How We Talk About Promotional Products: Why Language Matters
In an age where garbagemen are called “sanitation engineers” and secretaries are “executive assistants,” why do we insist on belittling our industry by saying we’re in the tchotchke business, or that we do promotional giveaways or swag? It’s time to blow up much of the nomenclature that is used by others—and by us—to describe what we do.
It seems so obvious that we need to move away from words like trinkets, trash, doodads and tchotchkes, and the negative impressions associated with them. (Did you know that swag stands for “stuff we all get”?) But these words keep cropping up, even within the industry. And they’re not the only ones that give us a bad rep.
I want people on the outside to understand how creative and impressive everyone involved is. Here are a few terms to reconsider:
This term is the biggest culprit in causing a negative reaction. We all know that to be valued by our customers, we must—and will—do so much more than provide an item at the lowest cost. But when tchotchke takes the place of words like giveaway, new hire kit or corporate gift, our customers see us as the products we sell instead of as creative partners. It’s up to us to show them how valuable we are. And a great way to start is by taking tchotchke and any synonyms out of our vocabulary.
While Promotional Products Association International and Advertising Specialty Institute may explain the products we are selling, neither communicates the whole package we provide. We’re giving marketers a service beyond product, one that is about strategy, impact and influencing behaviors. Our industry should strive to be viewed like other areas of marketing and advertising. We should be seen as a partner who will empower brands to engage and connect with audiences, not as an afterthought in their marketing strategy.
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear “distributor” is a middle man. This term puts us in a box. It makes us sound like someone who coordinates the delivery of products and not much else. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re providing ideas. We’re developing marketing solutions. We’re supporting our clients and their marketing efforts by providing creative strategy. Why not brand ourselves as collaborators, invisible partners or even an extension of the customer’s marketing department?
Have you ever walked into a store and been approached by a salesperson asking if you need help? And how many times have you immediately said “No, thank you,” even if you did need assistance? We are in sales, and I’m proud of that. But the salesperson stigma follows us into most meetings, causing prospects to be cautious, maybe even suspicious, when discussing their promotional marketing strategy. If they were to meet with a “promotional merchandising expert” or “promotional marketing specialist,” it could become a new kind of relationship. Even better, a partnership.
Slap a logo on it
It’s always tempting to simplify our processes to help customers understand what we do, but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our creativity. With hundreds of decorating capabilities at our fingertips, we have the chance to wow our customers without overwhelming them. Skip the typical “slap a logo on it” phrase and, instead, take some time to explain the whole picture. Try to balance the plain English and simplicity with enough detail to make them realize just how much value you can add.
My challenge to you is to think about the words you use to describe yourself, the industry and what you do. Redefine how you do business every day. Each of us works hard to become a strategic advisor and an extension of our clients’ internal marketing teams, so why should our first impressions not convey a positive reputation?
When meeting a client, especially a new one, our first question should never be, “What do you want to buy?” I don’t want to be viewed as a person selling stuff—I want to be part of the marketing conversation. I want to help people build their brand through the effective use of promotional merchandise. And I’m always sure to communicate that right away.
Next time you’re speaking with a client, try one of these questions to kick off brainstorming:
• What do you want to accomplish?
• Who are you trying to reach?
• How will you distribute the products?
• What promotional marketing have you tried before?
• What has worked and what hasn’t?
Larry Cohen is president and founder of Axis Promotions, a full-service marketing and promotions agency. Since its start, Axis has won countless PPAI Pyramid Awards, earned four consecutive Best Boss titles and been named a Promo Marketing Top 50 Distributor multiple times. Larry has been a PPAI Board member, chaired the North American Leadership Conference and earned various industry honors. He serves on the PromoKitchen Advisory Board and the PeerNet Marketing Committee, and is actively seeking advice on how to improve his golf game.