Brand recognition is a critical first step to business success, most marketing experts say, and one important way in which businesses promote themselves is by outfitting their employees in uniforms.
Project a professional, positive image in the way your employees dress, and your customer will buy what you’re selling and feel good about it. Project a sloppy, devil-may-care attitude with your wardrobe, and you may catch a glimpse of their backs as they walk out your door.
It may not be that simple, but it’s long been believed that buyers prefer to work with uniformed employees. It wasn’t until the Uniform & Textile Service Association (UTSA) commissioned a study several years ago that the link between uniforms and positive customer perception became undeniable.
CONFIDENT, COMPETENT, CREDIBLE
Some 33 million people wear uniforms to work each day, according to recent statistics compiled by the UTSA, and that number is estimated to grow by 1.2 million annually.
“Employees who feel positive about the identity their uniforms confer on them and display to the public often develop a stronger sense of company loyalty and become more productive,” says Robert Isaacson, director of marketing for UniFirst, one of the leading suppliers of uniforms and services to business.
And many of their customers equate their uniformed look with confidence, competence and credibility.
According to the UTSA-funded study conducted by J.D. Powers & Associates, when choosing a company from whom to buy, both individual consumers and business-to-business buyers preferred to use companies who had uniformed employees over those who did not, the association reports on its website, UniformInfo.com.
A strong majority of consumers surveyed feel that the quality of the product or service provided is higher when workers are uniformed.
The type of uniform worn doesn’t matter, according to Paul Fussell, a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear.
Uniforms command respect, notes Fussell, because they communicate that those who wear them hold prominent jobs that are likely permanent.
“Although the respect a uniform creates can be more readily observed when the occupation in question is that of a police officer or firefighter, it is nonetheless present to some degree in the uniforms that all workers wear,” says Isaacson.
“The professor’s findings also help to explain why most businesses personalize their uniforms with company logos, employee names and more – doing so helps to elevate the uniformed stature of their employees to an even greater degree.”
MELDING FUNCTION AND FASHION
Uniform service providers offer everything from traditional work shirts and pants to business casual cotton and denim shirts, khakis, polos and shorts, as well as executive wear including blazers and button-down shirts and identity apparel including lab coats, aprons and smocks.
National chains that include UniFirst, Cintas, G&K Services and ARAMARK Uniform Services account for 60-70% of the market, according to the Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA).
Service providers have the unique challenge of blending comfort and personal protection with style. A uniform has to not only be comfortable and durable, it also has to be eye-catching.
Fabrics used in uniforms today can repel stains and wick away moisture. Others help reduce the spread of infection-causing bacteria and viruses, or offer a layer of protection against electrical burns or chemical spills.
A popular fabric choice is a blend of 65% cotton and 35% polyester, which offers durability, better color retention and superior soil release properties when compared to 100% cotton, the UTSA says.
Emblem manufacturers and suppliers such as Penn Emblem, World Emblem International and Ensign Emblem offer the opportunity to add flair through a variety of garment embellishments.
Uniforms are often personalized through the use of emblems – colorful swatches of fabric that are either embroidered, screen-printed or sublimated (imprinted into polyester fabric by applying dyes that turn gaseous when heated).
These emblems withstand industrial washes and are removable, and, in some cases, are even reusable. Typically, they feature the company logo and/or the name of the employee, and they’re available in a wide variety of styles and colors.
Today’s uniforms go beyond mere tradition and functionality.
“If you peel away the personalized branding elements of modern uniforms, such as embroidered company logos, you’ll find styles that are right in step with contemporary fashion,” Isaacson says.
The National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD) recognizes outstanding design of corporate uniforms and image apparel with its Image of the Year Awards.
Cintas has seven customers among this year’s nominees. The winners were to be announced March 29 at the NAUMD annual convention.
“The nominees’ programs feature chic and functional styles that serve as a true extension of each company’s brand,” says Ahmed Said, director of marketing for Cintas.
What does the future hold for the uniform market?
Fabric developers will continue seeking out ways to improve comfort and durability, plus integrate properties for easier cleaning and better safety.
Meanwhile, the number of service workers who need uniforms continues to grow. Of the 30 occupations projected by the U.S. Department of Labor to have the largest job growth through 2016, nearly half of them are in service industries.