Build a Successful Merch Brand Over Time with These Three Essential Steps

Unless you have an incredible stroke of luck, overnight success is highly unlikely for any career path. Though it’s not impossible to have a viral moment that speeds up your trajectory, it usually takes a prolonged, sustained effort to get where you really want to go. The same is true for artists who aspire to build a successful merch brand with their art.

If that’s your ultimate goal, Artist Shops can certainly give you a head start. This free-to-use platform powered by Threadless eliminates many of the obstacles to getting an online merch business up and running. It handles everything from manufacturing to shipping to customer service. But these advantages alone can’t guarantee success for your brand.

In his LinkedIn newsletter, Threadless CEO Jake Nickell recently revealed what he’s seen works best for artists:

Jake Nickell

“Over the last 20+ years, I’ve had the honor of helping hundreds of artists slowly build their art into successful brands. Along the way, I’ve noticed one thing they all seem to have in common…Regular, consistent creation and promotion over a long period of time.

The formula that appears to generate the most success for Threadless artists over time is to regularly create, regularly promote, and repeat. Although this may seem simple, it’s not as easy as it sounds. As we delve deeper into each of these steps, we’ll show you useful resources and insights from some of the top artists on our platform.

1. Regularly create.

Renea L. Thull Designs
Designs by Renea L. Thull, who has 130+ designs in her Artist Shop

The top 10 bestselling Artist Shops add an average of two new designs to their shop per month. However, our team recommends doing it on a weekly basis for a variety of reasons. First off, it keeps your brand fresh and gives your followers a reason to regularly come back to see what’s new. It also gives you something to talk about with your fans to keep them engaged. Most importantly, the more you create, the better you get at creating things.

As an artist, you may think to yourself, “How am I supposed to make a new piece of art every week when I’m not always inspired to create?” Great question. Creative blocks are one of the biggest obstacles in any artist’s routine. It can be discouraging when you feel the need to create, but the iron just isn’t hot.

Digital artist Renea L. Thull, who has more than 130 designs in her Artist Shop, shared with us what she does to avoid creative ruts:

Renea L. Thull

“I find inspiration in nature, follow other artists, and make lots of bad thumbnail sketches. I try to stick to work that excites me instead of aiming to please others. And if I get stuck on something, I set it aside for later.”

When you feel your well is running dry, the Threadless Community is here to help you get your creative juices flowing again. Here are a few practices to break through your creative blocks.

Submit to a Design Challenge.

Yee-Haw Challenge
“Far West Far Above” by DiToons won the Yee-Haw challenge.

The oldest Threadless tradition, Design Challenges encourage artists to step out of their comfort zone with creative prompts inspired by eclectic themes. Recent challenges have included Goblincore, Video Games That Don’t Exist Part 2, and the official Care Bears 40th Anniversary Challenge.

Entering challenges like these can help you discover new ways to apply your art style. Plus, if you win, you could earn cash prizes and more.

Read about current art trends.

Art Trends

The Art Trends column of Creative Resources explores trending topics in the art world, from classical art movements that have gained a second life to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. These articles also show how Artist Shop owners today are incorporating trends into their own art, which may inspire you to give it a try.

Connect with other artists on Discord.

The Threadless Discord is a resource for artists and shop owners to share their experiences with each other. This is a great place to bounce ideas off of fellow artists and to get their feedback on your works-in-progress. It might even lead to opportunities to collaborate with other artists. The community is there to support you in your journey with Threadless.

When all else fails, play with robots.

Artificial intelligence in art is a highly controversial topic, and understandably so. There are many ongoing debates over the ethics and fair use of text-to-image tools, and the legitimacy of AI-assisted art. But if applications like Midjourney and DALL-E-2 aren’t going anywhere soon, it may be worth exploring how living, breathing artists can use them to their benefit—not necessarily to generate completed works of art, but rather as a tool to create idea boards to draw inspiration from.

When these imperfect AI tools misinterpret prompts and create absolutely bizarre images, they could lead artists down creative paths they’ve never considered. These light-bulb moments could be the catalyst for an entirely art new project. Just something to think about!

2. Regularly promote.

Frogwitch Instagram

In most cases, your art will not be seen if you don’t show it. This practice seems to be the hardest for artists to commit to, and we’re not surprised. Being an artist and a salesperson are two completely different skill sets that feel antithetical to many artists.

But in order to build a successful merch brand, regularly promoting yourself isn’t optional. It’s essential. Every time you create a new piece, show people. Of course, social media is the most obvious tool for reaching out to your audience and growing your following. Meme artist Frogwitch explained to us how effective Instagram is at driving traffic to her shop:


“Full transparency: 99% of my success of the Frogwitch Artist Shop is because of social media, specifically Instagram…As someone who wouldn’t consider themselves ‘technologically advanced,’ I appreciate how easy it is to share posts and stories on Instagram with links to promote and market my Artist Shop.

The bulk of my Instagram stories that drive people to my Artist Shop are just reshares of pictures people have posted on their own feeds of themselves wearing Frogwitch merch. It warms my little artist heart that people love the merch so much that they buy it and post pics of themselves in it! I’ve also put together advertisement slides to go with my posts for specific sales, and that does successfully drive people to the Frogwitch Artist Shop!”

Resources for Promoting on Social Media

  • Promo Tools: This feature in your Artist Dashboard allows you to download ready-to-share images of your products. You can even add badges including “On Sale!” and “Last Chance.”
  • Lifestyle Overlays: If you don’t have the time or proper equipment to snap lifestyle photos of your products on your own, you can edit your designs into our lifestyle overlays.
  • Instagram Template: To save you time, this pre-made Photoshop template is loaded with an array of promotion-related icons, text layers, and elements you can adjust to suit your brand.

Managed Email Marketing for Your Shop

Managed Emails
Managed email examples from Wawawiwa ComicsTragic GirlsObinsun, and Teenage Stepdad

One of the most tried-and-true methods of promoting your shop is an email newsletter. If you can create an email subscriber base of fans who love your art, there’s no better way to promote. But what if you’re not an email marketing expert or you simply don’t have time to manage your own newsletter?

When you activate the Managed Email Marketing feature in your shop, Threadless automatically sends support marketing emails to your existing customers to help you connect with your audience, increase your sales, and expand your reach. It also adds a newsletter signup popup to your homepage to help you grow your email list. When you promote your shop on social media, tell your followers how they can sign up for your Threadless–managed newsletter.

3. Repeat.

It will take a consistent effort over a long period of time to build your art into a successful merch brand. But if you continue creating designs and promoting your Artist Shop, you’ll give yourself the best chance to grow your brand and increase your sales.

Just ask Justyna Dorsz, owner of Fox Shiver and TRUFFLEPIG. In a guest post, she explained that consistency was a major factor in her making $1,000–$4,000 a month in passive income at Artist Shops:

Fox Shiver

“If you simply open a shop, add a few designs, and then forget about it, your store will fade into oblivion. Sure, you might still sell a t-shirt or two. But to keep earning money, you need to be consistent and add new designs regularly…That’s how I earn money on Threadless. I focus on my store, add as many designs as I can, and promote it in my spare time.”

The most important thing is to stick to the routine and not give up.

Come back to Creative Resources for more advice on how to build and market a successful merch brand at Artist Shops.


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