How to make your business stand out in a $21.2 billion market

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When Patagonia announced that it would no longer place corporate logos on its apparel, it sparked a broader discussion about the sustainability of corporate promotional products (often referred to as “mashtags”), as well as what these products actually mean and can be used for. Today, traditional promotional items – often dismissed as insignificant and easily forgotten and then quickly discarded – are undergoing a transformation led by forward-thinking entrepreneurs.

The focus is shifting from generic items to unique, story-driven items that do more than simply promote. The right tchotchke tells a story, encapsulating a company’s values ​​and sparking meaningful conversations. But, to do that, they have to be done right.

If you’ve ever wondered, “Is it worth purchasing promotional items?” then this article is for you. We’ll explore the reasons behind this shift and how entrepreneurs strategically use creative leaves to make lasting impressions.

Related: 9 key tips to navigate the upcoming marketing landscape of 2024

The swag landscape: a $21.2 billion market

According to IBISWorld, the promotional products market was a staggering $21.2 billion in the United States in 2023. These items, ranging from trinkets to left-behind items, represent essential tools in the marketing department’s arsenal. Examples of using gadgets could include gifts for new hires to foster a positive relationship and make them feel part of the team, or thank you gifts to express gratitude to customers and suppliers.

The main goal is to generate interest, foster new relationships and establish connections beyond the confines of email. It’s worth noting that, in this article, we refer to tchotchkes as trinkets sent to “cold” prospects, while we refer to leave-behinds as items left behind for “warm” leads after a presentation or first meeting.

When it comes to sending cold tchotchkes, the challenge is to instill wonder in a single object, forcing the recipient to prioritize the callback. The market is flooded with these promotional products, so it is absolutely crucial for business owners to understand how to make their business stand out and make a significant impression.

Success in promotional product campaigns is measured by engagement. For cold communications, whether via email, phone, direct mail or tchotchkes, the key performance indicator is a higher-than-average prospect engagement rate. Traditional cold calls boast a 2% success rate, while direct mailings and emails show around 3% and 2% on average, respectively. In contrast, SMS has a success rate of around 15%.

Related: 5 steps to create successful marketing campaigns

Which promotional items work best?

Entrepreneurs are redefining promotional products by infusing them with narratives that resonate with their target audiences. When it comes to figuring out which promotional items work best, it comes down to which items authentically tell your company’s story in a way that resonates with your target audience.

Follow this three-step process to discover how to make your business stand out by sharing creative knick-knacks that accurately represent your company’s core values ​​and mission:

1. Create an informed swag budget

Understanding how often and when to hand out gadgets is an important first step in developing the right tchotchke strategy. Companies often allocate a portion of their marketing budgets to promotional products, with approximately 20% of the budget dedicated to events, trade shows or external branding. Additionally, organizations may have specific budgets for employee acquisition, retention, and engagement.

Determine the return on investment for previous promotional campaigns to allocate your budget more effectively. Then, conduct a detailed analysis of past campaigns to understand which elements generated the most engagement relative to their costs. It’s important to set specific, measurable goals for each campaign, such as a 5% increase in lead engagement or a 10% increase in social media mentions, to guide your budget decisions. Finding cost-effective, impactful articles, where the emphasis is on creativity and cost-relevance, can help achieve these goals. You can also take advantage of bulk purchasing to save costs; however, make sure each item remains personalized to maintain its unique charm.

A great example of this was the approach we took with our portfolio company, Arbol, to engage airline and airport executives using Admiral FitzRoy barometers. That article contained the story of the origins of weather insurance and the risk forecasting innovations that followed. By devising a carefully tailored design, Arbol has strategically linked its history and brand to technological advances in parametric weather insurance. This creative yet cost-effective tactic significantly engaged one of the company’s key audiences, demonstrating how impactful results can be achieved with minimal financial investment.

2. Identify your ideal outcome

Next, imagine the ideal outcome, where the recipient keeps the item in a prominent place, sparking conversations. Answer key questions through research: What story will be told? Who is the target audience? What action triggers the story? What object triggers that action?

Researching your customer’s personality can help you tailor promotional items that resonate on a personal level with the recipient. For example, if you’re targeting a tech-savvy audience, consider articles that integrate with digital lifestyles. Implement tracking mechanisms, such as QR codes or unique URLs, to measure interaction with the promotional item. This allows for a direct correlation between the item and desired actions, such as website visits or social media engagement.

Spotify’s “Wrapped” campaign is a good example of this. Every year, Spotify creates personalized end-of-year review playlists and statistics for its users, showcasing the most listened to songs, artists and genres. These summaries are presented in a visually appealing and shareable format, encouraging users to share their musical tastes on social media. This approach transforms users’ listening habits into a unique and personal object: a digital tchotchke. Take advantage of the trends of personalization and social sharing. As users share their recaps, they not only engage with Spotify more, but they also promote the brand to others. This campaign shows how a digital object, just like a traditional physical tchotchke, can actually improve brand engagement and drive widespread cultural resonance.

For digital campaigns like Wrapped, you can encourage sharing by including incentives, such as contests or exclusive content for participants, which can amplify reach. Ultimately, you want to ensure that the story your article tells aligns with the core values ​​of both your brand and your target audience, thus increasing the likelihood that the article will be retained and discussed.

Related: 5 fundamental marketing strategies for promoting products

3. Iterate creatively

Brainstorm, eliminate, test and refine your chosen tchotchke to ensure it sparks conversation and recall. Engage in A/B tests with small segments of your target audience to evaluate the impact of different promotional items. This might involve sending out two variations of a product to see which generates more engagement or feedback. Then, solicit feedback directly from recipients on what they liked or didn’t like about the item, using surveys or follow-up calls. Maintain a database of responses and engagement metrics to refine future campaigns, focusing on the creativity and emotional or practical value the tchotchke provides.

We worked with another portfolio company, StoryFit, a story intelligence technology company, sending DeLorean model kits to narrative decision makers, highlighting the ability of the right story to bring a screenplay to life. When recipients place the completed model on their desks, it sparks conversations with colleagues about predictive audience insights. It also left an indelible memory for future collaborations: our manager received direct feedback from the potential client, stating that he appreciated the approach adopted by our team.

The era of meaningless promotional items is giving way to a new era of purposeful, narrative-driven junk. Entrepreneurs who invest time and creativity in selecting and crafting these tokens not only leave a lasting impression, but also build meaningful connections that go beyond the transaction. Success is measured by engagement, and when it comes to promotional products, that means starting with a well-thought-out experience and an authentic story to match.

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