When Superior Uniform Group (sug) began manufacturing uniforms in 1920, chances are no one in the company ever thought it would launch a media division more than nine decades later. But in a sign of the times—in which more businesses than not are undergoing major technological transformations and industries are bleeding into one another like clothes in a hot wash—this is exactly what SUG did when it launched everyBODY media in early March.
Through a licensing agreement with Eyelevel Interactive, the division offers advertising panels with mobile action codes that can attach to uniforms with Velcro. Customers can scan the mobile action codes, or MACs (similar to the QR codes that many quick serves are including with marketing materials) with their smartphones using popular apps like Microsoft Tag, Android’s ZXing, and various iPhone apps. When they scan the MAC, they are immediately directed to a URL to access anything from coupons to nutritional information.
“Our entry into the media business was really quite by accident,” says everyBODY media managing director David Schechter. “But when we met with Mark [de Mattei, Eyelevel Interactive CEO], it seemed like such a natural to combine two things that were seemingly unrelated: old-world manufacturing and cutting-edge technology.”
SUG expects this old-meets-new combo to be the company’s entry point into the mobile-driven world.
“What we’re doing is taking the uniform, which is [traditionally] a utilitarian item used to identify employees, and turning it into a flexible and effective point-of-purchase advertising system,” says SUG CEO Michael Benstock.
The uniforms are flexible because companies can switch from one MAC to another throughout the day. For quick serves, this means they can offer a breakfast promotion in the morning, a lunch promotion in the middle of the day, and a dinner promotion in the evening. Traditional uniforms, meanwhile, may include a promotion for a breakfast item that becomes obsolete once the lunch daypart starts.
As for the uniform’s effectiveness, Eyelevel Interactive’s de Mattei says digital-age consumers are increasingly delaying their buying decisions until the point of purchase, whereas in the past they often made up their minds well before entering the store.
“Traditional media is just not as effective as it used to be,” de Mattei says. “There are billions of dollars being spent on it, and [traditional ads] are driving consumers to the stores, but at that point consumers still don’t know what they’re going to buy.
“Our product is kind of the last line of defense in front of the consumer when they’re at the point of sale with their wallet and their mobile phone in hand,” he says.
He says that, along with reaching consumers when it matters, the real power of the uniforms is the combination of technology and human interaction.
“There’s something about humans looking at humans that is more powerful than humans looking at a cardboard sign sitting out in the service area,” he says.
Of course, the interaction encouraged by such a uniform amounts to more than just looking. Customers would have to wave their phones in the vicinity of an employee’s uniform (in many cases, the employee’s back) to scan the MAC. It’s safe to assume a few customers and employees might find this kind of interaction a little uncomfortable, but de Mattei says none of the brands he is negotiating with have raised serious concerns.
“We’re not getting any objections like that out in the marketplace,” he says, “because they are starting to see the shifting of dollars to the point of purchase.”
SUG declined to name specific quick-serve brands it is working with while negotiations are ongoing, but Benstock says he is “talking to all of the major [quick serves]” and expects to ink deals in the coming months.
McDonald’s would not confirm to QSR whether it is working with SUG or planning to roll out interactive uniforms. Subway spokesman Les Winograd says the company believes the concept of interactive uniforms has “merit,” but “they are not something we are actively looking at right now.” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold says the Denver-based chain isn’t exploring the option, either.
It remains to be seen whether interactive uniforms make sense for quick-serve restaurants. The glaring concern is an obvious one: crewmembers strive to serve their menu items quickly, and having customers scanning employee uniforms may slow down service.
Also, most quick serves do counter service only. So customers would either have to lean across the counter to scan a MAC, or operators would have to put an employee out in the service area for easy interaction.
It is for these reasons that Erik Thoresen, director of research and consulting for Chicago-based consultancy Technomic, has reservations about interactive uniforms in the quick-serve sector.
“My overall opinion of QR codes is really favorable,” he says. “I’m completely convinced that they are very powerful in what they can do for a brand. It’s a big opportunity, but I wonder if uniforms are the place where we’ll see this pop in [quick service].”
Thoresen says, “it’s as easy or easier to deploy a QR code on POS materials,” such as a placard by the cash register, “than it would be on a uniform.”
MACs and QR codes may seem like a more exciting opportunity for uniform manufacturers than their clients, Thoresen says. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for uniforms to directly interact with the latest and greatest mobile technology, and now there is,” he says.
Indeed, leadership at SUG is thrilled at the dive its old-world business is taking into the Internet age, and Benstock is very confident about the potential of interactive uniforms in the quick-serve sector.
“There is not enough time in the day,” he says, to talk to all the brands interested in putting their employees in scannable apparel.
“Within 120 days, you will definitely be seeing this in stores,” he says. “A year from now, this will be old news. You will see this everywhere.”