Market Watch: Distributors Discuss Selling to Six Top Promo Products Verticals
Let’s play a game where you’re a new distributor who has never sold a promotional product in your life. This is likely untrue if you’re reading this story, but stick with us for the sake of the thought exercise. You’re brand new to the industry, and you’re at a point where multiple trails begin in front of you. Those trails represent different industries and verticals you could specialize in and make your living selling into. So, which ones do you choose? What fits your personality the best? What types of promo products are you interested in?
These are questions you should ask and answer yourself. For every other question you might have, we brought in some pros. We spoke to six distributors, all of whom have had tremendous success in the promo industry. They gave us the scoop on what buyers in some of the top vertical markets are looking for, and offered some proven tips on targeting them for big sales.
Travel & Tourism
So, let’s start thinking about your own personal interests that might translate into a new direction in the promo space. Is traveling and staying in hotels something you’re into? Well, that happens to be a major vertical market! Aly Salz, CEO of Righteous Clothing Agency Inc., Clackamas, Ore., answered a few questions on the topic of selling to this industry, which is one of her top three verticals for her personal business. Coincidentally, when we caught up with her, she was at the airport en route to a cruise, so you know she’s aware of what travelers need.
“I would say that the most popular [items for the travel industry] are probably the things that have been around for a while,” she said. “Things like tote bags, nice water bottles, travel accessories. I guess the main thing that we’re seeing lately is that there is a much greater desire for those elevated items. So, the things that aren’t the cheap, low-budget things. People are asking for a lot more name-brand [items] nowadays.”
This means that when she’s asked about water bottles, her customers are usually asking about things like YETI or S’well. If you aren’t able to come up with those, anything high-end should do. “That to me is just the biggest change in the last few years,” said Salz. “For so many years it was just about budget, but now it’s about making an impression and having something that people will want to use long-term so that you’re actually getting more from your investment.”
This desire for name-brand items is also prevalent in the tech space. Think about your own shopping habits—if you’re buying a smartphone or a computer, you’re not going to want a product from a company you’ve never heard of or no one else seems to be using. There also is that perceived value and social currency that comes with having the “hot, new” tech item of the year.
That’s where Shane Maddox, vice president of strategic accounts for Offbeat Productions, Brisbane, Calif., specializes. And, given his location in Silicon Valley, he sees it firsthand. He said that customers are especially looking for name brands come gift-giving season.
“Whenever it comes closer to the holidays, I find that everyone wants name brand a whole lot more,” he said. “Just because the more savvy the buyer is, the more they want tech. They want tech, but they don’t want off-brand tech. They want name-brand tech. So, that seems to equate more to a holiday gift than a standard gift throughout the year.”
He added that the holiday season is absolutely busier than the rest of the year, as tech items are commonly used as appreciation gifts or end-of-year rewards.
Starting with the obvious, what do school kids need the most? Richard Anderson, vice president of EyeOn Promotions Inc., Rancho Cordova, Calif., said the tried-and-true items are things like backpacks and sling bags, as well as T-shirts.
Obviously, those are things every student uses on a daily basis. From there, he said that what end-buyers are looking for depends on a few things, like the level of education and the school’s particular budget.
“If they have the budget, we’ve [done] pens, erasers and pencils,” he said. “Now, moving into the high school end of it, we’ve done a lot of apparel, banners and all those flying flags you can stick into the ground and they flop back and forth while the wind is blowing.”
Think about the high school halls of 2019. Every kid has a smartphone, even though they’re definitely not allowed to be using them. Because these schools are realistic, Anderson said that fun items like “selfie frames” are big for education events.
“The selfie frame is something new,” he says. “These are three different sizes of frames that they can decorate however they want to all over it, and [they’re] very lightweight. When they have events or whatever, they can hold it up and three or four people can stand there and take a picture, and it looks like they’re in a selfie frame. Those have become very popular.”
Anderson reiterated that no education client is the same, and that budgets can vary wildly, so it’s up to you to gauge what the client can and can’t afford. You can also look to school-related clients that aren’t actually in the school, like the sports teams’ boosters.
Believe it or not, Anderson’s introduction to the education market came through working with the religious market, too.
His church community had a Sunday school program where students could pick out teachers at local schools and provide items on a wish list to minimize the amount of money they had to spend out of their own pockets on supplies.
“I am finding that more companies that are [pursuing] their philanthropic efforts are choosing schools to sponsor,” he said. “Our Rancho Cordova chamber decided that they wanted to do hooded sweatshirts for the children in their school who are homeless, and they pushed the program, and all of the sweatshirts came through us. We screen them with the school logo on it, and then they give them to the children that are homeless and need a hooded sweatshirt for the winter.”
His church and a local school also collaborated on a dual-branded tote bag around Halloween that was handed out to children to use for trick-or-treating.
OK, now that the school day is over, what is the first thing you do? That’s right, you drive away from that school as fast as you possibly can and never look back! Just kidding. But, it brings us to our next point. The automotive industry has a ton of opportunities, from car manufacturers to dealerships and more.
Amy Fields, director of marketing for Barker Specialty Co., Cheshire, Conn., and our expert in all things auto, pointed out that the most popular items are the ones drivers will use every time they get in their cars. Think air fresheners, key chains or snow brushes (although, if you’ve never used a snow brush, you’re lucky and you’re not missing anything fun).
“I always show car coasters, as they are a personal favorite,” Fields said. “Decals, drinkware and tech items are also big categories.” And, despite whatever gloomy news you might have read that print is dead, Fields also said that printed products are still crucial in the automotive industry, and her clients ask for them all the time.
“Print is another category that has catapulted our sales in the automotive industry,” she said. “Folders and brochures are constantly changing, and clients are thrilled to be able to have all of their work handled under one roof. It’s a win-win for both parties.” You don’t have to be a total car buff to get into this industry, either. No one’s going to ask you to change their oil or compare and contrast different engines. If you feel like you aren’t as educated on certain aspects of the car world, just ask!
“At first I was concerned that I didn’t know much about the car business,” Fields said. “But I went to automotive dealers and asked questions. I also started asking friends what their pain points were in this space, and if they had thoughts on anything that would make their life easier.”
Bars & Restaurants
A little creativity never hurt, either. And that’s something Jeffery Cannon, national/international sales for Suncoast Marketing Inc., Greenville, S.C., says will help you succeed in the restaurant space. He specifically talked about higher-end coasters that can be given in different shapes and textures to stand out from the bunch. He actually found this through selling a higher-end product to roofing and concrete companies, and said that it could translate over to his work in the restaurant space if a particular establishment is looking to reward frequent customers.
For bars and restaurants, pens are also in high demand, but it doesn’t mean you have to settle for something dull or common. Cannon suggests going to trade shows and really paying attention to what people have to offer, and looking at some smaller suppliers in addition to the big guys.
“When I was [at the PPAI Expo] in January, I’d never seen so many pen suppliers and types of pens,” he said. “It just gets a little overwhelming, it gets a little boring. So, if you could take something and put a new little spin on it, that’s pretty cool. And I think that’s what gets people’s attention, and that’s what I’m going to try to continue to do.”
He can especially continue to do it when he works with chains. Chain restaurants are great opportunities for continued business. If you get in with one, or a chain’s corporate office, chances are you can repeat those orders through other franchise locations.
At the end of the day, regardless of what industry you’ve chosen to pursue as your main source of sales, Fields hit the key point right on the head: Find a pain point, and solve it.
That’s the cornerstone of any successful promotional campaign. Whether it’s providing supplies and bags to a school with limited resources, satisfying someone’s desire to have the latest tech piece for their new home, getting that smell out of someone’s car, making a business trip a little less painful, or not ruining a table with a glass of water, your job as a distributor is to be a service provider. With that as your intention, you can’t fail, no matter what path you go down.