The Changing World of Collegiate Emblematic Merchandise

The first question most buyers ask a salesman is, “What’s the minimum?”

Not many new products are a “sure thing”, and while college bookstore buyers need to try new products in order to keep a fresh assortment, the risk of a “dog” weighs heavy on everyone. Lower minimums reduce the risk, allow you to try more products, offer a broader assortment, and reorder the products that sell well.

Recent advances in digital printing technology are changing the college bookstore industry by reducing the minimums you have to buy, reducing the cost and retail price, and improving the look of the finished product.  The newest digital printing technology will affect everything about your business, so it’s important to keep up with these changes.

How a product is decorated with your logo effects the minimum that you have to buy.

The Top 10 Ways to Decorate a Product

  1. screen printing
  2. pad printing
  3. sublimation
  4. heat transfer
  5. laser engraving
  6. embossing
  7. sonic welding
  8. doming
  9. embroidery
  10. and now, Direct to Product Digital Printing

All of these methods require completely different technologies and procedures to set up equipment and decorate the product, and some are much more time consuming and labor intensive than others.  It’s difficult to imagine just how much work goes into imprinting a pencil until you’ve actually seen it.

New digital printing technology is allowing your suppliers and manufacturers to greatly reduce costs and labor, which reduces your costs and minimums, and in turn reducing your inventory while improving turns.  But advances in technology go beyond just how products are imprinted.  Our company now uses a 3D Printer to create prototype samples on drinkware items, like travel mugs, that allow us to touch and feel a design in a matter of hours.  It used to cost $8,000 or more, and take a month, just to develop a mold for one prototype sample.  Decide you don’t like it, and you throw it all away.

CT800_backgroundMany college store buyers have seen screen printing for t-shirts and apparel, so they understand the process of “burning a screen” and pushing ink thru it onto a substrate, like fabric.  It’s a fairly simple and straight forward process on flat items, like t-shirts, but the process is much more complicated on a smooth, round object, like a coffee mug.  Even screen printing on t-shirts can get complicated, like when Chelsea Teddy Bear Company (our brand) has to screen print on tiny t-shirts that go on our little plush animal key tags.  When kids come to our factory for a factory tour, we just tell them “elves do it, because they have really little fingers”.

It’s very difficult to screen print more than one or two colors on many items, like coffee mugs.  It’s almost impossible to register the colors- getting two or more colors to butt right up against each other in a tight registration on a round object.  Sublimation is the newest trend for manufacturers that need to reproduce more than one or two colors in a graphic- like most college mascots.  MCM Group was the first collegiate company to decorate coffee mugs (and a lot of other products) using a sublimation process that we call ColorMax, so we know a thing or two about it.

Back in the old days…


…if you wanted a full color mascot or logo on ceramics or glassware, you were forced into a decal program, whether you knew it or not. That meant you were at the mercy of the minimums on the decals, usually provided by a separate company from the mug guys. The decal guys, with specialized printing equipment for printing decals that could be fired onto a mug in an oven, set the minimums, usually at 500 decals. The decals were pretty cheap, but it took a long time to set up the printing press to print them, so the minimum was high to make it worthwhile and profitable to print them. This is the problem when printing most inexpensive items. As you likely know from your own experience, the cheaper an item is, the more you have to buy. It’s usually because the printer has to offset the cost of setting up the job. Once you’ve set up to print the first one, you might as well print a thousand- just let the machine run a little longer. New decoration processes, like sublimation and Direct to Product digital printing is changing all of that, and will continue to improve as technology advances.

Sublimation is a leap forward.


It is curious that synonyms in the dictionary for the word sublimation are to “redirect, transfer, reroute”, since this is what it’s doing to our industry.

I clearly remember the day that MCM got started in the sublimation business.  I was visiting Youngstown State University Bookstore about 15 years ago, and noticed that the store didn’t have their penguin mascot on any drinkware.  They love their penguin at YSU, and I asked why they didn’t have a coffee mug with him on it.  The answer- you guessed it-  a 500 piece minimum.  Good reason.  We began our research that day to find a better way.

Sublimation is just one of the newer technologies out there that is changing the way we do things.  By significantly reducing the labor and cost to set up and print a job, it greatly reduces the minimums you have to buy.  There are no screens to coat and burn, no labor to register multiple screens on the printing equipment, no screens to clean (reclaim) when you’re done.  In sublimation, the registration is done on the computer, and the job is printed directly on wide format digital printers.  Typically this involves printing with special inks (dyes) onto special paper that is then applied to the substrate (the product) using heat and pressure- often on a flatbed heat press.  You can’t use a flatbed press to sublimate on a round coffee mug, or most other gift items for that matter (we call them hard goods, as opposed to soft goods like apparel).  We had to find another way, and often times invent a way to sublimate our products.  Since then MCM has been at the forefront of digital printing and sublimation, and there’s some real science behind it.

Wrapped mugs enter the oven for sublimation.
Wrapped mugs enter the oven for sublimation.

The sublimation process on a ceramic mug works like this. Special heat sensitive dyes, at a specific temperature (around 400 degrees), turn from a solid to a gas, and migrate through a polymer coating on the coffee mug to get locked between the ceramic and the polymer coating.  (As you recall from chemistry class, most things, at different temperatures, turn from a solid, to a liquid, to a gas state.  Not sublimation dyes.)

The real key is the polymer coating.  The coffee mug is dipped or sprayed with a polymer coating before we can decorate it, and there are a lot of coatings out there at different costs that produce significantly different results.  Use the wrong formula, or low quality coatings, and the mug will quickly start to “bleed”, so colors start mixing, the image becomes blurred, and the color red becomes pink.  We’ve seen some mugs from other companies that start to bleed after just the first run through a dishwasher.  It took MCM years to find the right formula, and I can proudly say (and often do) that you can wash our mug a thousand times in your dishwasher, and it will look as good as the day we made it.  Most companies can’t say that about their sublimated mugs.

Every time I call the inventor of our polymer coating his wife tells me that he’s out mowing the lawn.  Every time.  He must mow twenty acres or more, but I really think he’s just thinking.  And all this mowing just gives him a time and a place to do that.  I’ve heard that he’s a genius, this brilliant inventor who has invented a lot of things, like parts for a nuclear submarine.  All I know for sure is this, every morning when I drink my morning coffee out of my favorite “App State Dad” mug, I can thank this crazy, brilliant man for the start of my day.


Bob Turner
General Manager, MCM Group



Want to learn more about how products are decorated?  MCM is having a one day “Buyers Summit” at our factory in Mobile, Alabama on April 21, 2016.  College store buyers from around the country will get a behind the scenes tour and learn exactly how hundreds of different products are decorated, from drinkware to writing instruments, tote bags to golf balls. All of the decoration methods listed at the beginning of this article will be shown and explained. Limited space is available. Contact your Jardine Associates sales rep or Kelly Blount at (800)920-5944 to register for the event.

>>Download the summit brochure.

The Changing World of Collegiate Emblematic Merchandise