a year.
“The T-shirt really had made us a champion,” Bowen said. “Champion Awards and Apparel will always be close to my heart, but we’re the oldest and best T-shirt printer around and people just didn’t know it. People who have only bought awards from us would come in and visit and say they didn’t know we printed T-shirts like we do.”
But the journey to rebranding the company and creating a versatile website that allowed for greater customer interaction was not a quick one.
Bowen said he recognized early on that the Internet was a vehicle that could propel his company, which serves a wide range of local companies and organizations, into the future – or crush it.
“We used to say our biggest competition was ourselves, but in the 1990s, our biggest competitor became the Internet,” Bowen said. “These loyal Memphis companies were getting online and ordering a T-shirt on the Internet.”
Over the years, the company acquired dozens of domain names and explored multiple operating platforms to find one that would allow customers to efficiently create and order a broad array of T-shirts.
Bowen said he had to trust the expertise and opinions of his employees, who were urging him to pursue the rebranding campaign.
“I had all these smart young people around me, and they said, ‘You’ve always been frustrated that people don’t know what you do, so why don’t you go ahead and take the plunge?’” Bowen said. “You’ve got to create a culture where people feel like they can say, ‘No, this is a better way.’”
In addition to relying on his team at T-Shirt Champions, Bowen engaged Obsidian Public Relations, RocketFuel and Running Pony to help with the rebranding effort and creation of the new website.
The new website offers instructions on placing orders, access to more than 20,000 individual pieces of art, and design advice from T-Shirt Champions employees.
“We’re going for the people who want to design a T-shirt for themselves or their organization and let them go online and have fun,” said Brandon Conners, vice president of customer care for T-Shirt Champions.
Bowen said the new website will allow the company to produce more shirts – he hopes to produce 2 million a year by the end of 2016 – while giving employees more time to “hug” customers.
“We think having a Web-based order entry system will allow our customer-care people to serve our customers faster and better,” Bowen said. “Our goal is to do 2 million T-shirts a year by end of 2016, and we can do that with our existing equipment and our existing staff.”