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OPINION – Ye Olde-Fashioned Business: Why the Promo Product Industry Seems So Outdated

We hate to admit it, but we realize that, if you’re a customer, you might have browsed other promotional products sites or talked with other distributors while trying to find the pen or coffee mug of your dreams. It’s okay; as the saying goes, “Once you go yellow, you always stay mellow.” At least, I think that’s how the saying goes.

Or perhaps you actually work within the promotional products industry, in which case, allow me to extend a heartfelt “Yo!” Either way, you’ve probably observed one detail that a lot of promotional products companies have in common:

Their advertising materials are a little old-fashioned.

And isn’t that a kicker? I mean, this industry exists to help other businesses and organizations advertise their presences. But how can promotional products companies do that when they’re such lumps about advertising themselves? And it’s not just that promotional products companies have websites that largely aren’t winning awards for imaginative design. It’s that they still use printed catalogs when those are fast falling out of favor.

So perhaps it’s time for some self-examination. Promotional products industry players: what the heck? Why is everyone so far behind the times?

I have a theory. It has a lot to do with the nature of the industry itself and why it really isn’t conducive to innovation. Take a look at this copy from the website of the Advertising Specialty Institute, or ASI, a trade organization for promotional products companies:

“With so many businesses buying ad specialties there is a huge opportunity for professionals looking to make great money running a promotional products distributorship. It’s easy and inexpensive to get started and you can work from home.” (emphasis added)

-The Advertising Specialty Institute

Innovation is difficult. As Edward D. Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, wrote in an article for Forbes, innovation requires people to step outside of their comfort zones, make mistakes, fail a lot, and go for a long time without confirmation that they’re on the right track. It’s a scary place to be if you’re just trying to earn a living.

While we’re talking about earning a living, innovation is expensive, at least at the beginning of a venture. Even a blog post from the British Quality Foundation in support of trying new techniques acknowledged that innovation incurs costs. The post states that searching for new products takes time, money, and manpower. It doesn’t even touch on what goes into creating new products.

When ASI, an organization at the center of the promotional products world, promotes the industry as easy and inexpensive to join, why should we expect innovation?

Why Catalogs?

So we have an industry that uses paper catalogs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy paper catalogs, and there are several reasons why they might be an appropriate tool for some retail companies to use when selling their goods.

But, well, catalogs are old-fashioned. A favorite guilty pleasure, the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog? That got started in 1881. The Wikipedia page that discusses the topic of promotional merchandise (always a trustworthy source, I know) says that catalogs become a widespread part of the industry in the 1980s, which—whoa ho, look at us, getting modern!

In the dark ages before the Internet was a regular fixture of homes and offices everywhere, promotional products catalogs helped customers make sense of the industry and order their items in a logical way. For those who don’t know, there’s a hierarchy within the industry:

  • End users, much more kindly called customers, buy their promotional products from
  • Distributors like QLP, also called sellers or consultants, who determine what customers need, gather the appropriate order information, and pass it all along to
  • Suppliers, or manufacturers, who make and imprint the products.

Catalogs were an attractive way for distributors to show customers and end users what products the suppliers, who didn’t have the resources available to reach out as direct salespeople, had available.

But then that Internet thing came along, and with it arrived a slew of arguments for why printed catalogs might not be necessary. We can argue that using catalogs has worked for the promo products industry for a while now, but is doing something just because it’s always worked the best argument for doing it in the future?

Of course, the promotional products industry can (and has) turned to websites to sell items. Does that mean that everyone in the industry has fully embraced the 21st century? Not quite.

Why Lousy Websites?

Our industry organization, ASI, said it themselves: a promotional products distributorship is a business that people can start from home. Some people who want to work from home are great at setting up or even coding websites. Chances are, those people are going to be looking for jobs that have them doing just that.

For the work-at-home folk who aren’t so web-savvy, there still are options for setting up your own promo products website. Like this. Better yet, do me a favor and do a search for “promotional products website templates.” Boy, that’s a lot of companies selling pre-made websites, isn’t it?

And that’s the thing: when there are templates for a task available, few people are going to bother finding a different way to do that task. Research has suggested it: human beings naturally are inclined to be lazy. Someone could argue that pre-made websites are getting more sophisticated-looking, but as I’ve mentioned, innovation takes time to spread.

That’s my theory as to why so many promotional products distributors websites look like my old Geocities efforts. As for our suppliers, well, they make a lot of products. Pens, shirts, tote bags… with all the categories or products there are, I can understand why there are so many text links and images to click on any given home page.

And yet, there’s hope! Some suppliers have been stepping up and challenging themselves to promote their items with incredibly functional new websites. Polyconcept North America (PCNA), a company that includes brands like Leed’s and Trimark under its umbrella, recently launched a new site.

“We really designed this to be as user friendly, along with the retail appearance distributors are looking for,” says Matt Rosenbaum, a representative from PCNA. “I love how we have added so many different ways to filter, to ensure that we are getting you to the product you need as quickly as possible…. This really helps speed up the process, bringing it back to the retail component.”

But PCNA didn’t just add search filters and update the site’s look. “We have also added a place on our site called Marketplace, where will continue to add other suppliers within this area,” Rosenbaum explains. “This benefits all parties involved. For the distributor, they now have one site where other suppliers’ products can easily be viewed. This benefits PCNA as it logically will bring traffic to the site.”

New ideas are good for business. Interesting thought!

As far as businesses go, research and promotional materials suggest that the promotional products industry is one of the easier ones for budding entrepreneurs to wade into. It’s also one of the more profitable ones; the Advertising Specialty Institute pegs it as a $20.5 billion industry.

With all of that money flowing, perhaps we can afford a little more innovation.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

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Sheila Johnson

Sheila Johnson is a member of the Content Team at Quality Logo Products. Prior to joining QLP, she worked freelance in a number of capacities, including writing, editing, digital art restoration, and sorting stuff in a warehouse, because money is money. She enjoys birdwatching, hiking, and reading, which doesn't make her sound old at all. Other likes: dark chocolate, comics, science, socks with bright patterns. Dislikes: how cold her toes are ALL THE TIME. You can connect with Sheila on

Comments

  1. Jon

    Great Article – though I think a good point is missing from the argument … “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Maybe its because I work for a forward thinking company (aka Quality Logo Products), but I think a lot of people in this industry are working hard and are keeping busy . . . so if you aren’t selling, it’s probably because of your skills and you personally, not your marketing or website.
    I am not saying people shouldn’t update their info and be more current – I appreciate that my company always looks to innovate something – but I get how easy it is for companies to get comfortable and be satisfied with what they have.
    This industry does need more Don Draper types “Get hungry even though you’ve just eaten . . . What is happiness? its a moment before you need more happiness” to help shake it up and bring it forward – but with a lot of people just looking to stay the course, it will be a tough road.

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