The Little Things: Two Simple (But Easily Overlooked) Fundamentals That Can Help Grow Your Promo Business
Do anything long enough, and you’ll inevitably stop thinking about what you do so much as just doing it out of muscle memory. That’s true of NFL quarterbacks (the Tom Bradys, anyway). And it’s true of promo distributors.
In general, it’s a good thing, a sign of competence. But it can have some not-so-great unintended consequences. Maybe your business has grown to the point where you stopped doing the little things that got you there in the first place. Could getting away from those fundamentals be causing you to miss out on additional growth?
Maybe! That’s why it pays to, once in a while, get back to basics. It might not unlock some magical secret to business growth, but it might spark some new ideas or provide some fresh perspective on your current strategy. Best of all, it doesn’t take that much time or effort to do. Here are two examples that, while simple, could have big benefits for your business.
Education & Networking
If you ask Jim Owen, owner of Atlanta-based Swag Promo, what the secret to growing his business as a distributor has been, he’d say “stupidity.”
That’s a joke, of course. Owen knows as much as anyone in this industry that the key to growing your business and, therefore, helping your customers grow theirs, is staying educated. Quite literally the opposite of stupidity.
If you want to really know what Owen attributes his success to, he’ll tell you that it’s taking the initiative to never stop learning, no matter how long you’ve been in the industry and how established you think you are.
“I think, like many businesses, if you become a lawyer, you know more in the 10th year than you do in the first, presumably,” he said. “It’s no different being a distributor. If you don’t continue to learn and keep yourself updated on those products, technology, clients and trends, you’re doomed to get left behind, right? It’s, on our part, constant willingness and desire to stay close to our supplier partners and learn what they’re seeing in the marketplace.”
That in-the-wild education can come from forging relationships with supplier partners, but that approach needs to be adapted over time, too. Most distributors make supplier visits, but the way they go about asking for information might change with generations.
“I’ve known a lot of reps in our market for years,” Owen said. “I don’t mind the drive-by, ‘Hey, I’m in your neighborhood, I want to stop in and see if you have anything going on.’ I love that, because sometimes they do. But the old-guard guys that stop by with the stack of their catalogs and a line list rubber-banded to the top of those catalogs, it’s like, come on. Be better than that. Stop in, but show me something that someone else is buying a lot of.”
He encourages his team to attend industry events that match suppliers and distributors together to learn more about what customers are looking for and what suppliers have to offer.
“Many of my distributor comrades view that as an hour, hour-and-a-half away from the office, away from working with a client, away from whatever,” Owen said. “I view that as an investment in your education.”
As distributors, you’re experts in planning poignant campaigns for your customers that capture their brand image and story. You should know your own brand better than anyone, so your self-promo game should be strong.
When thinking about what promos to use for your own campaigns, you should think similarly to how you’d help others: Get a product in peoples’ hands that they’ll actually want to use (and keep). Owen said he used some of the toughest critics at his disposal to judge his self-promo ideas: teenagers.
“I have three boys in their 20s … and they were in their early teens when I started Swag Promo,” he said. “When I showed them logos—‘Here’s some of the stuff we’re doing for ourselves’—I could always tell it was a hit because they wanted more. I’d bring some home. ‘Hey, Dad, my friends want some.’ So, now as the younger ones are in college, the self-promos I do, I can tell when it’s a successful item or logo because they’re athletes, so the athletes now have shown themselves on Instagram showing their swag. Off the spot, it’s really more that I know it’s hot when my kids’ friends want more of them.”
Figuring out what recipients will really want as a promotional product is paramount to Owen, right up there with his clients’ budget constraints.
“Who’s getting the item?” he said. “And that’s going to determine where we look and what we look for. Because we’ve all been to trade shows. If you take one bag to a trade show, you’re going to take one home. What stays, what goes home and what do the maids get? I don’t want my clients’ gifts going to the maids.”
You don’t need to do anything crazy. It just needs to work. Sometimes the simplest idea is best because you know you can execute it to its highest possible degree.
As Owen said, it doesn’t take a “creative genius” to really nail a promotion. It takes knowing what you’re good at, playing to your strengths and doing something that leaves a lasting impression—whether it’s a self-promo kit, a booth giveaway or an event to market yourself.
“It may not be that we come up with the most killer marketing campaign, but we can figure out how to stage an event in a different location on a short time-scale with a unique decoration,” he said.
So, maybe the answer is closer to “stupidity,” but in a, you know, nicer way. Maybe the answer to how to grow your business and your clients’ businesses is more in simplicity. Don’t overthink, but don’t stay ignorant. Don’t try to do too much, but go the extra mile when the occasion calls for it.