Perception is Reality


In the fall of 2011, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order effectively reducing the overall spend on promotional products within the US Federal Government by twenty percent.   The reaction by our industry was swift and absolutely incorrect.  PPAI sent lobbyists to the Hill to protest and asked its members to contact their representatives to do the same on the basis that it would cost jobs within the industry. Though they are not incorrect, the methods and strategy used were ill conceived.   In a bad economy, it was most likely perceived as would a young boy complaining that his father only gave him four new basketballs this year instead of five.

As an industry, we should have stood back a moment and really listened to what was being said by Washington.  The President needed to be seen as doing something to reduce wasteful spending and this was a way that would be seen as doing something substantial without really affecting the overall marketing budget.    Hypothetically, if the overall marketing budget for the US Government is $500 million, the amount spent on promotional marketing items is probably no more than ten percent of that.   That means that the total reduction to the overall budget would be two percent, or $10 million.   In other words, in the grand scheme of things, nothing.

The issue that should have been focused on by PPAI and others was that our industry is being perceived as a wasteful use of budget and what we produce has little to no perceived marketing value.    This could not be further from the truth; however, this is how we are perceived due to the actions of the majority of our industry.    Promotional Products are sold as a commodity.    What they should be sold as is a viable marketing tactic that is part of the overall marketing mix.   If used properly they effectively support brand, call to action and objectives.

We, as an industry, need to understand how to change the conversation.  We need to show that if promotional marketing items are incorporated into an overall marketing strategy and the right piece that supports brand, messaging and objectives is developed it can have a powerful call to action and return on investment.  The most important way to do this is to see yourself as a marketing consultant, communicate like one and ask to be paid as such:

  • The more you can be seen as provide intellectual value to your clients the more credibility you have at the table.    When you go beyond selling a product, to asking why you want to give a particular piece away, you take the conversation to a whole new level.   You are now asking about how this particular item support brand, marketing initiatives, provides a call to action and helps reach clients in a positive way.   This makes what you do far more valuable than some one just selling a mug or a pen.
  • Whether it is your website, your blog, email, Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook, make sure that you are communicating effectively about value, brand and strategy.   Move away from the product of the day and selling what is on clearance, to showing through your online presence how you can help companies achieve their goals cost effectively (not cheaply) and drive change for the better for their brand.  Remember, there are thousands of places online where people can purchase promotional products.  The solution is to have people see you as the one who is helping them drive their marketing and not just selling them a thing.  The earlier you can be in on the conversation and the more you can talk about how promotional marketing can help develop better call to action the more return you will get on your investment.
  • As an industry, we give too much away.  We throw in samples for our clients, pay for shipping, art and ideas.   WHY?    None of our real competitors (PR firms, Branding Firms and Marketing Agencies) do.    We cannot be seen as providing value if we give everything away for free.   One strategy we use with our clients is that we charge them an hourly consulting fee for strategy and project development.  If they decide to go ahead with the project, we refund 50% back to the project.   By the way, we always mark up the implementation to cover that perceived discount.

Back to President Barack Obama, our strategy would have better been to understand the overall marketing spend of the Federal Government and what their objectives are.   Hypothetically, funds could have been diverted from mass media through demonstrating that promotional marketing would create better recall and impetus in a more cost effective way.   What if twenty percent of the ninety percent was diverted to promotional marketing?   If that $90 million dollars (20% of $450 million) was then split in a third and $30 million was added onto the promotional marketing budget, that money, if used strategically, could better support the objectives of the Federal Government and net them a $60 million dollar savings annually instead of the $10 million originally proposed.

On a final note, if you were to question the logic behind  it will be explained in terms of supporting brand and objectives.  The brand is obvious; the objectives are to raise funds and awareness to support re-election.    This is the conversation we need to be having with our clients as an industry.

Article written by Ben Baker, President of CMYK Solutions, Inc.