For the last two days, I've been relentlessly judging things. I'm a fan of judging, particularly if it's harsh, unfair, rude, superficial and based solely on first impressions. On this occasion, however, I wasn't judging for mere sadistic pleasure. It was for a slightly more legitimate purpose: I was part of the esteemed panel tasked with choosing the winners of the Australasian Promotional Products Association's (APPA) annual awards. So let me take you on a long-winded journey through the oft-times surprising world of promotional products.
When I told my wife that I was going to be a judge at these awards, she laughed and summed up what seems to be the typical attitude towards promotional products by asking, tongue and cheekily, if I would need to use my vast technical knowledge of branded pens and hats to decide on the year's best.
Admittedly, like her, and presumably like many others, my perception of promotional products up until relatively recently had been guided primarily by the things Dad used to have in his office, bring home from golf tournaments or receive as gifts from companies around Christmas. You know, the things that often get a cursory glance when they're delivered and tend to go straight to the bottom drawer/bin/op shop/regifting pile.
As expected, a number of the promotional products entered into the awards did fit this rather unoriginal, fairly corporate stereotype and I certainly got to see my fair share of branded pens, caps, mugs, frisbees, stress toys, hackey sacks, umbrellas, sporting goods, golf balls, quirky USB sticks, backpacks, gauche flashing things, keyrings, stubbie holders, tacky t-shirts, poor quality confectionary and other, primarily cheap Chinese-made goods.
The use of such products to try and get a message across has created a fairly unglamorous image of the sector and, as a result – and in a similar way to point of sale – it's often seen as something of a poor cousin in the marketing mix. There will presumably always be a place for these products, mostly for smaller, niche companies with budget constraints to consider. But small doesn't necessarily mean bad. Many of the winning entries were small and cheap, but they were often bespoke and tailored to fit the brief of the promotional campaign. And Bill Kestin, the chief executive of APPA, says the awards are an opportunity to show how effective promotional products can be when some thought is put into their use (as an example of an effective large scale promotion, the infamous VB Boony doll, a David Boon figurine with a digital chip that was given out with beer purchases and made comments when prompted by the TV commentators, increased sales of VB by 50 percent).
My impression of the sector has certainly improved after getting a chance to see some of the region's promotional excellence. It certainly wasn't all just cheap, gimmicky, commercial detritus that was chosen from a catalogue. The winning entries were genuinely creative, smart, memorable, high quality and extremely good value for marketing money, with some very impressive ROI figures.
Obviously, I can't reveal any of these victors (they'll be announced in August), but the common theme amongst them was the fact that the idea avoided the lowest common denominator. Plenty of thought was put into their creation, which often aimed to change behaviour (typically by offering incentives, tapping into the curious nature of the human beast or inspiring competition), enhance sales or create awareness. In fact, on a number of occasions, the below-the-line promotional product actually went on to form the basis of the above-the-line campaigns, which goes to show the quality of some of the promotional entries.
All of the entrants in the awards need to be affiliated to APPA and, after gaining this endorsement, these suppliers, distributors and promotional companies are able to guarantee that the factories used to make the products meet international labour standards and safety, quality or health standards (like not using lead-based paints, which has happened on a few occasions and led to product recalls). But Kestin says there are also a few non-APPA shysters currently operating in the industry, usually playing the margins game and often promising to acquire cheaper goods from dodgy factories with very few checks and balances in place to protect companies when they're buying promotional products. And when there are potential legal issues that can arise from the use of unsafe promotional products, playing purely on price can be a dangerous game.
Of course, Kestin wants APPA members to do well, but he has plenty of cautionary tales about companies getting burned after bypassing distributors and going straight to a supplier in order to save some money on the items, occasionally even buying direct from a factory.
A Queensland Government department, for example, decided to use some metal coffee mugs in order to promote workplace safety among the staff. They went straight to a supplier and managed to get the goods slightly cheaper than they would from a distributor. Turns out the mugs weren't insulated, so no-one could actually hold them without getting burned and the mug handles also fell off, leading to a few hot drinks being spilled on laps. So, ironically, a promotion of workplace safety campaign failed to source safe products.
There's also the sorry tale of a New Zealand company that went direct to a supplier in China, found some watches for a promotion and ordered 15,000 of them because they were slightly cheaper. Unfortunately, no-one tried them on, which resulted in 15,000 watches with straps that didn't fit around New Zealand wrists. The promo still needed to run, however, so the watches all had to have new straps attached in New Zealand, at huge cost.
Overall, there is quite a fine line between naffness and effectiveness in the promotional products industry. But from my experience as a judge, there is some very interesting, creative work currently being done. And, when you look at the figures behind a good, novel and well-executed campaign, it reaffirms the fact that promotional products can be an extremely powerful marketing tool.
- Moderately interesting facts: there are only two factories in the world that produce stress toys; printing a logo clearly on a substance like neoprene is a very difficult task; ceramafiable is a word; and 'wow factor', 'exceeded expectations', 'cut-through', 'hand-delivered', 'well-received', 'outstanding' and 'unique' are used way too much in awards entries.