An Industry Veteran Wrote the Book (Literally) on How Promo Businesses Are Finding Purpose, Doing Good and Getting More Business
In the months since the pandemic started, we’ve all turned to various hobbies to stay sane and pass the time. Some of us started baking bread or tie-dying shirts. Others brushed up on guitar or watched all of Netflix. Roger Burnett wrote a book.
OK, Burnett, a 20-year industry veteran and founder of Social Good Promotions, technically wrote the book before the pandemic. But with it set to publish and the world suddenly radically different than it was just a few months prior, he and co-author Stan Phelps scrambled to update it to reflect the new reality.
Luckily, the release of “Red Goldfish: Promo Edition” would go on, launching in September to rave reviews on Amazon. And Burnett, who has appeared on Promo Marketing before and is one of the nicest guys in the industry, was kind enough to fill us in on how it all came together, what the book is about and why promo professionals should give it a read.
Read on for our interview with Burnett. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Promo Marketing: There are a few different versions of “Red Goldfish,” right? Can you tell me about those and how you ended up connecting with Stan on the Promo Edition?
Roger Burnett: That’s right. The original “Red Goldfish” was penned by Stan and Graeme Newell in 2017, and a takedown specific to the nonprofit marketplace came next in 2019, as written by Stan and Keith Green. Stan and I have the enormous good fortune to both be close personal friends with Brand Fuel’s co-president, Danny Rosin, as Stan and Danny served together on the board of the Triangle, N.C. chapter of the American Marketing Association. It was by virtue of the work that Danny and I were doing as a part of the larger PromoCares movement that brought Stan’s attention to the quantity and quality of stories in the promotional marketing supply chain that reinforced the original premise of “Red Goldfish”: businesses using a purpose-centered approach outperform their competitors in ways that makes shareholders and stakeholders alike gleeful.
That quintessential “right place, right time” equation fueled by group passion for making the world a better place was the impetus for what ultimately resulted in a book. It’s a great story about the power of community and the incredible things that can happen when people work toward a common goal, and I’m grateful to have been able to serve as the voice for the project.
PM: What was the writing/brainstorming process like for the book? How did this all come together?
RB: At the time of our release, Stan had written or co-authored 16 titles in the franchise (he just released No. 17). There was no need to tinker with Stan’s formula, which is heavily reliant on case-study research to serve as the framework behind the central hypothesis of the Goldfish series—businesses focused on doing the extra little things that bring nuanced value to the transaction are typically those that succeed in the long-term. “Red Goldfish: Promo Edition” was no different. Stan mandated a minimum of 200 examples specific to the premise of the book. We ended up with almost 300 in total, and we used those examples as the basis of the examination—an examination dedicated to unearthing purpose-centered themes that underpinned the ways those 300 businesses were organizing their efforts. We ended up with five categories: Give Back, Diversity & Inclusion, Environmental, Experiential and Transparency & Trust.
I had a massive head-start on the goal Stan presented me from a research perspective. As co-founder of PromoCares in 2018, I volunteered for the job of chronicling the stories of those businesses in the promotional marketing industry making the world a better place. Our early efforts included user-submitted content from the promo industry as well as a twice-monthly podcast, “PromoCares Radio,” of which I originally was the founder, producer and host. It was those efforts invested in the podcast dedicated to elevating the relevance of promo as a marketing medium that served as the foundation of research for the book. While all of those efforts were going on, the pace of activity in this area grew rapidly in a very short period of time, to the point where it became increasingly easier to find examples to highlight and champion.
In the interim, industry awareness and attention to this topic grew as a result of the shifting attitudes in the outside world and the ways attitudes toward our marketplace were brought under the spotlight because of topics as disparate and challenging as trade wars, environmental concerns and threatening legislation.
PM: So, tell us about the book. What’s the general overview of what it’s about?
RB: As I’ve written in these pages previously, the importance of trust in the decision-making process for those buyers considering what we sell has never been more important than it is today. Trust is a slippery concept, as the word has different meanings from person to person. So the idea of increasing one’s trustworthiness so much that buyers choose you over all of the other ways they could spend their money doesn’t seem like a layup. And it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. It absolutely can, and there are examples to be found from every corner of our industry. The first half of the book lays out countless examples of promo-based businesses utilizing the five categories identified as being areas of opportunity using a purpose-centered approach. The back half is meant to serve as a workbook to assist you in getting started on your own efforts to follow the examples you were exposed to in the first half of the book.
At its core, the book is about alignment. It has never been more important for your business values and messaging to look and sound the same. Buyers are nervous about making a bad decision in heightened ways—what might once have gotten someone in trouble at work might now be the reason for termination or bankruptcy. You have to give your clients and prospects the confidence to view spending money with you as an investment in your collective success as opposed to being an expense, because expenses are being avoided at all costs.
If you can prove to the prospective buyer that they share a common goal, vision or shared outcome with you, the possibility of them growing in confidence sufficient to give you their resources skyrockets. Remember, we’re preaching trust, and the fastest way to earn trust is to operate in those places that are most comfortable to you. Those who share your perspective will also feel comfortable with you, and as a result they’ll be more willing to spend with you. The problem is, too many of my colleagues in our industry have been comfortable being a generalist, so there isn’t a lot of depth of the expertise I think will be necessary for the next generation of truly successful businesses in our industry. This isn’t a five-year problem anymore. It’s a 12-months-or-less problem. If you’re not focused on this now, there’s a very good possibility someone you compete against is.
PM: Is there one specific story in the book that really stood out to you or that you think best exemplifies the overall idea?
RB: If I did my job, all of the 25 case studies found in the book are meant to serve as tumblers that ultimately unlock the reader’s passion behind the idea that we each have the ability to connect our brand to the things we care about most—provided (1) you’ve done the necessary work to know what those “things” are and (2) you have the willingness to consider how your decisions should be fueled by your lot in life as a business. What are you there to do about the things you care about? What does working at your company mean for the people who give themselves to the
effort of doing so every day?
If you’re willing to commit to awakening what that shared meaning could be for your own business, three noteworthy things have a way of happening. (I know, I did the research!) One, record sales: Purpose-centered businesses report sales and profit results that outperform their competitors by a noteworthy margin. Two, loyal staff: Employee attrition is a non-issue for businesses choosing a purpose-centered approach, with many seen as a “destination employer.” Three, raving fans: There’s a reason people line up for days in advance, breathless with anticipation about an as-yet unfulfilled purchase of the latest, greatest thing we’re excited to pay full price (and in some instances, more than full price) for. Purpose-centered businesses have a larger-than-normal audience of buyers in this coveted category. Are your clients recruiting their friends and family to what you do?
More so than any specific example, I would want anyone reading this to re-focus their attention on those three things I outlined above. Who doesn’t want those three things? If playing the role of a skeptic is your thing, challenge accepted. Your mission? Evaluate the stories in the book with your skeptic’s eye and decide for yourself whether or not the companies highlighted in the book have any combination of the following: a unique approach that sets their businesses apart from the masses, an opportunity to be successful enough to survive for the long-term and, probably most importantly, a strategy that justifies a premium over the low-cost provider.
Then, for good measure, let’s add this final question to the discussion: Does our current socioeconomic environment benefit or harm businesses who are intent on improving the communities around them? Each of us will have our own opinion about each of these questions, but the book gives the reader an opportunity to make their own evaluation of the real-life examples they’ll encounter in the book while considering the questions. If you have an opinion on the topic, don’t be shy.
The idea behind the book seems especially timely, but in your own words, why do you think it’s so important right now? Why should folks in the promo industry check out the book?
I think the best thing I could do here is pull an excerpt right from the book:
This part of the book is meant to serve two purposes:
1. For members of the promotional marketing industry, it’s our sincere wish that you not only find this book informational, but you also believe sharing the story with your customers, prospects, local high schools and colleges, and nonprofits in your community will result in an improved impression of the promotional marketing industry. For too long too many people have minimized the value of a consultant in our space. I believe with an improved focus on delivering differentiated value, there is tremendous opportunity in combining purpose with commerce. I’ve made it my life’s work to pursue this concept and this book is meant to serve as a guide map for you on your own journey to developing a purpose statement for your own businesses.
2. For buyers of advertising, it’s never been more important for you to be able to communicate what it is that your prospective buyers should feel as a result of giving you their money. Can they feel confident that your efforts will support the narrative they’ve built for themselves? If you’ve not built this into your brand, you will suffer going forward against competition that’s capable in that discipline. By aligning on purpose, you’re giving yourself a proven advantage over those who choose other alternatives or no articulated strategy in this discipline.
Our marketplace will shrink considerably in 2020. As is always the case, the ways we’ve previously been successful will change as the marketplace changes. What history has shown us, however, is that those companies that have a strong sense of their reason for being—and why that reason came to be—are more capable of evolving quickly, as the necessity of those changes can be evaluated through the prism of company values instead of panic or doubt. There’s no clear answer on the winners and losers, but my money is on those with a clear understanding of why it is they do what they do, who it is they are working to serve and what those they serve will need most.
PM: What do you hope readers take away most from the book?
RB: We have a unique opportunity that is unprecedented in the years I’ve called this marketplace home. We have traditionally accepted our position as an afterthought in the decision-making process of businesses trying to stand out in their own markets. We’re all faced with the same problem, so if you’re able to demonstrate how the smart use of our medium can give your clients and prospects an advantage over the companies they’re competing against, you’ve made your customers’ businesses crisis-resistant. I don’t know one person who wouldn’t want a strategy like that. The challenge is putting in the time to understand the people you’re working for in a way that establishes the kind of trust necessary for your amazing, fool-proof strategy to be adopted. Anything less creates a drag on your results and, ultimately, slows your success.
If that concept makes sense to you, you should take the book to your clients immediately and start working on the principles with them. It’ll create the kinds of relationships that can withstand a pandemic, racial tension and anything else 2020 and beyond throws at us.
PM: What did you learn while writing the book—either personally or about promo?
RB: Writing a book takes perseverance. Nothing like a global pandemic unfolding in the weeks prior to our original launch schedule! We were forced into a quick rewrite of the entire front section of the book. No easy feat, but it ultimately made the book better, as the pandemic revealed a whole new set of stories about the ways the promo industry rose to the challenge of helping frontline workers when they needed a lifeline while everyone else figured out how to pick up the slack.
It was a tough time to try and focus my effort on the rewrite, but the exercise actually ended up offering me a respite from all of the negative emotion attached to what was happening this spring and early summer. I came away from the exercise more sure of myself and our industry as a marketing medium. We’re in the midst of an industry reimagination of how things look going forward, and having a purpose-centric mission made my job significantly easier when considering what our version of the future might look like. I’m grateful for the ways this whole thing stretched my brain and grew my heart.