It’s Evolution, Baby!
Several years have passed since the inception of television makeover programs. Nevertheless, the various creative concepts of executive producers continue to garner high viewer ratings and consequently, industry profitability. From fashion makeover shows such as the Style Network’s How Do I Look?, to ABC’s emotionally-driven Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, is it a wonder why American popular culture hinges on trends and image?
It is rather simple to apply this concept to almost any business sector. Take the $18.01 billion promotional products industry, for example. With an industry dating back to 1789, when promotional products took the form of commemorative buttons celebrating George Washington’s presidential inauguration, both suppliers and distributors can confidently note significant changes regarding product design and customer demand. However, referring to such changes as a “makeover” may be inaccurate. Gregg Emmer, vice president and chief marketing officer of Batavia, Ohio-based Kaeser & Blair, asserted, “What appears to be a makeover, in truth, is really the evolution of promotional products.”
In fact, end-users are currently able to order promotional products first introduced to the market more than 50 years ago, albeit at a higher cost. Emmer noted the popularity of swizzle sticks—a hot item in the 1950s—and shot glasses and beverage glasses. In addition, Kaeser & Blair still features a pen it introduced in 1950.
Matthew Barnes, publisher of Promotional Marketing magazine, the sister publication of BFL&S, agreed. “As for traditional products, the mainstays will always be hot sellers. They’re good products. I don’t know if any one is making a comeback, per se. I don’t think they ever really went away,” he said. Still, some of the more reliable traditional promotional products, including writing instruments, drinkware and pins, have received facelifts to suit ever-changing market demands.
Lindsay Hoylman, marketing specialist of Leed’s, New Kensington, Pa., acknowledged the enhanced sophistication of design and functionality of promotional products—particularly for bags and totes, top-sellers for the company. “As life becomes more complicated and new electronics are developed, it raises the bar on bag performance. Where briefcases used to have one large compartment, now there is a drinkware pocket, laptop holder, MP3 pocket, an entire compartment devoted to organizing pens and small accessories and a built-in filing system,” she stated.
The Rubik’s Cube, another old favorite, recently experienced a resurgence in popularity and was even featured in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, when the character Chris Gardner (Will Smith) solved the mysterious cube in less than two minutes.
Headquartered in Bridgeport, Conn., Prime Line capitalizes on the nostalgic feel such products give to end-users, but not without making a few alterations to these classics. For instance, Prime Line has expanded the original concept of cushiony stress balls with its Rubik’s Cube stress ball. Other well-received items in this product category are globe stress balls and sports stress balls, and of course, stress balls featuring painted facial expressions (e.g., smiles and frowns). “People want [to associate] an emotion with the product they’re handing out,” said Jeff Lederer, executive vice president.
Advanced technology influences the direction of the promotional products industry, as well. Lederer sees these developments as major reasons for the industry’s growing respectability. They have made the industry more mainstream, he said. In fact, technology items, such as iPod accessories, are as popular in the promotional products industry as they are in the retail arena, according to Hoylman.
“Technology is an extremely popular category and has a much more condensed life cycle, with new products and subcategories cropping up daily. Not only has the technology category expanded from flash drives to digital photo frames and computer accessories, technology has impacted other categories. ... Writing instruments have become hybrids with the laser pointer, stylus and even USB pens,” she explained.
When it comes to product development, Barnes noted, “This is a hot market, a growing market, a fun market and an innovative market for everyone to be involved in.” Little details regarding color, size and customer intent enter the forefront of the design process. “Product development across all categories is influenced by the end-consumer. If companies are adopting breast cancer awareness campaigns, they may want [to use] a pink item, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with their company’s logo. Also, for eco-friendly products, a retail company may want to introduce a line of products, and a green promotional product complements [its] marketing agenda,” Barnes added.
Nevertheless, product tweaking is only part of the solution to driving sales traffic. Emmer strongly encouraged individuals to remember the products themselves are secondary to the creativity executed to sell the product. “Businesses want to invest in an outcome, so find out what the outcome is they’re interested in and then figure out how to make it work using promotional products, which frankly, is very easy to do,” he stressed.
Oftentimes, selling promotional products requires distributors to be “idea sellers” to ensure customer loyalty. If an end-user rejects a distributor’s sales pitch to buy a promotional item, then that potential business relationship is finished. Emmer encourages distributors to ask their clients, “What is your problem? What are you hoping to accomplish?” These seemingly basic questions are often overlooked. He recalled working with Chevrolet on a campaign for its top-end sports car, the
Corvette. Because there were different car dealerships in the marketplace selling Corvettes, Emmer’s customer needed a solution to differentiate itself from the competition.
When a distributor’s customer asks for help, that distributor must think fast. Kaeser & Blair presented Chevrolet with his-and-her, high-end, black leather jackets featuring the Corvette logo. Emmer suggested the jackets be strategically placed across the front seat of the Corvette. The catch? The jackets were only available to those who purchased the car.
Leed’s national sales manager, David Grobisen, elaborated. “With the business-to-business aspect of this industry, our customers have their own customers who they are trying to please. Sometimes, our customers are asked to do the impossible and we have to make it happen for them,” he noted.
Grobisen also encouraged forms distributors to expand their product line to include promotional products. These distributors already have several advantages indicative of success, he said. For instance, forms distributors have an established working relationship with their clients—the only difference being the customer’s brand is promoted differently.
The ready availability of educational resources is another advantage for forms distributors. Trade shows provide distributors with the opportunity to network with experienced suppliers.
“Forms distributors looking to expand their business into the promotional products arena [should] launch an awareness campaign with their customer base by creating a self-promotion like a jotter and a pen. Show your customers that you have the resources to provide them with all their branding needs,” stressed Grobisen.
People will always want emotional stimulation, recognition and some extra pizzazz in their life, and promotional products are an easy business strategy to make it happen. While the industry has come a long way from the days of pins and keychains, Barnes believes this particular market remains untapped. There is an open field of opportunity as products continue to evolve. So, take a cue from Hollywood: give your marketing strategies an occasional facelift.
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