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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Sporting Hoff & Pepper gear, Aaron Hoffman, right, and his wife Pepper pose behind the Hamilton County INCubator in November.

People love stickers. And T-shirts. And caps. And when they also love a product or a place, they'll even become walking advertisements for businesses that use merchandise to brandish their logos.

For small businesses — with correspondingly small marketing budgets — branded clothing and other merch can be a win-win deal for growing their reach. And with traditional revenue streams pinched by COVID-19, some have even turned merch into a money-making opportunity.

"The better the branding, it makes it easier for us to sell," says Eric Landrum, who owns Locals Only, a shop on Chattanooga's North Shore that only sells locally made stuff, from candles and coffee mugs to T-shirts and jewelry.

The power of branding to elevate a local business shows up in the bottom line every day, Landrum says. Hoff & Pepper, Mad Priest Coffee and NativeMade T-shirts are among the strongest local brands whose story he shares with shoppers, he adds.

"We have 'Meet the Maker' profiles next to our core items," Landrum says. "We always want our customer to know who the makers are behind these products — they're the superstars."

Aaron Hoffman, one of the founders of Hoff & Pepper, a Chattanooga hot sauce company, says when a friend recently wore one of the company's T-shirts in Washington, D.C., a stranger who was also a fan of the company flagged her down.

Small world.

"It (company merchandise) is absolutely an effective marketing tool," says Hoffman, whose company invests in stickers, T-shirts, hats, hoodies, mugs and even flasks emblazoned with their logo.

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Local businesses expand their brands

Hoffman says Hoff & Pepper has products in 1,200 retail locations nationwide, but also sells online, and the merchandise is often used as a premium to reward loyal customers.

"While it's good for marketing, it's not a revenue generator for us," he says. "We see our stickers all over town. From the get-go we have tried to have really great branding that people want to be associated with."

The company makes T-shirts for $8 and sells them for $15 online, but not in a volume designed to create a large inflow of money, Hoffman says. Hoff & Pepper also sends merch to some social media influencers and new retail locations.

Doug Chapin, director of the Clumpies Ice Cream Co., which has North Shore, Southside and St. Elmo locations, says branded merchandise has become an intentional part of the business revenue stream.

Clumpies sells T-shirts for $25, baseball-style shirts for $30 and hoodies for $43. Chapin says the company, a subsidiary of See Rock City Inc., chose high-quality garments for its merchandising to reflect its status as a seller of premium ice cream.

"We have been selective in offering retail products that match with our brand," Chapin says. "The best marketing in the world is word of mouth."

NativeMade T-shirts creator Adam Tetzlaff has carved out a niche selling images that are iconic in Chattanooga — but mostly just to those in the know. The spaceship house on the side of Signal Mountain and the Alpine Slide on Raccoon Mountain are among the images emblazoned on his merch.

"People who are from Chattanooga know them, and I wanted to focus on things locals would get and understand but also cross bounds a little bit and it's still a neat souvenir for people coming to visit," says Tetzlaff, a Nashville native and graphic designer who moved to Chattanooga for college. "I love history, and I was trying to include insiders and outsiders into these fun things and history around Chattanooga."

Landrum says the NativeMade merch sells well at Locals Only — and it hits a nostalgic note for him, as well.

"I remember riding the Alpine Slide at breakneck speed when I was a kid," he says.

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