Sell-piece Featured

10:09am EDT July 22, 2002

Sell-piece

Once derided as baubles, promotional products have become an important marketing tool to businesses, consumers and even employees: Just look around your office.

By WILLIAM HOFFMAN

Researchers recently conducted an informal survey at O'Hare International Airport, asking a random sample of 500 travelers over three days if they had a promotional product on their person. Seventy-five percent of them did, the researchers found, and of those, 75 percent could remember the logo or slogan imprinted on the item without reaching into their pocket to look at it.

That's the kind of result the Promotional Products Association International loves to report, admits PPA director of marketing communications Ray Finfer, while acknowledging the unscientific nature of the study. What can't be disputed is the surge in promotional product sales-from $5.2 billion in 1991 to $9.4 billion in 1996 (and pushing $11 billion in '97). Those sales figures are forcing marketers to take a second look.

PPA is one of the oldest trade groups in the nation (founded 1904), and its produce, oft-unrecognized as such, adorns historical museums and Fortune 100 executive desks alike. "A promotional product is a useful item that someone imprints with a name, logo or slogan for giveaway with no strings attached," Finfer explains. A 1997 PPA study concluded that 95 percent of business executives have an item in their office imprinted with another company's message. "If you look on your desk, you'll probably find three, four, five promotional products," Finfer notes.

Some tips for companies interested in promotional marketing:

It can be cheap... Promotional products distributors are not manufacturers. Rather, they contract with different manufacturers for quantities of various items, then imprint and resell the items to you. You can rarely buy direct from the manufacturer. Distributors are overwhelmingly small: 14,700 reported 1996 sales volumes of $2.5 million or less, while just 373 reported higher sales. And 82 percent of distributors said their 1996 average promotional product order was $1,000 or less.

...but it doesn't pay to be. "It doesn't behoove anyone from that standpoint to be shortsighted," according to Cliff D. Quicksell Jr., director of marketing and business development at Imprint Inc., in Towson, Md. Not only do flimsy handouts reflect poorly on your company, adds Marsha Londe, director of corporate accounts at Shadco Advertising Specialties Inc. in Atlanta: "The employee who is disbursing an item should feel good about the item he or she is disbursing."

Work with your distributor. "I try to be an extension of [my clients'] marketing department, and if they don't have a marketing department I will try to fill that role for them," Quicksell says. He estimates that he asks new clients as many as 150 questions about their companies and their objectives for a promotional products marketing campaign before reviewing possible sell-pieces. His carefully coordinated campaigns routinely generate 40 to 100 percent response rates, compared with 2 to 4 percent for direct mail. He also offers one-of-a-kind imprinted products, such as a $12,000 lead-crystal chandelier sold to a law firm. "There are promotional products to fit every situation."

Target your audience. Promotional products are rarely free giveaways to everyone who walks through the door. By determining in advance who you want to reach (exceptional employees? prospective buyers?) and why (general goodwill? more sales for a particular product?), you increase the likelihood of a successful campaign. "Promotional products are simply a tool to communicate, and that's why the tool must match the ultimate recipient," Londe says. "If it doesn't match the ultimate recipient, you've wasted your money."

Plan ahead. Londe suggests planning a promotional products campaign at least six weeks in advance. This gives the distributor time to consult with the client, fine-tune a campaign, produce a proof for customer review, locate economical manufacturers, etc. "It's a matter of refining the product after learning the demographics," Londe says. "It's costly not to plan ahead."