The average professional in the Western world is prey to that oft-quoted statistic of 3,000 marketing messages daily. These messages come in the form of flickering images on the TV screen at breakfast, brand logos on passing traffic and even the colourful ads jammed into a free newspaper – and that’s all before a worker reaches the office.
When they do reach work, they are met with more promotional messages than ever before; a calculator provided by a telephony business, a calendar issued by the company’s delivery firm and a retro puzzle cube bearing the logo of the stationery supplier.
Promotional merchandise is now so widespread that it takes significant effort to cut through the myriad options available. With a recession on, brands are also beginning to cut back on their orders. As a result, the industry is being forced to innovate at a faster rate than ever before to ensure it continues to appeal to clients.
Gordon Glenister, director general of the British Promotional Merchandise Association (BPMA) says promotional merchandise companies need to see the recession as a challenge to develop new products. “The economic downturn sorts the men from the boys,” he says, adding that consumers will help spread the news via word of mouth about anything “innovative and unusual” they receive from companies.
Supplier to big corporates such as IBM and Intel, merchandiser Brand Addition claims that innovation is certainly a buzzword among its clients at the moment. European sales and marketing director David Landes says/ “Everyone wants a ‘creative’ solution, and we have been successful at providing efficient and cost-effective options on the standard items but we also come up with more innovative solutions too.”
He gives an example: “Every brand that goes to an exhibition these days has branded water on their stand. We put a twist on that recently, using it branded with a customer’s corporate colours and the message ‘Thirst aid kit’ to add a more interesting angle to this trend.”
Creativity might be a fashionable term throughout the marketing sector but alongside the demands for innovation, warns Jason O’Connor, sales director at Total Merchandise, many businesses are still keen on “tried and tested” solutions that don’t put too much pressure on budgets.
Total Merchandise has clients such as MTV, Vodafone and Kellogg, and O’Connor says some of the most popular items at the moment are still the old favourites: seed packets, USB drives, pens, key rings and lanyards.
With this in mind, new twists on standard items may be the way to attract new business while reassuring companies that they are getting a good deal.
As a result, those gifts that focus on balancing brands’ concerns over costs and effectiveness with innovation may be those with the most chance of success. Gifts that manage to bring new takes on products offering environmentally- friendly solutions, personalisation, experience, sustainability and technology may be the winners when the merchandise industry recovers from the effects of the economic downturn.
Specialising in eco products, Tradewinds started selling environmentally-friendly promotional merchandise in the late Eighties with a bleached cotton T-shirt; it now offers a host of eco products including cosmetics and car accessories.
“Our most innovative eco items are cornstarch pens and bamboo T-shirts as they both return to the earth with no side effects,” says Tradewinds owner Richard Savage. “But the strongest eco product is the eco button; a computer power-saving device that connects to a USB port.”
Many eco products are not new to the market, but for businesses seeking novelty (at a comfortable price), they have been re-packaged and given a new twist.
“While hessian bags have been a staple of the eco product range for some time, we are now seeing many new designs with, for example, a move away from the traditional long-handled shopper bag to more stylish short-handled bags, which contain a piece of wood to give them greater stability,” says Graham Howarth, director of leading sourcing company P&MM Source-e.
“Other popular items on the green front include the Apple Tree mailer, a 30cm apple tree sapling in recyclable transparent tubes, which can be fully personalised and delivered through the post, and desk flower pot kits, containing a mini flower pot, soil tablet, seeds and growing instructions.”
“Brands want more communication with customers than just ticking boxes,” says Brand Addition’s Landes. “A technology company will not give a mug to a teenager, rather they will offer something that speaks to them more personally such as a fashionable T-shirt with an interesting message.”
Mass personalisation of products is also in demand where digital printing technology allows. For example, event organisers can personalise a gift for each attendee at a conference with their name, rather than simply a company logo. People are far more likely to hold on to and use something which bears their own name than simply a corporate identity.
Technology improvements within the manufacture of promotional merchandise have brought costs down and allowed for the trends of personalisation and customisation to take hold and gain traction with clients, even in a recession.
“A basic product like a calculator can be emotive,” says Landes. “If your name is on it, you will be more likely to dispose of the one you already have and substitute it with the personalised one.”
Historically, there has been scepticism from companies about being associated with a technology item that isn’t up to their brand values. No one wants a cheap-looking item that lets down a sophisticated company’s reputation. As manufacturers are bringing prices down, however, it is now more common for items such as digital photo frames, USB sticks and MP3 players to appear as promotional merchandise.
The prevailing trend in technology items at the moment is to provide gifts that are so useful they simply can’t be ditched. This is capitalising on the fact that as companies tighten their belts, items that can be used in the long term by customers are more likely to be kept, and so offer better value. For example, companies are now giving away memory sticks with 8GB storage capacity, large enough to store movies or music.
“In our experience, promotional USBs are more likely to be retained and used by recipients because they’re so useful,” comments Adrian Ferrand, general manager of design-led branding and manufacturing company BrandInc.
“But it’s not just about simple branding, such as a printed logo. A bespoke promotional USB stick can be specially designed to replicate a company’s logo, brand identity or a sponsorship deal,” he says.
BrandInc creates bespoke USB sticks in the shape of a brand logo and pre-loads them with information about the organisation being promoted. It recently designed and produced a USB memory stick in the shape of a metal Formula One car for insurance giant ING in honour of the brand’s sponsorship of the Renault F1 team.
Holiday brands Thomson and First Choice use promotional merchandise at a variety of locations where customers come into contact with the brands, including Thomson’s collection of 17 Gold hotels which offer adult-only, couple-focused holidays at high quality resorts.
“Gold customers receive gifts such as gold-coloured luggage straps and beach bags for participating in and winning activities run in the Gold hotels,” says Jill Cunningham, brand and customer communications manager at TUI Travel.
“We have plans to move the prize range on from items that customers can use only on holiday to things that they could use on their return home. This will add value to the items and increase brand awareness to a wider market.”
William Ellis, founder of promotional supplier Brightbutton, says innovation in promotional merchandise is also a very cost-effective way to get people talking, producing valuable word-of-mouth marketing at a very low cost.
One of the brand’s popular merchandise choices is Willie Wetsuit, a mini neoprene wetsuit condom holder with a key ring attachment.
“Willie Wetsuit is a confident and fun way to carry a condom,” says Ellis. “It uses the mini wetsuit to protect the condom and comes with the option to imprint your own logo or message alongside Willie’s safe sex motto – ‘always protect yourself before you dive in’.
“All Brightbutton products are designed to stand out with their own unique qualities and identity,” he says. It is important, he explains, to offer clients “a unique platform on which to extend their brand experience to connect with their customers and ultimately be remembered.”
Case study: Johnnie Walker
Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker, produced in Kilmarnock, Scotland, is the most widely distributed brand of blended Scotch whisky in the world. It sells its brand values of substance and masculinity in almost every country around the world, with yearly sales of over 130 million bottles.
To enhance and protect its positioning, owner Diageo has a staff education initiative for stockists of the brand. The Diageo Master Bartender scheme aims to gives its suppliers the skills and knowledge to make a well-mixed drink and preserve the heritage of the brand.
In Africa, the scheme has recently been supported by promotional merchandise created by BrandInc. This takes the form of Johnnie Walker-branded items such as a shirt, apron, bag, bottle-opener, mixing utensils, shaker and strainer.
“When we devised this project we wanted to create premium items to match the premium quality of Johnnie Walker,” says Mark Barrett, senior trade marketing manager at Diageo. The company decided that the best way to support the brand through merchandise was to create items that would be useful to the bartenders in their daily work, constantly reminding them of the drink’s brand values.
“The goal of the Johnnie Walker Master Bartender programme is to inspire bartenders to progress in their working lives and help them become the best bartender they can be,” notes Barrett.
What is the ideal outcome for him in using this promotional material as a marketer? He says it is for the merchandise not to be just a nice reminder of the course for participants, but to form part of daily work patterns wherever it is used. To really have an impact, says Barrett, it must be something that has enduring appeal, “to keep, work with and help them practise their skills”.