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Captain Michael Lee from the U.S. Army was trying to locate a company to produce a small order of T-shirts for the unit’s first-ever reunion. “When someone comes to us and requests a custom T-shirt, we seldom wonder about the story behind the shirt or the weight of the memory it reflects,” says Jamie Barrus, a co-owner of a promotional products firm.

But when Barrus came across Lee’s request for shirts for a military unit that served in Afghanistan, she became intrigued. Barrus asked some questions as to the backstory of the T-shirt, and decided she had to help.

As Captain Lee tells it, he was called back to active duty in 2006, reporting to Fort Bragg, where the Army quickly assembled a team of other recalled Army troops to serve an assignment in Afghanistan. “There was a lot of drama at the time, since many folks did not want to be there,” Lee remembers. “At the first muster formation, they did a roll call of everyone who had orders to report for mobilization, and less than half of the people showed up.”

After training, the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) was assigned to Farrah in West Afghanistan. The PRT’s main mission was to man a one-gun truck to assess nearby villages and schools and act as a liaison between local police. Because there was a severe manpower shortage at the time, Lee says, the Army had to borrow personnel from other branches of the military. “Our base was like a fort in the old Wild West,” Lee says of the small contingent of soldiers. As a result of their work together in such an isolated area, the crew bonded tightly.

Toward the end of deployment, Lee and his fellow troops were transported to an airfield in Afghanistan, where they received a team T-shirt for their efforts. The tees however proved to be a bit disappointing. “Unfortunately, the selection of designs was very limited,” Lee says.

For the unit’s reunion, he says, “we wanted to have an updated shirt that better reflects and improves heraldry.” The new shirts that Barrus’ company produced featured a bold logo that included a steely skull with swords and a rugged bandanna, along with the tagline “secure the victory.”

Finally, Captain Lee and his troops got the shirt that they really wanted for their reunion. “We were so happy to help,” says Barrus. “Sometimes a T-shirt is just a T-shirt. Other times, you realize it helps preserve a memory for the rest of people’s lives. That’s pretty neat.”

Orchestrating a sales incentive program for more than 45 offices around the world is no easy task. “We’re in 22 countries, so whenever you’re trying to come up with an incentive item, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘OK, this will work here in the United States, but how will it play in Africa?’” says Crystal Oakes, director of branding for Trévo, a nutritional supplement company that has 200,000 sales reps worldwide.

Not only are cultural tastes and preferences different in each country, Oakes says, but many of the company’s reps work out of their homes, so logoed items like desk accessories aren’t always appropriate.

Oakes often works with a distributor to come up with unique logoed apparel items to add to Trévo’s sales incentive program and the many incentive trips it offers throughout the world. Until recently, Oakes says, the company stuck to the tried-and-true apparel basics, like black polo shirts with embroidered logos. “We decided we needed to do something different to shake things up a little,” Oakes says.

Oakes and her distributor partner teamed up and created T-shirts screen printed with the company’s brand message in metallic ink on both the front and back. The company offered the shirts to reps who paid in full for their orders by a certain date. “In many countries, our reps have to stand in line for hours and pay cash in advance for their products, so it’s important to offer an attractive incentive,” Oakes says.

Luckily, reps found the incentive very attractive. Oakes says Trévo saw a large spike in orders as a result of the incentive. But the best part? “Our sales force was so funked up about the shirts, particularly our reps in Africa. I’ve never seen any like it before,” Oakes says. Just a day or two after the company started giving out the shirts, Oakes says, reps all over the country were sending pictures of themselves wearing it, and posting photos on social media as well.

In addition, the company recently hosted an incentive trip in Turks & Caicos for 30 sales reps throughout the world, and most of the recipients came off the plane wearing their new metallic shirts. “That’s when I knew this was the best promotion we’d ever done,” Oakes says. “Not only did we get lots of our salespeople super excited, but now they’re getting our name out there wherever they go. That’s pretty exciting.”

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