Since the first political buttons in the late 1700s to imprinted horse blankets in the 1800s, glass and plastic promo products in the mid-20th century and branded tech accessories in the early 21st century, the promotional marketing industry has continually evolved to meet the growing needs of marketers and their recipients. Over these many decades, three defined eras stand out:
Era 1: From the time the Bill of Rights was ratified through circa 1999, this was the golden age of printed catalogs with unconcealed but secret pricing codes. There was a time when distributors had to search by microfiche to source foam stress relievers in the shape of an "@" symbol. Production took three to four weeks and clients asked distributors to grab art from their business cards.
Era 2: Around the turn of the 21st century, the industry saw the rise of ecommerce. Access to the internet ballooned, giving buyers access to our industry’s pricing “secrets.” In 2019, 4imprint, the ecommerce juggernaut, sold more than $860 million in branded products. Some distributors went the ecommerce-only path while the majority did not bet solely on ecommerce.
Era 3: Today, we are witnessing the rise of engagement commerce. Engagement commerce means “marrying the efficiency of ecommerce with strategic and creative direction to solve customers’ problems.” Solving their problems is the holy grail. It commands stronger margins and fortifies value. If you are not striving to be the next ecommerce giant, the most powerful thing you can do in a crowded digital space is to invest in what matters most—relationships. You must change your thinking from “customer acquisition” to “relationship acquisition.” And you must work to understand your clients’ problems.
We used to have intimate, in-person relationships with 40 customers; now, the industry is struggling to recreate those close relationships with 4,000 customers. Intimacy through technology is not easy. And while some buyers just want to make Google their first (and possibly only) contact without the help of a trusted source, there are a host of buyers who are craving institutional knowledge about products, edgy decoration techniques, logistics insights, best practices and they are willing to pay a premium for help addressing their problems.
So, in order to help solve client problems, we must identify what those problems are. And then, we must deliver answers that motivate, not manipulate, them to purchase. Here are some of these problems—ergo opportunities:
- According to the Society for Human Resource Management, an astonishing 19 percent of employees will work remotely in 2021. This is the new flexible workforce. How can the promotional products industry help unify employees when they cannot be together?
- HR is updating policies at a blistering pace. How can we help HR departments communicate all the changes?
- How can we create culture-keeper campaigns to help virtual employees feel connected and cared for? Note: caring is always a brilliant strategic plan.
- How can we help our customers find new customers as well as reach existing customers now and in the future?
- How can we help customers plan and execute programs to stay in touch with their clients and help them connect with high-value prospects throughout the year?
- Marketing’s role is to help the sales team sell more, so how do we help marketers move in that direction?
- How can we help reduce a client’s investment exposure and minimize inventory risk?
- We must sell sustainable products that last. Anything less is a liability to our client’s brands.
- Events have proven to be expensive and time-consuming. So, how do we help clients convert budget into something meaningful in an all-virtual or hybrid event model? If we cannot experience events in person, can we deliver event experiences in a box?
Value of Time. If we can better understand the value of our client’s client, we can make a strong case for ROI. Example: imagine the lifetime value of a client’s customer is $150,000. If that’s the case, then why are we suggesting 99-cent C-handle mugs with our client’s big, obnoxious logo on them as the gift that is exchanged for spending time with a client whose value is worth $150,000? We must convince our clients that their customer’s time is valuable—and that they must invest in the relationship with the gift of high-quality branded merchandise, perhaps with subtle logo treatment. A handmade $70 sustainable Cotopaxi backpack is likely a better answer than the ceramic mug that will end up in the back of a cabinet or in Aunt Sally’s garage sale.
Zoom. We must map the new customer journey. What are the customer’s touchpoints before the Zoom, during the Zoom and after the Zoom? We must help clients meet their customers along the way in an appreciative, memorable and perhaps a fun, gamifying manner. Otherwise, they will be not be paying attention to the message our client is trying to deliver.
Direct Mail. As you are reading this, the meteoric rebirth of direct mail is happening. It’s proof that what’s old is new again. In an Epsilon survey, 60 percent said going to the mailbox and receiving a piece of mail provides an emotional boost. Mail is personal, tangible, interactive, relevant and, if done right, can be highly targeted to individuals’ specific interests. Like promotional products, direct mail stimulates all five senses. Digital channels only affect three. In the future, direct mail will deliver better targeting, automation, more personalization, right-timing and scale, and more analytics and ROI resulting in less junk mail and lower environmental impact.
Marketing In-Person. It’s tough but how about merging digital activation with in-person brand experiences? Create memorable brand experiences associated with social media. Marketing is about participation, not promotion.
Design Beyond the Logo. Put yourselves in your client’s shoes. Do they really want a mug with a massive logo of a brand they have never engaged with? Or, do they want a beautiful design or message with a more subtle logo treatment on what will become their favorite mug? The future will include more designers, artisans and creatives in our space. Creativity and impactful design are what clients crave. In the future, it’s likely more executives will wear t-shirts and flip flops as well as sport tattoos, colored hair and nose rings at work. Creative entrants in our space will evolve the entire industry.
Ungettable Gets. I think customers are craving what I call “ungettable gets.” For example, an artist friend reached out and asked me how we could work together. She crafts in mosaics and I work in plastic things from China. Why can’t we create designs connected to brands in mosaic patterns as gifts? We can! Let’s partner with artisans. Getting—or making—original art versus producing the same thing for everyone is not only extra special, but it allows us to do what I call “kidulting”—to bring out the kid in each of us. That is memorable.
Choice. The future is going to be driven by giving customers a choice of what they want versus what you think they want. Giving every customer the same thing in the future will be a fail.
Hyper-Customization. Love the brand or hate it, Nike gets it. Check out the “Nike For You” online store at nike.com/nike-by-you, where the customer can choose from many of the shoe styles, upload their own design on the shoe panels and get the order delivered in two to five weeks. I believe the promotional products industry is well positioned for this type of brand experience.
Trends Analysis. We must get out ahead of trends. Ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Imagine if you were the company that bought a web address such as "WorkFromHomeKits.com" in early March 2020? Other trends today include exercise, wellness, on-demand, smart offices and workspaces, remote work, social media influencing fashion, home as the new domain, learning and crowd-pleasing, and a focus on employee happiness.
Artificial Intelligence. With access to AI, we will know exactly what products a certain demographic will favorably respond to. Once we have that data, could suppliers, distributors, clients and search engines work together to cull it down into meaningful information? Imagine a new search revolution where we search beyond product and price. What if we could conceivably search for products that 30- to 35-year-olds who work in accounting in California would really appreciate to the degree that they will give you their time, information and possibly business? AI can help the industry tackle the challenges that come with gifting. In the future, there will be personal experience and gifting platforms in our space. This is quality at scale versus quantity at scale. Again, the same thing for everyone will go the way of the dodo bird
Product Life Expectancy. Imagine a future where products have a “life expectancy” statistic associated with them. Envision a time when distributors could tell clients that one mug is $9 and lasts for a year and another mug is $35 but lasts for 10 years. I know where I would invest my budget.
Sustainability. Long-lasting quality matters to our customers, their employees and it better matter to you. Sustainability is the future of our industry because it equals less landfill and a higher regard for our products.
Fresh Terminology. The words “specialties” and “promotional” are already becoming outdated and will be replaced in the future. Maybe our medium will be called “tangible media” or “product media.”
Bài bài la (bye bye) China. Most everything we have learned about our industry’s relationship with China may be wrong for the evolution of our industry. The reliance. The quality (or lack thereof). The knockoffs that drive us to focus on price. The tariff wars. We will source smarter and differently in the future.
The Maker Revolution. Crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter are where we can pull in more exciting entrants and products into the industry. Etsy, a marketplace of 2.5 million makers, artisans and creators, is another answer. New products have always reinforced our industry’s security. But how are distributors going to source or create in the future? In coming years, the lines will blur as distributors bring products to life and create alliances with suppliers or spin off ideas into retail. I believe the magic is on the edges of the industry, with niche suppliers like HHPLIFT, Redwood Classics Apparel, Love Bottle and others.
Location Marketing. Parents are giving permission for apps to access and track their children’s information—their location, for example. That is scary. In the future, businesses will get even more locational visibility for commerce. Why not let a restaurant know where you are so they can reach out with a drink or dessert special? Buyers will agree to give up very personal data and receive advertising if they get something in exchange. Is this insane? This is already happening. Hello Facebook and Snapchat/Snapmaps are examples. In a way, this is permission-based marketing. How does that translate in our space? Just consider the possibilities within future events, for example.
User Feedback. Imagine an app called “PromoTinder” that distributors and end buyers would use when shopping or creating their own versions of products. It would operate like the hook-up app, Tinder. But instead of swiping potential partner profiles left or right to indicate interest, distributors and end buyers would actually swipe images of products to get a sense of what they might buy so suppliers could make better inventory purchasing decisions.
Corporate Social Responsibility. We must show clients how to take care of employees during a crisis, how to look out for the environment, how to take care of community and how to help them tell their brand’s story with honesty. Buyers are watching and commenting through peer-to-peer reviews. And they care and will vote with their dollars. So, know this: PR stunts often don’t last. Instead, bake corporate social responsibility into your strategic plan and invite your team and customers along for the ride. (For more insight, check out www.promocares.org.)
What is our industry’s role in the world view? How can we better address diversity, equity and inclusion, unifying voices, pride and activism? Purpose is the fifth "P" of marketing. Companies must embrace a values-based approach in their marketing strategies. Today’s young, socially progressive customers have shown little hesitation in boycotting brands that they perceive to be ethically questionable. Authenticity and trust, in particular, are proving harder to come by—so we must invest in meaningful relationships. We must reassess our industry’s value if we are to remain relevant.
Continuing Education. We need to invest in a deep understanding of our clients and our client’s customers. We need to invest in our curiosity through educational courses offered by PPAI, PromoKitchen and others.
Human Connection. We must invest in personal relationships—especially in the face of rising digital competition and disruption—in order to not only survive, but to thrive.
Now is the time to be a part of paving a pathway to a fruitful future. To create. To source smarter. To open the industry’s doors to exciting new entrants. To focus on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. To offer choice and reduce risk. To get ahead of trends and offer brilliant design beyond the boring logo. To double-down on direct mail. To marry digital marketing with physical marketing, aka “phygital marketing.” To better show that we value a person’s data, time and their business. To embrace tech but balance it with a human focus and intimacy.
The future is a verb; giddy up.
Danny Rosin, CAS, is co-president of distributor Brand Fuel, Inc. in Morrisville, North Carolina. He is also co-founder of Band Together NC, board member for the Triangle Area American Marketing Association and The Table Raleigh, co-founder of PromoKitchen and PromoCares, and this month is wrapping up a four-year term on the PPAI Board of Directors.