EVERY SCHOOL YEAR brings with it a graduating class, a new batch of fresh-faced students and simultaneously, the sense of starting all over again. Educational institutions subsequently need to “restock” with incoming students, and revamped marketing initiatives can be just the thing to attract the next star quarterback or future valedictorian.
Promo Marketing asked Ilene Wilder, director of marketing and business development at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, about the needs of such a sprawling institution. “My primary responsibility is to create and execute marketing plans to support the business initiatives of the [business services] division,” she explained. “In addition, I manage new product development that supports the brand identity of the university and its athletic programs through merchandising and the related licensed vendor relationships.”
So, put on a pair of glasses
and sharpen a (custom-imprinted)
pencil. School is in session.
PM: What kind of promotional products does Penn order most
Wilder: Each of Penn’s 12 schools and centers, as well as the university’s large health system, handles their own marketing initiatives. However, since I work closely with merchandising and licensing, many of these departments seek my advice for where and what to purchase.
On the low-cost end, T-shirts and pens are the most commonly purchased items. On occasion, the university may purchase more unique items for recognition opportunities. The higher-end items are often more specific to the audience or event.
PM: What has been the most complicated order you’ve submitted this year?
Wilder: We did a crazy cube, with photos of Penn [printed] on it. Because we wanted to evoke emotion around the Penn brand through images and words, it required some thought and strategy in selecting and placing the right photos and text. Once this was accomplished, the vendor handled the placement to make it all work. It turned out to be such a great piece, we now sell them in the Penn bookstore and people love them.
PM: What is Penn’s general procedure for hiring a vendor for printed products?
Wilder: Our first and foremost goal is to make it easy for vendors to work with us. Our purchasing department has a great online process that benefits both vendors and the staff, as it eliminates unnecessary paperwork and approvals, and makes finding the product simple. The individual schools, centers or departments are then free to choose whatever approved vendor they please. However, in an effort to leverage the purchasing power of the university to secure more competitive pricing, Penn’s purchasing department has recently launched an effort to negotiate contracts with specific vendors.
PM: If you have used one vendor for most of your products, what would be a key factor in trying
Wilder: One of the key things we are always looking for is uniqueness and creativity. Because many departments utilize some kind of promotional item, we are always trying to find something that stands out from the crowd. ... If I do find someone who has an exclusive [item] or who manufactures their own products, I often try them out.
... Given Penn’s commitment to sustainability, offering ‘green’ products would certainly be something that would give a vendor an edge with us.
PM: Do the kinds of products you order from year to year vary, or are your orders standard?
Wilder: My orders usually vary, but I know some schools and departments keep a standard stock of items. As a division, we also order some standard products, such as pens with our logo, which we have available for meetings, or mugs, which we distribute as part of our new hiring process. But for the most part, our offerings vary from year to year depending on new marketing campaigns, new promotional offerings, university or division initiatives, or special events.
... Low-cost items allow us to buy ‘on the fly’ when an event [happens and] we need something quick. For example, we recently purchased ‘spirit towels’ to wave at a university-wide event to celebrate some [members] of our staff [who were] recognized for their achievements. It was a big hit and really made our team stand out.
PM: What is the best way for a vendor to approach a school for an order?
Wilder: The best place to start is with the purchasing department, since all vendors need to be placed in the university’s accounting system. Another important factor is that they demonstrate some sense of the character of the school. For example, is the school known for athletics? Is it an urban or rural school? What type of events does it host? Knowing this type of information can only help
PM: Do you think Penn is fairly standard in its request for promotional items?
Wilder: The university environment has many constituents. In general, you have those who work here, those who study here and those who visit here. But within those groups, there is great diversity. ... The university also has to appeal to a wide age demographic, from 17-year-old prospective students to elderly donors and alums. We also have an international audience. While some items might be fairly standard, there is great opportunity for niche markets, unique items and high-value gifts.
PM: Are promotional items a budgeting priority for the school? Why or why not?
Wilder: It probably varies, but there’s a concept relevant to this point that might be important to consider: Schools recognize that distributing promotional items [is] a common practice. But I think, too, that colleges are a bit different than some other organizations, in that our first priorities always center around using our resources in ways that support our academic mission most directly. In particular, we always have to be conscious that we are perceived as using financial resources responsibly. We’d never want people to walk away from an event saying, ‘Gee, they sure spent a lot of money giving these out!’ Vendors who recognize that and find ways to help us strike that balance are going to have a great advantage in the education market because it will really demonstrate that they get what we’re about.
PM: Do you think promotional products are more effective at the high school or university level?
Wilder: If you are speaking specifically about student interest, in my experience, all students love anything that is being given away. The difference, perhaps, is that universities have more varied audiences and thus more marketing needs than a high school typically would. At the university level, [parents are also] an important market.
PM: What’s the single most unconventional
product you’ve ever ordered?
Wilder: We had a planning retreat last year with the theme ‘Planting the Seeds of Excellence.’ I actually found ‘magic beans’ with the word ‘excellence’ [printed] on [them]—and when the plant grew the word stayed on it. It was a unique, inexpensive and fun way to instill the message of the retreat. Everyone thought that was pretty cool.