Why Promotional Products Work For Everyone But You

David Betke

Read Time: Approximately 15 minutes  

Need to book a meeting with that high-value prospect who can make a real difference to your project's success? We challenge anyone to show us a better performing channel.

When used creatively, promotional products are the only media form that provides your audience with an opportunity to physically interact with your brand.

No other channel can compete with the level of sensory engagement that promotional products provide. They are the only media form that has a real perceived value. People don't ad-block them, turn the channel, or surf away. They enjoy receiving them and, in many cases, keep them for years.

Promotional products are a powerful medium

In the hands of a storyteller, they have no parallel in their ability to draw your audience deeper into your story and keep it top of mind for longer. They are a gateway to your marketing funnels, an incentive to act, and a powerful reminder of how you made them feel when you touched them with your story.

Promotional products have played instrumental roles in the campaigns that have led to significant wins for ourselves and our clients, including:

• Recruiting three senior engineers during the height of a labor crisis

• Reducing losses due to on-site accidents to zero within a year of implementation

• Generating a 4000% ROI within six months of a campaign launch

• Adding six figures in sales to the launch of a new business vertical

• Inspiring a community to reduce single-passenger vehicle use and reduce CO2 emissions measurably

• Motivating business leaders to fund and set up internal programs to combat violence against women

• Increasing festival merchandise sales by up to 400% in key categories

And our proudest moment:

• Helping save a 65 000-acre forest near Nelson, B.C. - forever (The West Arm Provincial Park).

However, promotional products are also the most misused and under-measured of all channels. So, let's jump into nine key questions that will determine whether promotional products will work be one of your top-performing channels or continue to be a budget black hole.

Our biggest win with promotional products

Promotional products are the most likely media channel to be purchased without any plan, besides their distribution.

One reason promotional products fail

#1 Are You Planning For Results?

The number one reason promotional products fail is the same reason any marketing fails: no plan.

Handing out the newest shiny things and quietly praying for results is not a plan. Having 500 people come to your trade show booth to snap up your free stuff is not a result.

Far too many organizations confuse tactics with strategy and are continually chasing the newest shiny thing to draw more attention to their brand. Unfortunately, tactics only get attention. It is strategy that turns that attention into actions, sales, and hires.

Let's use a fishing analogy.

Imagine grabbing a shiny lure, cutting off the hook and line, then throwing it in the lake. Can you see all the fish attracted to your lure? Some of them are biting, but there is no way to get the fish in the boat with no hook or line. That's how you go home hungry.

It's the same with shiny things at your trade show booth. Your swag attracts plenty of attention but then what? If you have no way to hook them and reel them in, you go home hungry.

The Solution:

Create a plan by asking the right questions, such as:

What do you want the product(s) to do for you? 

It is truly amazing 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 further, the answer is usually, "We want to attract attention."  

But, attention is easy!

If all you want is attention, why don't you hand out $10 bills or set a squirrel loose on the trade show floor? That will get your attention, guaranteed! 

However, neither are they likely to get the kind of attention you want, nor are they likely to deliver the results you need.

Whose attention are you trying to get?

If you are at an event, it is probably a reasonable assumption that that you don't want to waste your marketing budget on people who are attracted by your swag but have no interest in the products or services you provide.

Before you call your local trinket peddler, consider the following:

How well can you describe who you want to attract? What is their position? Do you know their average age and level of education? What problems do they most urgently need to solve?

Another reason promotional products fail

What comes after attention?

You certainly don't want them to come and take your free stuff and walk away. What is the ultimate goal of the event or campaign, and what are the steps you need them to take to help you achieve that goal. Do you want them to sign-up for an email list? Perhaps you want them to share a referral?

What is the next step?

So they take the first step and sign-up for more information, now what? How does the next step 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 take each step

And by taking the first step, we are not talking about people who take a step over and happily take your free swag off your table at a trade show. We are talking about how many people ask for further information or how they can take the next step towards helping you reach a shared goal. How do you capture their information, tag & segment them, then follow individuals through to bankable action? Be honest. Are you using a spreadsheet or merely a CRM?

Do you have an audience journey mapped out? What will they need in the form of resources to decide to take the next steps? How can you make it easier for them to do so? 

I have found that a well-placed promotional product at critical steps in your customer's journey can make all the difference between them taking the path straight towards you or veering off on a fork that leads to your competition. 

Another reason promotional products fail

#2 Is Your Logo Really Enough?

When was the last time a logo got you to pick up the phone?

How long do you think you would have your job if you spent $5000 on billboard space and printed only your logo on the billboard (no call to action and no contact information)?

That would be insane, right? So, why do so many organizations still do this with promotional products?

Promotional products are the only media form where this insanity is accepted and encouraged. How many websites and e-mails have you seen displaying the ubiquitous "Your logo here?"

Promotional products are the perfect vehicle to tell your story. Printing a logo alone on them is like gagging them and preventing them from telling it. 

Consider a prospect 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 along the way. 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. 

It can be a huge friction point to expect them to research you after a show. 

Make it easy!

The Solution:

A simple call to action doesn't cost a penny more to print.

Choose the right product for the right place and time. Use the space to pique someone's curiosity to learn more. If you do it right and you have a plan, they may end up becoming an integral part of your success story.

 The promotion to your right is packaging for a chocolate bar, and the CTA is Win a Year of Free Chocolate!

Another way to make promotional products work
Another reason promotional products fail

#3 How Will You Measure Success?

People flocked to your booth and loved the free swag you gave away. Is that a win? In our books, only if a number of them followed through and took their wallets, joined your list, or in some way helped you reach your event goal.

The promotional products industry likes to measure success by impressions. The evidence is clear; promotional products deliver more impressions per dollar than any other media form. Don't get me wrong, impressions can be useful at the middle and bottom of the marketing funnel, but they can rarely be measured directly against actions, sales, and hires.

Key metrics to consider are Cost Per Lead, Cost of Acquisition, Average Sale Size, Churn Rates & Lifetime Value of a Client. When you consider these, you can focus your budget on the channels and audience segments that deliver the best results for your marketing budget.

The Solution:

Measure success against your pre-show goal. Remember the call-to-action you printed on your swag?

Tools like SimpleLeads™ or GreenTexts™ can help you prove which channels, events, and sources are delivering the most leads that end in actions, sales and hires. That way, you can determine where to focus your budget for the best results.

Another reason promotional products fail

#4 Do First Impression Also Apply to Advertising?

What do your choices say about your brand?

The first contact a new prospect will likely have with your brand- is through advertising. In the case of promotional products, it may be at a third-party event such as a client's golf tournament or silent auction. 

Those who first receive your products may have very little knowledge about your business. They may have little to no understanding of who you are, what you do, or why they should choose you. If you orphan your product with just a logo (see#2), you probably just wasted your money.

If your product choices contradict your positioning, core values, or critical messages, you wasted your money. Perhaps worse. See #8.

If your product choices are of inferior quality, you risk repositioning your brand, and you probably did more damage than just wasting a little money. See #7.

The Solution:

Make sure you make your first impression count. Think of products that reinforce your story, core values, and position. Make sure you add a call to action that integrates with your marketing funnel. Never waste an opportunity to capture new leads, make new connections, and create new fans. Promotional products are up to the task better than most channels, as long as you use them right.

#5 Who Are You Trusting with Your Budget and Your Reputation?

There are two words in promotional products. Unfortunately, many people who sell them focus on the product part, instead of the promotional 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 to simply focus all their energy on selling the products.

There is also a very low barrier to entry. Anyone who can pay for a generic "your logo here" template website, carry a catalogue or slam a trunk qualifies. Is this the kind of partner you want to help with your marketing? 

Would you hire the person who just sold you a TV to create your next ad campaign?

Another reason promotional products fail

The Solution:

Unless you have a dedicated marketing department with a track record of proving results specifically with the promotional product medium, my advice is to 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.

Another reason promotional products fail

#6 Are You a Victim of Lazy Marketing? 

Many of you have experienced this first hand:

It's two weeks before an event. You finished your display, your brochures are all printed, but you just started thinking about how you will stand out from everyone else and attract people to your booth. So, you pick up the phone, call your trinket peddler, ask what's new, and throw some money at the latest shiny thing. Lots of people take your free stuff, so you call it a success. You get home, and your boss asks, "How much business did we get from the show?" You reply, "Well, um, lots of people came to our booth." And your panic attack begins.

It was all about getting attention but forgetting the- "then what?"

The Solution:

A little bit of strategically written copy and a simple funnel can change everything. It will undoubtedly make the boss happy.

Creating a marketing calendar and sharing it with your marketing partners is another essential. If you get too busy, they can remind you of deadlines and ask the appropriate questions to ensure that you have a plan in place to maximize your investment before an event.

If you are working on a new program, campaign, or launch, make sure you include your partners at the initial planning stages so they can ensure that you choose products strategically. You should also optimize your copy to lead to action at prime points in your marketing funnel (see#1).

#7 Never Trust Your Reputation to the Lowest Price

Are you making the deadly mistake of tendering out your reputation?

We all love to save money, but not at the expense of our reputations. No one wants to throw away a lifetime of potential earnings. Your reputation is not a line-item!

As 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." 

Another reason promotional products fail

Tendering has its place. Your reputation is not one of them. Please don't let materials management reposition your brand.

Short term savings can lose customers for life. 

Why? Here 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. After dinner, mom won the door prize. She was ecstatic. It was an insulated bottle with her favorite farm supply store's logo printed on it.

One week later, the bottom portion of the bottle came apart. I noticed the supplier code on the bottom of the bottle and sighed. They are known for low-priced giveaways.

My mother was inconsolable. She concluded that her favorite store was now cutting corners with quality.

Neither mom nor dad 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 decided to save a couple of dollars tendering out their promotional products. It may have looked good as a line item, but it lost a client for life. That never shows up on the books!

Your reputation and your brand's position in your market are too important to delegate to materials management or procurement. 

If your reputation means anything, please don't do it! Short-term savings can cost you tens of thousands of dollars AND your reputation. They can also reposition your offering in the minds of your clients. (Read as: "lower your profit margins"). 

The Solution:

Treat promotional products as an investment, not an expense. If you have a plan and can measure results, you can measure the effectiveness of your investment. Choose a partner who can help you plan and measure those results.

Another reason promotional products fail

#8 Is Personal Shopping Repositioning Your Brand?

Are employee's personal tastes outweighing your marketing purpose?

Just because you or your employees 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 and buys 500 pink mugs with rhinestones. She loved them, so she bought them.

Crazy, you say? 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 their brand, but the engineer was like a retriever with a stick. He just had to have that new shiny thing. Unfortunately, personal taste often trumps good marketing sense. 

The Solution:

My advice? Try to stay on brand. The products you choose should accentuate your story and, if possible, draw your audience deeper into your story. Make sure they reinforce your market position. 

Tip: Think of purchasing them from your customer's point of view instead of your own.

#9 Why Is Your Brand Guide So Essential?    

Without a brand guide to keep everyone on track, you are may be creating a Frankenbrand

Without strong brand guidelines and centralized approval, your organization runs the risk of brand fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when different departments send out mixed messages and confuse your audience, both internally and externally. 

Lack of consistency can easily lead to lack of trust.

For example, we have had more than one large client with several verticals who are poster children for this issue. 

We have seen the client's official brand guidelines state their brand color as in 485C (Red). Because their organization was so large, they dealt with several vendors and agencies. Over the years, I have personally seen their brand in a dozen different (off-brand) colors and with elements bent and stretched in every way. 

They looked more like a home improvement project than what they wanted to project as a brand to their audience. 

The seemingly unconnected issues led to losses in productivity, negatively affecting 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 brand guide.

Another reason promotional products fail

The Solution:

Create a brand guide for consistency, and stick to it! 

Hopefully, this will set you on the road to getting the fantastic results that promotional products can.

Need Some Help Getting Better Results at Trade Shows & Events?

Reduce your event print costs by 75%, shorten your sales cycle & save more trees.

Let's Talk

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 many great customers for life. David has been recognized with seven national marketing awards.