Identifiable apparel: An image-making marketing tool

Currently, a revolution of sorts is sweeping across the country as more and more service companies are paying attention to the messages their employees communicate to customers and the public.

"Good looking uniforms help project an image of professionalism that creates customer confidence and trust and differentiates us from our competitors," says Stephen L. Yontz, vice president of operations for Lombard, Ill.-based Church Landscape about his company's uniform program. The company is one of the midwest's largest landscape contracting firms. Since its inception as a landscape maintenance company in 1963, attention to image has been a key success-factor that sets the company apart from competition. "We believe every employee of Church portrays an image to all who see them as well as through the work they do," Yontz observes.

In the last 30 years, the term "uniforms" has moved up and down the public popularity scale like blue-chip stocks-continually rising, occasionally falling from favor but always coming back. At its zenith, a uniform is synonymous with professionalism and team unity. At its low point, a uniform battles with the idea of individualism. Today, about 27 million workers in the United States don a uniform or identifiable apparel for work.

In fact, by an almost 8-to-1 ratio, the American public likes the idea of employees wearing identifiable apparel. They describe the attributes of a uniformed person as easy to recognize, professional, neat, having pride in his or her company, well trained, trustworthy and dependable. Think about such public perceptions compared to seeing one of your grounds crew dressed in a tank top and cut-offs.

Image is critical Take the case of United Parcel Service (UPS), which has become a global service delivering more than 12 million packages and documents to more than 200 countries every day. More than 1.3 million daily pick-up customers, as well as the general public, recognize a UPS delivery driver by his or her "distinctive browns."

The consistent, conservative image of brown-adopted for vehicles in 1919 and uniforms in 1925-promotes reliability and trust, characteristics that have gained confidence of customers all over the world. The uniform is a big part of UPS's corporate image-making, reports Jeff Sonnenfeld, a professor at Emory University and a consultant to UPS, in an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal in 1996.

Facility owners and managers believe that attractively designed, healthy and well-maintained lawns, gardens, trees and shrubbery create a positive first impression, establish a pleasant mood and increase property values. That's why a growing number of individuals and organizations rely on skilled gardeners and groundskeepers to care for them. A uniform says volumes about the standards and values of the company and the worker doing the job.

Plan of attack You should consider uniforms part of integrated advertising that creates favorable awareness of the company. The style and color of work wear and accessories should relate to the company trucks, equipment, advertising and promotional brochures that customers and prospects see.

While tastes in uniform colors, for the most part, remain conservative, many companies coordinate colors such as yellow shirts and spruce-green pants, white/brown pin stripe and khaki, light green and brown. Navy blue conveys dignity, red-assertiveness, white-cleanliness and brown-trust. Color is serious business, but it is only one of the aspects of uniforms that infers something about the wearer. Other features such as fabric and identification also contribute to the overall impression.

Coming of age We live in an era of "dressing down"-as we refer to today's clothing style. You see tank tops and tee-shirts with profane slogans, cut-offs, torn ragged jeans and over-sized coveralls in public places. Ask yourself, "Is this look good for my business?" You may not be able to change fashion, but you can gain a differentiated advantage by ensuring that your lawn- and grounds-care crews are part of a solution-not a fleeting whim-and do not diminish the image of the business or your company. In the service business, perception is reality and customers equate a professional-looking worker with a well-run company. If you are going to turn your employees into "billboards," you better make sure those billboards send the right messages. Remember, accessories such as caps, visors, jackets and sweatshirts should complement uniforms and can assume an added virtue by eliminating conflicting sports or brand-message clutter.

Apparel personalizations should feature the company name and logo. Adding the worker's name can boost morale, teamwork, loyalty and pride-all key elements contributing to employee commitment. The need for employees in this industry is increasing, and turnover is high. Because wages are low and the work is physically demanding and dirty, many organizations have difficulty attracting enough workers to fill all openings. Uniforms are a proven employee benefit and are a popular employment "perk" under these circumstances.

Traditionally, uniforms use two identifications; a company name and logo on the left chest and the individual's name on the right side. More recently, companies have added "certification," job titles, slogans, service or performance emblems to uniform shirts and sleeves. Church Landscape uses its theme, "Employee Ownership at Work" with the company name embroidered on the emblem for its uniform shirts. In general, embroidered apparel or embroidered emblems affixed to work wear have a greater perceived value in the public's eye than screen-printed items. Additionally, embroidery can withstand repeated laundering while maintaining a high-quality appearance.

Peak performance Most importantly, work wear must provide a consistent, neat appearance and be comfortable for workers when doing their job. The most popular uniform shirt fabric is a woven 65-percent polyester/35-percent cotton blend. Other blends, such as 50/50, 60-percent cotton/40-percent polyester and 100-percent cotton, as well as knit polo shirts, have gained favor more recently. The trend toward 100-percent cotton fabric is stimulated because many people think that natural fiber is more comfortable to wear, although this is not necessarily true. Currently, manufacturers apply special finishes to garment fabric that add comfort and performance. You should consider this before concluding what is best for each job application.

Jeans and industrial trousers or pants typically are constructed of 65/35 blends or 100-percent cotton. Uniform shorts have become part of the scene and are good looking yet practical for some work situations. Today, it is important to adopt apparel that is compatibly styled for both men and women.

Most of the chores gardeners and groundskeepers perform are seasonal and done outdoors in all kinds of weather. Workers frequently handle pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals, so you must consider safety a factor in selecting apparel and personal protective equipment to prevent exposure. Also, they work with power tools and equipment such as lawn mowers, clippers and chain saws. Poor fitting or improper clothing can be dangerous. Employees stoop, bend, squat, kneel, climb and crawl, so the garment's design, fabric, construction, closures (buttons, zippers), stitching and seams must withstand a lot of punishment. Durability is a top-line uniform specification.

Reality check Hundreds of uniform suppliers exist around the country, although the number is shrinking and consolidation has wracked the highly competitive uniform manufacturing industry in recent years. Some sources are merely niche players-offering limited sizes, colors and styles-while others expand upon the basics by stocking a rainbow assortment of work wear.

You can find sources listed in the Yellow Pages under "Uniforms" or "Uniform Supply Services." Of course, mail-order companies that send catalogs and provide toll-free telephone service also are available. Rule No. 1 to adopt when choosing a supplier is to seek and find a company that is capable of meeting your individual needs. Whatever mode you choose, think of it as a long-term business relationship. Structuring an identifiable apparel or uniform program isn't a one-time buy. High-quality garments are serviceable for two, three or more years. You must take into account the need for replacement garments for lost or damaged pieces and additional outfits for new workers-a fact of life in a high-turnover job category.

Select a supplier that has top-flight credentials and experience in uniform programs: a firm with long-standing ties to garment manufacturers who can assure continuity of style, color and fabric. Consider their financial wherewithal, growth, values, standards, prior performance level and overall track record. In sum, seek references and check to make sure they deliver what they promise.

Finding the perfect fit Society is far more diverse than it was 50 years ago when people dressed up to go to work every day as though their livelihood depended on it. It is hard to see how we can achieve optimum image-making today without establishing a dress code. Keep in mind that when you buy uniforms you must provide workers sufficient clothing for them to launder their outfits regularly, and then make sure that everyone keeps them clean and in good repair. This can be a problem for singles and two-worker family units.

Uniform rental services provide an inventory of garments to each employee based on the number of times per week that you want them to wear a clean outfit. Once a week, the uniform service will pick up the soiled uniforms and deliver clean ones.

The value-added services include properly sizing employees and new people as they come on board, removing terminated employees' uniforms from your premises and adjusting the charge for these people on the weekly invoice, ensuring that garment repairs are handled, replacing worn-out pieces as needed, resizing when someone gains or loses weight, to name a few.

A well-run uniform rental service program will involve a direct communication mechanism between wearers (employees) and the delivery company. Usually this consists of a tag that employees can fill out and attach to the piece of clothing to indicate necessary maintenance (repair, replace, change size). Thereby, employees participate in the process of looking good without causing hassles for management.

Uniform rental service programs generally require a 36-month contract. When choosing a company, make sure you are in full agreement with its policies and be sure it tells you how and when you can discontinue service if they are not responsive or do not satisfy your needs.

Most uniform sources and rental service firms have professional salespeople who will help you develop a uniform program tailored to your lawn- and grounds-care business. As with any aspect of your business, it is up to you to take advantage of the supplier's judgment and expertise. They will help you assemble a unique image-making uniform and identifiable apparel program that results in a competitive advantage for the company. Presumably, your employees will turn their pride and satisfaction into greater management satisfaction-bottom-line performance.

Uniforms offer numerous advantages to your business. Here's a list of 4 of them: 1. Improve your image: Customers equate a professional-looking worker with a well-run company. 2. Increase employee commitment: Adding an employee's name to his or her uniform can boost morale, teamwork, loyalty and pride-all key elements contributing to employee commitment. 3. Offer a popular employment "perk": Because wages are low and the work is physically demanding and dirty, many organizations have difficulty attracting enough workers to fill all openings. Uniforms are a proven employee benefit under these circumstances. 4. Show off your firm's experience and expertise: Companies have begun adding "certification," job titles, slogans, service or performance emblems to uniform shirts and sleeves. All of these show the public some of the less obvious benefits your firm offers over others.

Clifford Weller is the former manager of marketing for the Textile Rental Services Association of America, now retired. Illinois-based, he is a consultant specializing in uniforms and uniform services.

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