It really is the thought that counts

Promotional gifts are gaining respect as marketing tools, but in order to succeed they must meet the desires of consumers who are increasingly used to bespoke, unique services. By Jo-Anne Flack

The promotional item, or giveaway, sector tends not to be seen at the marketing top table. It is, nevertheless, a growing market and has evolved from churning out the ubiquitous promotional pen (of more later) to producing bespoke and, quite often, unique items that are able to add to the brand proposition.

The promotional product industry, along with every other below-the-line discipline, has had to focus not only on developing new products, but also align itself with brand engagement. An ill-conceived, throw-away gimmick is just not enough any more.

Chris Dry is managing director at 141 Worldwide. He says a promotional product has to work harder than just standing out from the crowd. “It is more about standing out for the right people. Just standing out from the crowd can attract people not intrinsically interested in the brand. The idea has to be about relevance and brand truth,” he says.

One of 141’s biggest clients is The Guardian. Its job is to develop promotions that are not just about creating a spike in sales. After the newspaper launched its Berliner format, 141 developed a promotion that involved a giveaway of Oyster travelcards within the M25. The top prize was a year’s free travel, with lower-value Oyster cards in other copies of the paper. Every copy also included a card holder featuring a different London scene each day.

“The Guardian format is great for the commuter and there is a big travel audience out there,” says Dry. “So what we did was linked the premium, the Oyster card, with the product benefit – the ability to read the paper easily on the train.

“With The Guardian, our brief is to look at raising circulation in the medium term. The problem with having a hugely successful, one-off promotion is that you may have a huge lift in sales, but the following year you are under pressure to do something even better.”

Followers of fashion

Like any other marketing discipline, promotional products are influenced by trends. The current desire for everything green extends to promotional items. Gordon Glenister, director-general of the British Promotional Merchandise Association (BPMA), confirms that products that are seen to be engaging with the environmental debate have risen sharply in popularity.

He cites the ecobutton as an example. This is an illuminating USB device that acts as a prompt for the user to press whenever the computer is left idle. It ensures the computer and monitor are set to operate in the most efficient, lowest power mode available.

But he also says there is an element of what he calls “green washing”: “Consumers are wising up to environmental issues. You may have a product that links into the environment, but if it was made in China, you’ve probably shot yourself in the foot,” he says.

Glenister is also convinced that marketers don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to product ideas. To prove this, he points out that the promotional pen, according to BPMA research, still reigns “by a mile” in this sector. “It is cheap and it gets a lot of exposure. I don’t see that changing in terms of quantity,” he says. “What may change, however, is the ability to personalise pens, or any other products for that matter. For example, instead of having Microsoft on all the pens, you can have individual names printed on each one. We are likely to see much more bespoke personalisation.”

Making contact

Consumer contact is important according to business development director at Iris Experience, Cameron Day. “Experiential marketing is one of the most effective ways of creating brand experiences and leveraging content effectively, not only can you create very hard working promotional content but also you build a real emotional engagement with consumers” he says.

“A recent example of this is our campaign for Sony Ericsson called Music Monster to champion the Sony Ericsson Walkman brand and maintain their leadership in the music category. The obvious idea would have been to offer free music downloads, content or access to specific artists’ merchandise. Instead, we created Music Monster based on the idea that every consumer had their own ‘music monster’ to feed. The campaign included a website where you customise and download your own music monster, a PR campaign, music monster mobile phone charms and branded spaces at O2 Wireless and Vodafone events. More than 11,000 monsters were downloaded and created.”

It does seem that technology and the desire for bespoke products have come together at just the right time to provide momentum to this sector. Kevin Ross, director of Solo, a supplier of top-end premium gifts comments: “The internet has had a tremendous influence on the promotional gifts market as consumers can now order for themselves a personalised iPod or pair of Levis at the click of a button. Buyers of promotional items are demanding this level of personalisation across the products they are giving as gifts,” he says.

“There is a demand for bespoke because the market is saturated with suppliers offering similar products. Companies are looking for a supplier who can make any given product special for them.”

The predictions are that this sector is set to grow. European director for global product solutions at The Marketing Store, Douglas Moody-Stuart, is confident that, whatever the economic climate, promotional products will always be in demand. “In good times or bad, people want added-value promotions. The best environment for promotional gifts is the retail one. Every new product coming into a store has the opportunity to increase its impact.”

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