Free cybersecurity T shirts – when freebies become geek chic

In this very niche article, former P&P editor Dan Raywood, takes a look at the technology sector, in particular cybersecurity, and how the right T shirt design can transform a T shirt from a freebie to one wearers will be proud to wear.

 The technology sector, and cybersecurity in particular, has been suffering with an image crisis for a while: of hoodie wearing men sitting in darkened rooms hunched over keyboards.

While the hoodie and keyboards are not going away, the conferences and vendors have seized the opportunity to produce decorated garments that people want to wear in and out of the office.

But what makes a decent T shirt decoration, what makes someone want to wear one in particular and how are the producers doing their best to provide the must-have design?

Reuse over and over again

The use of a promotional T shirt can provide a single use, or if you provide something attractive and with a decent quality, you may be providing something that the recipient that they will reuse over and over.

In the cybersecurity industry, the free T shirt has become the main give away for a number of vendors. At the major and minor conferences, vendors give T shirts away to those who visit the stands, while at some conferences the T shirt is given to the contributing speaker.

In the case of the hacker conference Def Con, held annually in Las Vegas, the line to purchase one of a selection of Def Con T shirts often stretches long into the corridors.

So what makes one T shirt more attractive to a delegate than others? This is the holy grail for any vendor looking to give a garment away – to give away something that is not only going to be taken, but actually retained and worn over and over?

Personally I have a number of conference T shirts which I wear frequently, and some others that are kept to clean in, sleep in or do the garden in. Is that a slur upon the vendor whose brand the T shirt bears? I hope not, but if the garment is something that looks good. I’ll want to wear it over and over.

In an article, security researcher Michael Cote gave his top nine ways to ensure that a garment is retained, including: minimal branding, poor print quality, decent material, a comfortable fit, available sizes for women and a choice other than black.

Around the house

A Twitter survey I conducted collected 36 votes and found that 50% of those who voted had fewer than 10 T shirts, while 36% had between 10 and 30 garments.

So what do people use them for? Brian Honan, CEO of BH Consulting, said that he uses T shirts when doing work around the house and if they get dirty, ripped, or covered in paint it is no big deal. So would he wear them socially? He said: “I rarely wear vendor branded swag out and about as I am not being paid to promote their material.”

Likewise security practitioner Chris Ratcliff said: “Nothing says cheap product like a cheap T shirt, I don’t want a company I dislike on me, and a cool design gets more wears than a simple logo on white shirt.”

Chris likened the Coca-Cola idea of putting your brand on stuff which people will use or see a lot –  hence a lot of coke mirrors and lampshades way back when. He added: “While bad T shirts and swag get consigned to bins and drawers: good stuff gets used and brand reinforced.”

An image problem

In a second Twitter poll I conducted, 24 people voted in a poll on those vendor and conference T-shirts they did wear regularly, why did they wear it? Comfortable feel and size was the most popular for 50%, while 13% opted for the decoration.

Cybersecurity is an industry which has struggled with an image problem for some time, and included in that is a distinct lack of senior female practitioners and role models. In that vein, there was a common thread about a lack of available sizes for women.

Why is this? After all if you are only going to offer an XL shirt there is a fair chance that the majority of delegates will be catered for, but with an industry-wide encouragement for more women, should female sizes be offered too?

A security researcher who only goes by the name Azeria said: “It really starts to annoy me that almost no InfoSec/Hacker conferences have women sized T shirts, as I accumulate dozens of oversized conference T shirts that I can only wear in bed. I don’t need 100 pyjamas.”

Is this the responsibility of the exhibiting vendor to offer the better range of sizes? Twitter user Penny Stone highlighted one vendor’s custom T shirt press at this year’s RSA Conference in San Francisco, but was put off as they had four geometric male head designs for the centre logo, and no female head design – I didn’t bother picking one up.

From a design point of view, Penny pointed out some other interesting designs she had seen at the conference, in particular those where the company logo isn’t the main point of the tee. She said: “It waa sort of sprinkled in at the end, and I still noticed it because it’s like, who is the cool company that came up with that logo?”

A fun way to express identity

Shanel Vandergriff, SVP of marketing at security vendor AlienVault was asked if the T shirt design is something that is important to the company? She said: “Anything reflecting our brand is important to us. T shirts are a fun way to express our corporate identity, allowing us to put a unique angle on our brand through taglines, slogans or just imagery.”

Likewise, Matt Davies, head of marketing for EMEA at Splunk, said that it had given away a lot of T shirts over the years. He added: “We always try and keep the design true to the values of Splunk and to the history of the T shirts themselves.”

Asked if creating an in demand T shirt design was something that was important to Splunk, Matt said: “The idea is to not only try and appeal to and support our Splunk community, but also to try and make the brand as accessible to as many as people as possible.

“The T shirts do have an element of geek chic and we always ensure that they have some form of cultural reference and capture a second meaning where we can. We have highly intelligent customers so they appreciate the puns, play on words and the fact that not everyone gets the joke on the first pass.”

Matt said that when Splunk’s T shirts are seen in crowds, it is a great way to spread the brand and for a corporate giveaway they are unique and cool.

Hey good looking

So is something that looks good a key factor? Shanel said that AlienVault is always striving to evolve the brand and create something that their users will think is fun, engaging and cool, while Matt added that creating new brands is a fun challenge internally.

“The bar is very high and we have a T shirt committee that keep us all honest and makes sure the slogan works for as wide an audience as possible,” Matt said. “We have thousands of customers all over the world using Splunk for so many different things, so we try and make sure they are not only funny but also inclusive and true to the Splunk brand.”

It will come as no surprise to the promotional clothing industry that T shirts are cheap to buy, easy to decorate and in demand from recipient – particularly when they are free. In the cybersecurity sector, the T shirt is more in demand than a free pen or the latest gimmick: they can persist trends and be handed out freely, or as prizes – and the winner is always the company whose branding and logo it carries.

However, as we have discovered here, a poor quality garment, or unattractive design could undermine your efforts and will leave a warehouse full of unwanted and unfashionable T shirts.

As Matt said: “More often than not we give away a useful data sheet, customer story or whitepaper together with a T shirt. The content is the thing most people really want but the T shirt is the thing that raises a smile and helps them remember Splunk.”

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