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By Josh Vasquez
Reprinted with permission from the January 2004 issue of ADvantages.

Of late there's been a lot of industry chatter about distributor self-promotion; or more accurately, the lack thereof. In an industry that prides itself on the creativity it offers its clients, it's often baffling to think that too few distributors practice what they preach. For many, a business card and a flyer with supplier specials serve as the only nonface-to-face contact between seller and buyer.

If you don't like that peddler image that still exists in some minds, how about changing it? For starters, brand your company and brand yourself as the solution and not just someone who sells stuff. There's no time like the present to promote yourself and make a better impression. And the experts we gathered are going to tell you how.

It's Not Rocket Science

If you think self-promotion should be easy, you're right. You know the industry, you're creative, and you've done this hundreds, even thousands, of times before.

Self-promotion needn't be something overly elaborate. No one sells every client the same way and in this instance you're being your own client. Begin the process like you would any job for any client. Know what you want to accomplish promoting yourself by asking questions. Then, employ your creative side and develop a number of programs that meet those needs. Find the appropriate product that best helps sell the message and execute the plan with pinpoint accuracy.

When you look at it that way, you'll agree that you already know how to do this. The only question is, if you're not doing it, why?

“Anyone who isn't self-promoting isn't lasting very long in this business,” says Darrell Marriott, director of marketing for Purple Elephant Promotions. He contends that the nonself-promoters are surviving by battling it out with other salespeople, job-for-job. “If they are lasting, they're breaking their backs bidding for the tiniest margins,” he says.

The bidding process does little more than turn your creativity into a commodity. Clients often buy on price and bids ensure that they'll pay the lowest price possible. And there's the likelihood that your creation is stolen and given to the company that can do it for the cheapest. For some this is standard M.O., but for others it's a waste of time and effort.

Joe Winston, president of Doctor of Techno-Marketing Inc. (asi/181575), is a distributor who flat out will not bid on a job. “I refuse to bid,” he says adding, “[I] use my self-promotions to show that I won't be the cheapest, but I may be the best. This is how I set myself apart from other distributors.”

Winston, and others like him, prefer to avoid the “order-taker” stereotype. They would rather be seen for what they are – creative agencies able to address clients' marketing concerns with imagination and expert insight.

Getting to the point where you're recognized by clients and prospects as a creative partner, however, takes work. You'll need more than an ad in the local Yellow Pages. You can achieve your reputation by creating it through a unique angle, creativity and a market niche. When you're firing on all cylinders, you'll stand out in your clients' minds as their number-one source.

Speaker and consultant, Jeffrey Tobe, offers these four tips for cultivating your creative image in his audio series, Coloring Outside The Lines:

  • Watch your language: For instance, one successful saleswoman tells her prospects that she has a different approach than everyone else, adding, “If we decide to work together, let me tell you what I'd ask you to do.” This language sets her apart from the rest of the pack, increases her worth in that she and the prospect would decide together to join forces, and opens the door for interaction and relationship-building.
  • Shatter stereotypes: Buyers have expectations based on what you sell, your age, gender, etc. Surprise the buyer with your approach, the environment in which you choose to meet, the service you offer, the ideas you present or the way you present them.
  • Be a seeker, not a giver: Listen! Ask questions. Seek clarification. It's only after you gather information about the client, his problems, philosophy, goals, etc., that you can put your creativity to work.
  • Make your ideas their ideas: Everyone likes to think of themselves as creative.

Along with Tobe's points, you can build your creative image in a variety of ways, and many believe the best way to go about it is to package your ability as your own “brand.”

Practice What You Preach

Think of it this way: would you go to a dietitian who was grossly overweight? Or would you hire a personal trainer who was built more like the 90-pound weakling rather than Charles Atlas? Or would you take marriage advice from a counselor who's been divorced a number of times?

It's all a matter of practicing what you preach: If you're not promoting yourself, why would potential clients believe you when you say they need to promote themselves? “It's hypocritical,” says Marriott. “If we're trying to sell promotional products and not using them ourselves, what does that say about our medium?”

Others are just as dumbfounded. “It's amazing to me,” says Winston. “I don't get it. They're making a huge mistake. I can't believe how much of this business is made up of people who don't spend money on themselves and only look for that next order.”

Marriot believes some salespeople are mostly concerned with the immediate result and give into the instant gratification of getting the sale. This, in the long run, is the wrong tact to take. Short-sightedness often satisfies only a one-time need.

“We can all cut prices to our own extinction,” Marriott says. “But if all you have for the client is the lowest price, how likely are they to come back next time? And what happens when you don't have the lowest price? The real challenge is to make yourself stand out in a way that sets you apart and makes money.”

The need is great as you can't visit every potential client. “You can't sell your company from your office – you need your name out there,” says Marc Richman, CEO of For Any Occasion Inc. (asi/195783). “If you want to dance, you gotta pay the piper. Otherwise someone else will.”

Start by thinking of a symbol or words that stand for your abilities, philosophies, etc. “It's just as critical and credible for distributors as it is with any business,” says Winston. “No matter what kind of business you have, if you can come up with an icon for the business and something people can relate to when they see it, you have an advantage. There are major corporations that spend billions of dollars to get that one symbol and tagline. But it's just as important for a small organization.”

Winston's branding of himself, for instance, as the “Dr. of Techno-Marketing” (his business cards show the MD symbol and a tiny physician), is “so unique that people say, ‘I've heard that.' It's one-of-a-kind,” he says.

Marriot has also experienced the significance of brand originality firsthand. The big purple elephant, which is part of the company's logo, as well as the tagline, “promotional products they'll never forget,” are something clients truly remember. He relays this story: “A client of ours had been inactive for three years and we thought we lost the client since they never responded to any of our calls or mailings. Then, one day he called to place an order and I asked if he'd been doing business with someone else. His response was, “Are you kidding!? I couldn't forget a purple elephant if I wanted to!”

And both Winston and Marriott know the value of repetition. “I use my logo as often as possible,” says Winston. “It's easily recognizable and the impact and frequency keeps me in front of their faces.”

Branding yourself effectively can make your job a lot easier. “If you demonstrate that you understand the value of branding and show how it bridges the gap between promotional products and other media, it advances your own perceived professionalism and credibility as a source of information and products,” says Marriott. “It demonstrates a deeper understanding of marketing principles than those possessed by the average distributor. All of this is accomplished through symbols, designs, terms, and names, and of course, the products you use in your self-promotions.”

Branding Inc.

“Branding takes off where advertising stops,” says Thom Dean, president of Brand Resources Group, a division of Imagemark (asi/230137), a marketing company specializing in high-end, branded merchandise and integrated brand experience. “In a nutshell, it's more of a multidimensional experience. It's about taking and capturing a personality and a character, and packaging it in a fully-loaded experience and letting that be what translates into what you are responding to when someone buys the product or service. It's also what sets you apart and gives you an identity. It says who and what you are and what you stand for.”

But this brand identity must be built from the ground up.

“You have to evaluate everything you have,” says Dean. “It's about taking the core elements of your company (or yourself, as the case may be) and really studying them and dissecting them – sometimes even changing them (if there are weaknesses, make sure you address them, before building your brand). And there are a lot of elements: style, identity, advertising, marketing and public relations – they all go with it. They need to come together from the bottom to the bottom line. Then you need to build on it.

Dean says these are the four fundamental steps to building your brand:

  • What it's all about. Starting here you look at the brand as you want it to be. Meet with your company principals and employees to examine and audit what the brand is supposed to be.
  • Market research. Next perform competitive research to determine where the company and brand fits in the marketplace. One thing to remember, says Dean, is that positioning is not something that simply lives in a statement – it must live in emotion. It's something you feel – it's something you not only need to live on paper, but in your heart.
  • Execution and creative brief. Here is the beginning of the execution where strategy is planned and the communication elements and objectives are put together.
  • Entering the market. The actual execution which includes the marketing, public relations and advertising. It's putting an entire platform together including the experience behind the brand, merchandising, event planning, etc.

Once you build your brand, it will still need maintenance. It's about being consistent with your message. Obviously, you should use every possible opportunity to get your name, logo, taglines and contact information in industry merchandise. “You need to use every opportunity possible to build and reinforce your logo and company image,” says Marriot. “It takes constant reaffirmation, consistency and time. Other-wise, you're wasting your time. Done right, it can mean the difference between having to go out prospecting for every new client with cold calling and other less than pleasurable activities, versus having your clients come to you.”

Consistency Is Key

Part of branding is knowing where you fit into the marketplace. What's your stance and who do you want to stand with you? Where in the market do you want to be placed? You have to know this before you even start your branding and maintain that position.

For example, “We're a smaller distributor who caters to higher-end clients,” says Richman. “We want higher quality rather than quantity.” So, he obviously would not want to drop by a client's office with a handful of inexpensive products to promote his company's ability to promote Fortune 500 companies.

“It's critical to pay attention to the target audience from the get-go and remain specific. A lot of people get caught up in all the supplier freebies and self-promotion deals that they don't put out a consistent message,” says Marriott. “They seem to want to get a high-end market but they just use the cheap freebies that give the opposite impression.”

This is an obvious inconsistency that could send your promotional reputation into a downward spiral.

“We're supposed to be a creative arm to companies,” says Richman. “So we need to be on the cutting edge of the latest and greatest items to promote ourselves and our clients. But we have to promote ourselves depending on our target market – in direct relation to who we represent.”

Tugging At Their Heart Strings

Though you want your brand to have a solid message, emotions play an integral part in brand loyalty. “It can't just be a statement or a tagline, it has to be something your clients feel,” Dean explains. The name, image, logo, products, etc. have to mean something to your target audience. And that part holds true, no matter what business you're in.

If it touches their life, they're going to buy it,” he adds. “When it's an emotional trigger, when they feel it, they're going to buy it. And good branding also teaches people to be smarter shoppers – they then want to go shopping for the better product or service. Try to get that emotional response. What you want to do with the brand is take clients on a highly emotive multi-dimensional ride. And if you do it right, they continue to feel the ride and take the fun home with them.”

No matter if it's Marriott's purple elephant that clients will never forget, the message of Winston as the “doctor” that will fix marketing mishaps, or the stern seriousness and rugged guarantees of Dean's and Richman's companies, they all say something that makes them stand out – and shows they can fill a variety of needs.

Josh Vasquez is the assistant editor of ADvantages

Article Side Bars

“Breakfast” Is Served

Distributor Geiger Inc. (asi/202900) wanted to let prospects in on its capabilities and creativity, as well as remind existing clients about the firm's effectiveness.

To that end, Geiger's Mansfield , MA office developed a three-part direct mailing using humor and an easily recognized theme – breakfast.

Offered to its independent sales partners, the promotion was designed to be easily personalized for each recipient. The first phase was a custom-designed cereal box, accompanied by a letter, catalog and banana-shaped stress reliever.

The next week, a mailing included a business card and imprinted, egg-shaped stress reliever with the message to be “egg-specting” a call. The third piece of the mailing again came with a letter and a chicken-shaped stress reliever.

Not only did the promotion create positive buzz about Geiger's abilities, it won a Silver Pyramid Award and a 27% sales increase for independent sales partners in the following two months.

Calendar Conveys Sales Reps' Funny Sides

Distributor Image Group Inc.'s (asi/230059), 2002 self-promotional calendar took a funny look at the Olympics and used self-deprecating humor to add some humanity to its corporate image. The theme, developed by some of the company's sales reps, was “Going for Gold,” and the calendar featured male employees dressed as female figure skaters and other photos with employees as hockey players, bobsledders, and Gold medalists. Each photo also showed various promotional products, like totes and badge holders.

Image Group distributed 1,500 calendars to clients, suppliers, the media and prospects. Also, when the Olympics started in February 2002, its top 150 clients received the calendar, along with an imprinted goody bag, filled with some of the featured products.

The calendar was a big hit, sparking positive feedback and sales and, perhaps most important, conveying the company's offbeat personality. “[It] was an excellent way to showcase entertaining photos that reflected the full measure of bravado and sparkling personalities of Image Group sales reps,” says Laura Hansen, president.

Under The Influence

Here are a few examples of self-promotional efforts that really raised a few eyebrows:

  • A brand new bank opens in Manhattan . To make a statement, bold marketers of the bank carry a thousand one dollar bills to the top of the Empire State Building and throw the green over to the eight million inhabitants below. The perpetrators are arrested, but coverage of the exploit peppers the next day's newspapers. Might have been better for all involved if the bills were phony, and imprinted with the bank's logo.
  • During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an Albany, NY-based radio station collects nearly 7,000 bras and recruits hundreds of volunteers to weave them together and stretch them across the Hudson River to Rensselaer , NY . The Coast Guard even gets involved, holding up river traffic for over an hour while the weave of undergarments is strung from town to town. The effort, called “Bras Across the Hudson,” delivers an abundance of priceless media attention.
  • To promote the all-season qualities of wool, a creative agency hires a slew of professional models to don different wool ensembles and hand out pro-wool fliers, while parading leashed sheep through the streets of Manhattan . The stunt nets over eight million media impressions, including a spot on The Today Show with Al Roker.

Remind Clients That You're There For Them

Jacque Zakorchemny, owner of Distributor Friendliness Inc. (asi/199200) believes self-promotion and thank-you gifts are part of her company's duty. “It's a thank-you and a reminder that I'm here, a way to keep personal contact,” she explains. The firm's promotions usually happen twice a year – once during the summer and again just before the holiday season. The specifics of each mailing vary from year to year and theme to theme, but every promotion includes imprinted products from the suppliers Zakorchemny trusts.

One particular “Summer Survival Kit” included a host of products to help get clients through the hot months: sunglasses, beach bags, manicure sets and first-aid kits, as well as more traditional items, such as pens, highlighters, notepads, keytags, staple removers and CD holders. Everything was imprinted with Friendliness' name and contact info.

About 100 of the kits were sent out – not just to buyers, but to support staff who take care of essential details like shipping and billing. “They're customized as to who it's going to,” Zakorchemny says. “If I'm sending it to a male, he gets a briefcase. If it's a woman, she gets a beach bag.”

But do the gifts generate anything more tangible than appreciation? You decide. The latest addition to the kit was a keytag that Zakorchemny says led to an immediate sale of 2,700 pieces. Last year's gift yielded a sale of 6,000 boat bags. The previous year, 5,000 more. And those are just the orders that she can think of at the moment.

“I'm constantly looking for products,” she says. “If you come into our office, you'd find at least 30 different imprinted items for our salespeople to use. How could I sell this stuff if I didn't believe in it and use it myself?”


 

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