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Promotional Products: Essential Channel of Waste of Money?

It all depends on how you answer these key questions.

David Betke

Read Time: Approximately 12 minutes  

We have saved a 65 000-acre forest, reduced carbon emissions measurably, helped recruit three senior engineers, added six figures to a new launch, and gained a few great customers for life with campaigns that have relied heavily on the power of promotional products.  

They are the only media form with an actual perceived value. If you are trying to get the attention of a high-value prospect we challenge anyone to show us a better performing channel? Used creatively, they are the only media form that offers an opportunity to physically interact with your brand. However, they are by far the most misused of media forms.  

I have said before, “show me an organization who treats marketing as an expense and I will show you an organization who will always live in the shadows of their competition” In my 25+ years of experience, how an organization approaches promotional products is a key indicator of their attitude towards all marketing.  

So, let’s jump into seven key issues that will determine whether promotional products can be a top-performing channel that can deliver the types of results some of our clients have enjoyed or a budget line you need to eliminate.  

#1 How Detailed is Your Plan?

The number one reason promotional products fail is the same reason any marketing fails. It is the absence of a plan.  

Handing out the newest shiny things and quietly praying for results is not a plan. Promotional products are the most likely media form to be purchased without any plan, apart from their distribution. You can’t argue how great they are at attracting attention. However, they are just a lure.  

Warning! Another marketing fishing analogy follows, but we promise this one is different. 

Imagine if you went fishing and all you did was row out to the middle of the lake picked out the shiniest lure, put the bait on the hook, then proceeded to throw your lure in without attaching a line. Sure, your lure might attract plenty of fish. Some may even bite. The problem is, there’s no way to get them into the boat, and you go home hungry. 

It’s the same with shiny things at your trade show booth. Your swag attracts plenty of attention but is it from people who are interested in what you do or only people who like free stuff?  

So, you have to ask yourself:  

What do you want the product(s) to do for you? It is truly amazing at how many blank stares I have encountered over the years when I ask this question. The usual answer is a version of “I don’t know, we just give them away because everyone else does." When prodded the answer is usually, “We want to attract attention." My response with a smile is “Why don’t you just hand out $50 bills or paint a rabid squirrel green and set it loose on the trade show floor, that will get attention”.  

Which leads us to:  

Whose attention are you trying to get? If you are at a trade show, it is probably a reasonable assumption that you don’t want to attract people who like free things and that have no interest in what you do. It is also pretty safe to assume that you don’t want to attract people who are not qualified to take the action you want them to take  

What action do you want them to take? Once we have decided whose attention you want, now you have to decide on what you want your audience to do once we have their attention.  

How will you pique their curiosity to take the next step? What IS the next step? How does it fit into your overall goal of increasing sales, recruiting the right people, or motivating people to change their behavior?  

How will you measure how many people took that step, which kind of people they were and where those kind of people are most likely to gather? If you can't measure it, how will you know? Will you continue throwing away cash blindly or rely on useful data to make significant assumptions and then test them to ensure you are getting the most from your marketing budget?  

How will you get them to take the next step and then the next until they reach your overall goal? How will you incentivize people to stay engaged and take those next steps? How will you identify which events or channels are attracting the people who are taking the most actions?  

The better you can answer these questions, the more likely you are to get results without wasting enormous amounts of money. It may save some hair as well.  

The difference between promotional products making you money and them losing you money will be determined by how you answer these questions. Let’s move onto number two. 

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#2 "Your Logo Here" Are You Practicing Lazy Marketing?  

"Your logo here" is one of our greatest sources of frustration with promotional products. In our opinion, “Your logo here” with some exceptions, is just lazy marketing.  

Too many organizations waste perfectly good advertising space with just their logo. Promotional products are the only media form where this insanity is not only accepted- it is encouraged.  

When was the last time a logo got you to pick up the phone? Just for a moment, let’s think of your promotional products as promoters that invite someone in to discover your incredible story. Printing a logo alone on them is paramount to gagging them and preventing them from telling that story.  

Our advice: Un-gag your swag! Let it tell your story.  

Think of your prospects at a busy trade show. They have a conversation with you; they get to the end of the aisle and forget what you talked about because they had 12 more conversations. They get back to their hotel, dump out their bag, and see your swag with a logo on it. Unless you have spent millions on brand, your logo probably says very little about what you do and more importantly why they should choose you. Promotional products are the only media form that offers a unique opportunity for people to interact with your story physically. Use that space to pique their curiosity to learn more so that they want to become part of your story.  

#3- How Important Are First Impressions?

Promotional products are often the first contact anyone has with your brand. It may be at a third-party event such as a golf tournament or silent auction. Or it may be at a trade show or job fair. Think carefully how your swag choices are helping influence the movie that's playing in peoples' heads when they think of your brand. First impressions are an essential part of your brand story. If you orphan your product with just a logo and no one knows who you are, you probably just wasted your money.  

If your product does nothing to accentuate your brand story, or it contradicts your core values or key messages, you probably just wasted your money. If the product is of inferior quality, you risk repositioning your brand, and you probably did more damage than just wasting your money. See #6. Make your first impression count. Your brand is the movie playing inside people’s heads when they think of you. Make sure your movie has a compelling beginning.

#4- Who are You Trusting With Your Brand?

There are two words in promotional products. Unfortunately, the majority of the people who sell them focus on the product part. It is all about selling more products. To the manufacturers, the trinket peddler is only as good as the number of products he or she can flog in a year. So, there is pressure too focus all their energy on flogging more stuff. More shiny things anyone?  

There is also a very low barrier to entry. Anyone who can pay for a generic website, carry a catalogue or slam a trunk qualifies. Is this the kind of partner you want to help you with your marketing? Tip: We have very effective trinket peddler deterrent. Just ask them how they are going to measure results.  

You will most likely get a blank stare, followed by profuse sweating and all-out panic. Unless you have a dedicated marketing department that is great at proving results with this medium, hire a professional. Ask to see case studies. Review results, tell them your goal, and ask them how they would get you there. Be prepared to invest in a professional’s time.  

#5- Are You a Last-Minute Marketer?

It's two weeks before the show, and you don't have a plan to capture, qualify and convert leads, so you pick up the phone, call your trinket peddler, ask what's new, and throw more money at shiny things. It’s an unfortunate fact, but I can count on one hand in the past 25 years of working with brands, those who proactively planned how they were going to use promotional products. This common practice is entirely reactive. It usually plays out like this:  

You have an event, and you call the person who buys office supplies to find something shiny to give away. Five hundred people come to your booth and walk away with your free stuff. You would have no idea if any of them were potential customers?  

You get back to the office; get swamped by the day to day and repeat the same futile exercise 6 months later. Does this sound familiar?  

Don't worry, we see it every day, but we are changing things one plan and one organization at a time. A little bit of carefully written copy and a simple funnel can change everything. 

#6- Are You Trusting Your Reputation to the Lowest Bidder?

This one cuts deep. When we save money in the short term, we may be cutting off our nose to spite our face. The consequences can be dire. There are times for tendering and materials management. Your brand is not one of them. 

Please don't let two people who know nothing about brand conspire to damage yours. Keep your reputation out of the hands of both material’s management and trinket peddlers. Following is a true story: My mom and dad had been loyal to their local farm supply store for decades, and then one day they went to a harvest dinner. At the dinner, mom won the door prize. She was ecstatic. It was an insulated bottle with her favorite farm supply store’s logo. One week later, the bottom portion of the bottle came apart. My mother concluded that it was indicative of where her favorite store’s quality was going. Neither of them has set foot in that store since. Dad used to spend about $5000 per year there. Over the past 15 years, that is a loss of $75 000 because someone saved a couple of dollars tendering out their promotional products. It looked good in that year’s budget as a line item but lost a client for life. That never shows up on the books. Your reputation and your position in your market are too important to delegate to materials management or procurement. Don’t do it! 

#7 Are Putting Personal Taste Above Marketing Purpose?

Just because YOU like a product, doesn't mean it is good marketing. Remember it's about your customers, not you.  

We see this scenario all too often: 

The boss says, "There’s a trade show coming up for our construction clients, get whoever orders our office supplies to get 500 of something to give away". The admin goes online, flips through some catalogues, and buys 500 pink mugs with rhinestones. 

You laugh, we’ve seen it!  

I've also seen engineers buy the oddest things because they thought they were cool. They had nothing to do with the brand or their customer, but the engineer was like a retriever with a stick. He just had to have them. Unfortunately, personal taste often trumps good marketing sense.  

Try to stay on brand. The products you choose should accentuate your story and if possible, draw your audience deeper into your story. If you tell your story in an engaging way, the product should act as an essential prop. It then becomes a reminder. Every time they use the product, they will be reminded of how you made them feel when you touched them with your story.  

We have helped customers use this in sales, recruitment & fun&raising with great success. 

#8 How Clear Are Your Branding Guidelines?

Without a brand guide for everyone to follow and keep on track, you are more likely to create a platypus for a brand.  

Without strong brand guidelines and centralized approval, your organization runs the risk of brand fragmentation, a result of different departments sending out mixed messages and confusing your audience, internally and externally.  

We have had more than one large client with several verticals who are poster children for this issue.  

Aeed s it relates to promotional products, let’s begin with the simple logo. (I know I said that a logo alone could be lazy marketing, but there are circumstances where it is entirely appropriate like uniforms, merchandise, recognition, and established client gifts.)  

Let's get back to the logo. A client’s official brand guidelines stated that their logo color was 485C (Red). Because their organization was so large, they dealt with several vendors and agencies. Over the years, I had personally seen their brand in a dozen different (off-brand) colors, and with logo-elements bent and stretched in every way.  

To their audience, they look like a home improvement project, not what they wanted to project as a brand. Lack of consistency can easily lead to lack of trust.  

This seemingly unconnected issue led to losses in productivity, negatively affected employee morale, resulting in lost business, and more than one product recall and redo. All of this because there were too many guides (agencies), and no one was following the brand guide.  

Create a brand guide and stick to it!  

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About The Author

David Betke has dedicated his career to helping brands that give back, make a bigger difference. His campaigns have helped save a 65 000-acre forest forever, reduced carbon emissions in a city measurably, and helped recruit three senior engineers during the height of a labor crisis. One even generated a 6000% return within six months and attracted a couple of great customers for life. David has been personally recognized with seven national marketing awards.