How to Add Promotional Products to Your Print Business
If there’s one area where Paul Keely excels, it’s customer service—particularly, knowing and understanding the print needs of the health care community. When he and his wife, Eileen, purchased King Medical more than a decade ago, their Newark, Delaware-based distributorship’s primary offering was health care forms. As client demands continued to evolve, so, too, did King Medical’s product line. First came commercial print, followed by marketing collateral print, targeted mailings and online marketing services.
Keely, who holds the title of company president, began to notice an interesting pattern among his end-users’ marketing spend. Quite simply, it was soaring, which is why he decided to add promotional products to the mix. By his logic, King Medical could now offer a complete set of marketing tools for the hospitals and medical and dental practices it already served.
“Promotional products are really different than print, but also remarkably similar,” Keely said. “They do their jobs in very different ways, but both can help organizations build their brand and stay top of mind with potential customers. Ultimately, offering several marketing vehicles is a great win for our customers because their customers need many, and varied, touches in today’s highly competitive marketplace.”
Change can be challenging, tricky and downright scary, but when it comes to the combo order sales cycle, nobody arguably is better positioned than a print business. Oftentimes, the printer is the initial point of contact when a business is thinking about doing advertising. This is because advertising generally has some sort of print support attached to it.
“Typically, [distributors] are dealing with the same buyers that they are selling print to,” Justin Zavadil, president of American Solutions for Business (ASB), Glenwood, Minn., said.
Another reason to venture into promo is that it is one of a few product categories that are conducive to the distributor model. “[This means] being able to sell them without having to be the manufacturer,” Zavadil explained. “Promo is perfect for that, and it will never really change because of all of the different products and thousands of suppliers.”
Promotional products account for roughly 15-20 percent of King Medical’s business, though Keely admitted he wants to grow that number. To accomplish his goal, in July, he affiliated with iPROMOTEu, a large distributor organization headquartered in Wayland, Mass. While partnering with a distributor group isn’t required to make the leap into promo, it does come with advantages.
“Time is one of the No. 1 assets to a distributor,” Bob Schwei, director of business development for iPROMOTEu, said. “[If] you hook up with a professional that has buying power [with suppliers], that can help with the non-revenue, time-tedious tasks of following up on orders, customer invoicing and that type of thing.”
In keeping with the spirit of saving time, it may come as no surprise that many distributors want to know how they can become efficient in their journey to the promo side. The opportunities, Schwei said, start with current clientele.
“Take somebody out to lunch that you’re friendly with, that you have a good relationship with,” he recommended. “Tell them about the direction that you’re taking your distributorship or business, and ask them for their thoughts. Ask them if they have any feedback, and ask them further if they’re the right people to talk to about opportunities in that area, or if they could talk to somebody else within the company. ... The best way to learn is to learn smartly through your current relationships, as well as the relationships you’ve built within the industry.”
Crossing Over to the Promotional Products Industry
At first glance, the promo products industry is an easy one to enter. Theoretically, a distributor can page through a catalog and order items through a supplier of his or her choosing. No certification program required. Going about it this way, however, is one of the biggest mistakes a distributor can make.
“I think people go at it thinking, ‘Hey, everybody else is crossing over, [so] I can do this, too,’ but they don’t have the proper knowledge base, samples and understanding of the industry,” Schwei commented. “... If a person was to get into this and understand the nuances, start slow and pick a few suppliers and really try and dig down and learn the industry, that’s to everybody’s best satisfaction, especially where safety is concerned.”
Just take a look at promotional mugs. On the surface, there aren’t too many safety concerns surrounding them. But if those mugs are imprinted with a rainbow or a cartoon character, for example, they become children’s products, which have strict regulations. It is the responsibility of the distributor to get educated, and that is the difference between being transactional and being a true solutions provider.
“Go through the [supplier] factory,” Schwei said. “See all pens engraved; go see how a shirt is processed, how it’s stitched; go see the manufacturing process because now there’s power there. You’ll go communicate that back to the customer, be able to relay many safety concerns that happen, understand who your team is and who your support team is, who can help you with problem resolution and quote opportunities, and that type of thing.”
That’s not to say there aren’t similarities between these two like-minded industries. Print distributors need to realize that it’s all about graphic communications. The difference lies in the substrate.
“It’s a drop-ship program, so the components are the same,” Schwei noted. “The learning curve is: ‘All right, we’re working with a file, so we’ve got to understand what type of file we need in terms of printability.’ That file needs to be 300 dpi and high quality to print, but if you’re going to embroider it on a shirt, you need to make sure that the colors are going to stand out on the wearable. You’re [also] going to make sure that file is digitized, etc.
“My point is understanding the manufacturing process of the good on both sides, and then understanding the player and who the suppliers are and the inner workings of them; understanding of selling and the best way to position the product for sale; and understanding the pricing metrics with that,” he continued. “So, I would say there are similarities in how you do that, but the difference is maybe a little bit of terminology, because now you’re looking at thread counts versus pixels or dots, and you’re looking at color and how it reflects on paper versus color and how it reflects on cotton.”
For Keely, the biggest challenges of promo are what he described as “the overwhelming number of products and suppliers, and frequently lower profit margins.”
When distributors first get involved with promo products, it may be tempting to chase after low-hanging fruit (i.e., “I need 500 pens at this price by this day.”) because it’s easy money. But when resellers demonstrate an understanding of their clients’ businesses and prove to be an extension of their staff, their titles change from “pen guy” to “partner.”
To move things along, try asking thoughtful questions at the beginning of a job. Schwei suggested the following:
- What are we using this product for?
- What is the purpose of ordering?
- What is the purpose of reordering?
- How did it go last time?
- What is the recipe for success in using this promotional product or printed good?
- Is there an opportunity where we can change the item and maybe work on something that’s new with technology that may offer you a method to quantify success based on metrics that we set together?
- What are we going to be doing in the future with this?
- How does this division work in your company and with the overall, big picture?
- Who is the decision maker?
Selecting the Best Promotional Items for Your Business
With so many promotional products readily available, it can be tough to determine which ones make sense for your business, and, more importantly, your customers.
“We try to listen to what the customer wants, ask probing questions and then find products uniquely suited for the job, and [we] always try to steer [customers] to something pretty unique,” Keely said. “... A fairly common project for us is to build professional (doctor-to-doctor) referrals. We can combine customer branding, print collateral, targeted mail (often educational newsletters) with periodic branded gifts and educational events.”
Schwei borrowed an analogy from a colleague to describe the distributor’s role. “I’m going to steal a line that [iPROMOTEu Director of Affiliate Marketing] Cliff Quicksell says internally,” he said with a laugh. “... There could be up to a million items in a grocery store, right? And if I’m a chef, what I’m doing is, I’m picking out those items that I think the people at my table are going to enjoy the most. So, how I relate that to promotional products is our job, as distributors, is to look at the items and understand our customers’ needs, wants and how they operate their businesses to see where the best application is, and that goes across the board.
“Break your customer segments down into different verticals,” he added. “Ask the promotional companies and the manufacturers and the suppliers: Where have your successes been in hospitality, in manufacturing, in construction, in automotive, and what products do you drive around that? With each product line, there’s a common thread and application for each vertical. It’s our job to be that chef to find the right recipe and the right application for it.”
Choosing Your Supplier
So, you’ve decided to add promo products to your print line, but have you chosen a supplier partner? Because the combo sale involves multiple manufacturers (one for your print needs and one for your promo needs), it is important that you team up with someone who works toward easing concerns, not adding to them.
“At ASB, we have our own vendor directory that our sales associates use, and can rate and review suppliers,” Zavadil said. “The best vetting process is listening to the market. There are a lot of suppliers out there, and not all are created equal. [The] same goes for distributors.”
Think about the qualities that matter the most to you in this relationship. “Our No. 1, 2 and 3 qualities we look for are reliability,” Keely shared. “Great price is useless if we can’t count on them. We don’t want orders, we want customers, and customer relationships are built on trust.
“As a distributor, the worst thing a supplier can do for me is deliver late—without me or us knowing—or deliver an incorrect or substandard product,” he concluded. “Our customer sees these things before we do, so it has a devastating impact on our customer relationship.”
Elise Hacking Carr is editor-in-chief/content director for Print+Promo magazine.