Q&A: Live Customization as a Brand Strategy

Lucas Guariglia, president and director of sales at Rowboat Creative (asi/313715) in Chicago, discusses his company’s recent partnerships with major brands to develop live customization events. Recently, the Rowboat Creative team used printing guns to personalize athletic T-shirts at a Nike pop-up run in Chicago, and also had live manual screen-printing of apparel and posters at Adidas events.

Advantages: How did you get involved with live customization events?
Lucas Guariglia: For some brands, we start as their production house and we work with them on print capabilities only. The conversation starts that way. Then they come in and get a sense of who we are. They take in the atmosphere and the conversation open up, and they ask about what else we can do. We do really out-of-the-box branding projects. So then we’ll sit back down at the table and talk about developing a product line for them. They want more ideas, more creative insights. You can do giveaways all day long, but live customization allows consumers to engage and be a part of the creative process. And we can control the entire production process. It becomes a question of, how do we bring our expertise to a specific event? And what kinds of technology will we need?

Rowboat Creative brought its hand-held printing guns to personalize apparel at a recent Nike Chicago Pop-up run.

A: How do you go about planning for one of these events?
LG: Some brands will come to us and they’re very involved; they’re proactive in building it from start to finish. They might come to us and tell us their idea, and we’ll tell them we can do that, but we also ask about objectives, target demographics, how they want to brand. At the end of the day, we don’t want the brands to get the reputation of just jumping on the next trend wave. We’ll also ask them what brought them to us. We want it to be a symbiotic relationship. We also have to manage expectations. Live printing gives it a human element. People are so used to clicking a mouse and making it look perfect, but since it’s by hand, it may be imperfect but it gives it that DIY vibe.

A: What types of demographics do they appeal to?
LG: It’s so expansive. I’m able to see it from both sides. I see it internally, what we’re contracted to do, and I see it from a top-down view. How are consumers engaging? I see the people flow, the line length. I see 5-year-olds who want to see what’s going on. I see older people intrigued by the technology. I see millennials who want the free merch and want to be involved in the customization. It runs the gamut. The biggest thing we see is that people from all walks of life are intrigued and involved—that’s success. At a tradeshow, you see stacks of pre-printed bags and shirts. There’s more worth and value in bringing these live branding situations to events. Then the merch involves the attendees, it’s personalized, they’re more invested and they’re more likely to use the item because they helped create it.

A: How do you use hand-held customization guns at live events?
LG: About four or five years ago, we were keeping our eye on this technology. Usually the guns are used to mark pallets, shipping containers and boxes. We wanted to get in front of it as a way to personalize merchandise. We knew we’d be printing on fabric, so we honed in on the ones best for that type of printing. We created an internal proprietary platform to allow for swift and immediate on-site customization that integrates logos and imagery. There are different ink types you can use, for different fabrics like activewear and cotton. We can do something for maybe 500-600 people, where the attendee might want their name on the front, a number on the back and their running time on the bottom left. We have separate terminals that will beam that information into the gun. It’s not for a massive production run, but at an event, it creates a spectacle. We can personalize hard goods, shoes, soccer balls, hats and more. Everyone’s looking for a way to make an impression on the street level.

Rowboat partnered with Chicago-based artist Nikko Washington to offer limited-run screen-printed posters for the release of the Adidas POD S3.1 shoe. Participants could choose their preferred base paper color, design, ink colors and top layer design.

A: What did the Nike x Rowboat Creative event entail?
LG: We offered shirts personalized with customization guns during one of Nike’s pop-up runs in Chicago. It’s a type of guerrilla marketing for Nike, so the vibe works well with what we’re doing with the guns. Brands are shaking things up; they want to make a spectacle. The merchandising market is big, but experiential marketing is getting even bigger. And Nike is really pushing things forward.

A: Do you think more brands will be turning to live customization events?
LG: Brands are realizing it’s crucial to have street-level, grassroots branding experiences, in addition to billboards and TV commercials. A company might have 10 billboards across the city, but they have no idea what the reach is. At events, you can see people engaging, and you can count how many people stopped by, how many products were sold, how many likes, posts and tags the event got on social media. It’s measurable. And a client can actually attend the event as a secret shopper, and see who’s lining up and how they’re engaging.