How One Company Geared Up for Hard Times

Looking to Save Jobs, Pepper Group Creates T-Shirt Line to Promote Volunteering

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Tim Padgett
Tim Padgett
When the economy headed south, Pepper Group decided the best way to help itself was by helping others. Tim Padgett, president-CEO of the Palatine, Ill.-based marketing-communications company, explains.

It was September 2008, a time of great trepidation for our 14-year-old marketing-communications firm, Pepper Group. While we were completing four consecutive quarters that broke sales and earnings records, a call came from a client with the bad news of a program being put on hold. They didn't know when it might be brought back online: "maybe first quarter." That was the second such call of the day. This wasn't a small account, either -- it was an $80,000 project.

The economy was in trouble. Unfortunately, the ax man (aka the client's CFO) didn't read the marketing manuals that say, "In time of peril, increase marketing and fight for the business that is out there." Instead we heard, "Don't spend a dime that doesn't directly add sales to the bottom line for the fourth quarter."

What to do? I reached into my "Business Ideas for the Future" folder (really, I have one). Even after putting together plan B, as my wife and business partner called our hunker-down-and-cut-costs scenario, we knew it would be a rough road ahead. How could we keep our core staff occupied and energized?

By making a new client where there wasn't one! Enter Volunteer Gear.

Volunteer Gear

My idea was to create a line of T-shirts that would all have a volunteer theme. At first I wanted to put "VOLUNTEER" in basic Helvetica letters on the back of each shirt and then have a design on the front that would be a made-up organization or event that people would either truly want to volunteer for or just the opposite: Bikini Contest or Poison Sampling Lab. To make a long story short, our team at the Pepper Group started to noodle the idea, and eventually it grew beyond the original concept.

We created Volunteer Gear, an apparel company with a twist. We offer designs for every conceivable group of people who like to give their time for the benefit of others. We created messaging, including our tagline, "Own your cause," that T-shirt owners could use to promote their particular causes (animal welfare, ecology, etc.). Or they could simply support the concept of sharing one's time and experience.

What's the twist? With each shirt comes a pair of dog tags, albeit very stylish ones. On each pair is a unique serial number, just like in the military. As members of the Volunteer Corps, we ask that customers participate in a volunteer activity of any scope, large or small. Once they do that, they can register on our website and chronicle their good deed on their own page. Then they pass one of their tags on to a friend with instructions for them to do an act of volunteering and chronicle it on the original customer's page as well. Then they pass the tag along to another friend.

There's even an interface with Google Maps so that customers can track the paths of their tags. Each time a new tag holder registers their deed, each participant in the chain is notified via e-mail.

There's nothing like the satisfaction of helping another human or creature by giving our most personal asset -- our time. Kids are being encouraged by their schools to donate their time to community food pantries and such. President Obama has been a great proponent of volunteerism. It's a theme that has resonance. After all, good deeds never go out of fashion.

I'm very proud of everyone's contributions toward the concept, styles and, of course, the social-networking aspect. I think we have a winner. We invested in our people, and the marketing-communications business seems to be picking up in the nick of time. It was a great experience, and we hope it's far from over; we need to move merchandise -- and this time it's our own!

If you'd like more information on Volunteer Gear, contact Jennifer Lee at [email protected] or 847-436-4500.

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