Promo Buyers’ Expectations: Can You Meet Their New Demands?
What do promo buyers want? Like really want? That’s the $64,000 question. Since there’s no magic potion to drink so we can hear what others are thinking (that’s only on the silver screen, thankfully), we not only have to listen to what customers are saying, but we also must interpret their often unvocalized expectations.
Case in point: Let’s imagine a large health insurance company is exhibiting at a trade show and they say they want a tote bag as a giveaway item. OK, that’s cool. However, is the “product” what they actually want?
Not exactly. They want what the product can deliver: the intangibles.
They want visibility for their brand both during and after the event. Check. Tote bags are handy for use during events, and with more and more cities banning single-use plastic bags (and now potentially entire states), a tote bag would be kept and used by recipients post-show.
But, here’s what often goes unsaid: They expect the merchandise used to support their brand to do so without posing risks to recipients or the brand itself.
For this example, there cannot be any chemicals used during fabric manufacturing or inks used in the decoration process that could pose harm to recipients. As a health insurance company, giving away a product that could potentially harm recipients or make them sick goes against everything the company stands for.
They have an expectation that the branded merchandise is safe and responsibly sourced, and it is our duty as an industry to deliver upon those expectations.
Understanding Your Responsibilities
Gone are the days that distributors and their end buyers accept a supplier’s word that its products are socially compliant, safe, of high quality and environmentally conscious. Promo buyers are demanding verification throughout the entire supply chain to prove the promotional products they purchase will enhance—and not harm—their brands.
While it may seem that these stringent qualifications are only being required by large corporations (the Coke audits are legendary!), this is not always the case. True, global brands have millions, if not billions, in brand equity. There’s a lot at stake in terms of reputation damage and financial obligations.
Yet smaller companies, whether they know it or not, may be at even greater risk if something goes wrong. Why? Because a product recall, lawsuit and/or loss of business could wipe out any financial reserves and, if unable to recover, these firms may have no choice but to close their doors.
Clearly, when using branded merchandise, everyone—from overseas manufacturers to domestic suppliers, promotional products distributors all the way to end users—has a vested interest in compliance.
With such dire consequences if something goes wrong, why aren’t promotional professionals taking the issues of brand safety and responsible sourcing more seriously? In the beginning, you could say that unawareness was partly to blame. This is not the case today. There are also many assumptions being made that others within the supply chain have the proverbial bases covered. And therein lies the danger.
Preparing Yourself To Meet Buyer Demands
So, how do you mitigate this danger? You must be prepared. While there are many considerations when it comes to brand safety, the breadth and depth of the issues can seem overwhelming. Start with these four overarching areas to not only grow your knowledge but also evolve how you source and sell branded merchandise.
1. Educate Yourself On The Issues
When looking at the variety of potential risks, they generally fall into one of five categories:
Social Responsibility: With the vast majority of promotional products as a whole or their component parts being manufactured overseas, there are serious issues with workers’ fundamental rights being violated. As light is being shed on many atrocities, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to make sure their products are being made in factories that have documented worker safety and protection programs, fair pay, and proper physical working and living conditions.
Product Safety: Product safety is just that: Ensuring products, as well as any decorating materials, are manufactured or designed so they’re not dangerous to people or property when used. It’s a seemingly simple concept, but there are complexities. Safety also encompasses being able to meet any applicable regulatory standards for safety, labeling, environmental protection and other legally required standards and limits.
Product Quality: When designing and manufacturing a product, there are many attributes that must be replicated during manufacture—everything from the material, color and size to logo placement—all within established product safety standards. Moreover, the key to quality is being able to consistently achieve these requirements for every lot or batch made.
Environmental Stewardship: We only have one Earth, and the production of promotional products shouldn’t do damage to the health of the environment itself or the people within that environment. Recycling may be the most recognizable kind of environmental stewardship program, but this also encompasses restriction and monitoring for banned substances as well as resource management.
Supply Chain Security: An often overlooked category, supply chain security is more important than many realize. What good is a customer placing an order if you can’t deliver the product? Having a secure supply chain minimizes any delivery disruptions while working in tandem with law enforcement authorities to combat terrorism, illegal drugs and arms trade, human trafficking and other criminal activities.
Going any further into the above five pillars of compliance is beyond the scope of this article, but you can stay up-to-date with the stories making headlines here.
2. Understand The Priorities
While social responsibility, product safety, product quality, environmental stewardship and supply chain security are all important, some of these issues may be more of a priority than others, depending on the business.
Take an alternative energy company, for example. Environmental stewardship would be paramount here, and you’d want to have the documentation to prove the products are made from eco-friendly materials in a factory that has a record of best practices for pollution mitigation and elimination.
And here’s an example straight out of the headlines. Recently, the Spice Girls created #IWannaBeASpiceGirl charity T-shirts for a campaign to empower women and demand equality. Unfortunately, the tees were found to be manufactured at a Bangladesh plant under allegedly inhumane working conditions that are not even livable, let alone empowering to the female employees. Clearly, this undermines everything the campaign stands for. So in this instance, social responsibility would be an even higher priority than under normal conditions.
3. Sell On Value, Not Price
This has been a talking point throughout the industry for decades, yet it’s still an issue. Why? Because in the absence of any proof of value, promo buyers will revert back to making selections based on price because they have no other basis of comparison on which to make a decision. Who’s fault is that? It’s ours. Let’s take responsibility for it and make the change.
Yes, customers have budgets, and they think they must have a certain price point per product. “But they’re going to choose my competitor who is selling a similar item for a nickel cheaper!” you say. Do they realize what that extra nickel buys? Products from a company that has documented policies and procedures that ensure they consistently deliver socially compliant, safe, high-quality and environmentally conscientious merchandise. That nickel per item is an insurance policy—and it’s nothing when compared to real financial consequences that can occur when laws and consumer trust are violated.
It’s our job as salespeople to explain the issues, convince them of the importance and convert them into a better solution that doesn’t put their brands at risk. Anything less is merely order taking, and order taking is what the internet provides.
4. Ask For And Understand The Documentation
You may see where companies have pledged to have certain codes of conduct. That’s nice, but a code of conduct is nothing more than a statement of beliefs. Proof that these beliefs are being carried out daily comes from independent, third-party audits. So the first step is asking for compliance documentation.
However, receiving a report is no good if you don’t know how to read it. If how the report is presented isn’t clear or there’s terminology you don’t understand, ask for an explanation. You must know what’s being tested—as well as not tested—so you can evaluate if this product can meet your buyers’ demands.
For example, social accountability audits primarily test if products were manufactured by children, enslaved populations or prisoners—any of which are grounds for an embargo of the goods from entry to the U.S. or sale of the goods within the U.S.
Social audits also look at falsification of records, one of the most significant issues on the rise during the last 20 years. Falsification of records (often with timekeeping and wage compensations) taints not only records related to demonstrating compliance with a code of conduct but also with fundamental business practices. Business accounting principles, record keeping and even traceability of product produced on a line are undermined by this deceptive practice.
Chemical testing is one of the most common product safety practices for the presence of hazardous, banned or regulated substances, especially when items are made for children. Using a sample Children’s Product Certificate (CPC) format from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), PPAI has created this tutorial to walk you through how to read this kind of audit. Each area of the testing document is annotated with what you should (or shouldn’t) see so you can determine if this is a product you feel confident recommending.
Delivering Brand Safety
Promotional products are ranked the No. 1 most effective advertising medium across all generations, according to the PPAI Consumer Study. Furthermore, when recipients receive a logoed item, nine in 10 recall the branding, eight in 10 recall the messaging and seven in 10 recall the call to action. Clearly, promotional products are powerful advertising vehicles!
Don’t let end buyers miss out on the power of promo because they have uncertainty about the safety of branded merchandise. Meet their demands by responsibly sourcing the items you sell and delivering the brand safety they expect.
Since 1998, Lisa Horn, CAS, (a.k.a. The Publicity Gal) has been reporting on the issues that matter most to the promotional products industry. Currently, she writes about brand safety and responsible sourcing on behalf of Quality Certification Alliance (QCA). Learn what you can do to protect your clients’ brands at qcalliance.org.