promotional products

Blending Promotional Products into Your Mix

Vince DiCecco is a dynamic and sought-after seminar speaker and author, with particular interest in business management/development and marketing subjects. With over 20 years experience in sales, marketing and training, he is presently an independent consultant to businesses looking to sharpen their competitive edge. Vince addresses a wide range of topics focused on nurturing customer loyalty while improving profitability. He may be reached via email at

I’ve had the opportunity to speak and work with awards and engraving business owners about what can be done to boost sales, land new clients, and increase business with current customers. One option is to add promotional products and ad specialty items to the list of goods and services you presently offer. Maybe you’ve tried that before and it was less than successful. Maybe now is the time to resurrect the effort it in a different way.


Please indulge me as I share the most common reasons why businesses fail:

  • Lack of adequate cash flow
  • Being one-dimensional—that is, 80 percent of gross sales are from one product line
  • Failure to expand the customer base
  • Ignoring the competition
  • Being difficult with which to do business—e.g. inconvenient, inaccessible, non-responsive, inflexible, etc.

The promotional products and ad specialty industry is huge. The Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI), in its annual sales analysis of 2016 promotional products industry, stated total distributor sales topped $21.3 billion, an increase of 36.5 percent over 2009’s Great Recession total of $15.6 billion. There are well over one million items from which a distributor or its clientele may choose in over 700 product categories — such as, wearables, drinkware, writing instruments, desk/office accessories, bags, calendars, USB flash drives, and health and safety items.

And, the demand among the general buying public for these products is burgeoning. Did you know…

  • Eighty-three percent of people receiving a promotional product admit to looking up the brand post-receipt and said, because of the gift, they are more likely to do business with those brands.
  • When asked to rate which advertising vehicles provide consumers with an incentive to take action, ad specialty-type promotional products were regarded as most effective over broadcast, online, print, and mobile ads across every generation, including millennials.
  • Eighty-one percent of consumers keep promotional products given to them for more than one year, and the average length of time a promotional product is kept is one to five years. Twenty-three percent of men may keep a product for 11 years or more, while 22 percent of women admit to keeping theirs for six to 10 years.
  • Nine in 10 recall the branding of a promotional product. Eight in 10 recall the messaging, and seven in 10 remember the “call to action.”

Let’s explore the best practices and pitfalls to avoid when adding promotional products to your awards shop’s offerings, shall we?


No matter what you call them — branded items, trade show giveaways, tchotchkes — promotional products and ad specialties have one thing in common: they have the proven effect of enhancing the image of and marketing strategy for any company incorporating them, either as a stand-alone or in conjunction with another piece. 

From various sponsored studies and surveys, some interesting conclusions have been drawn. The Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) has coined the belief that there are Five R’s of Promotional Products — five key metrics to assess the value and impact of promotional products on survey respondents:

  • Reach: do the items elevate the brand reach and deliver adequate exposure to recipients?
  • Recall: do the items produce instant and high brand recall to generate awareness?
  • Resonance: do the items resonate with recipients and create favorable brand awareness?
  • Reaction: do the items stimulate a reaction and influence a change in buying behavior?
  • Relativity: do the items gain relativity compared to other advertising channels?

If you revisit the aforementioned bullet points, I think you will see how promotional products have outstanding attributes in all five areas of value and impact. These are excellent reasons why awards and engraving shops ought to integrate promotional products into your external and internal marketing plan. 


Meet Frank Crowe, president and owner of Indianapolis-based Artistic Awards. His state-of-the-art shop and team have been offering ad specialty items for years. Crowe shares with me some of the insights he’s gleaned from his experience selling promotional products. 

“Bringing these types of products into the fold is easy … The beauty of it is we don’t have to make and embellish the pen, garment, USB drive, or bag ourselves. We just take the order.” 

Crowe goes on: “It didn’t take us long to realize that promotional products generate much smaller gross profit margins than our core business — exquisitely designed customized service, and recognition awards … It is not uncommon for an award (job) that we design and manufacture in-house to have a gross margin of two to three times greater than a promotional products order.”

From what I know of the stiff competition in this marketplace, I would concur with him. So, it is important to know what your shop’s overall gross profit margin is. Grab your most recent consolidated income statement — a.k.a. the profit and loss (P and L) statement — and calculate your gross margin — simply find the dollar amount of gross profit and divide it by your gross revenues. 

If adding promotional products to your mix at between 30 and 40 percent gross margin will dilute your already-healthy gross margin of, let’s say, 55 percent or greater, then be careful how heavily you promote and make known that you entertain a promotional products order. If the sale of promotional products will reap gross margins nearly the same as the rest of your product offerings, then advertise and promote them.

On another note, take a look at how you compensate your salespeople — assuming you have some and offer them incentive pay. If there is a significant difference in the profitability of your core bread-and-butter offerings — custom gifts, recognition, and award items — and that of promotional products, be certain not to pay the same commission rate on sales of both. Have one commission rate for high-profit goods and another for lower ones. Impress upon your sales team that the reasons you offer promotional products in the first place is two-fold: one, for the one-stop shopping convenience of your current customers; and, secondly, to improve the sales revenue stream for your business. 


When I’ve spoken with awards shop business owners — and I try to do so regularly — the conversation often migrates to the challenge of striking a healthy work-life balance and time management. Eventually, most entrepreneurs come to the epiphany that they spend too much time in the business and not enough time working onthe business. The choice to blend promotional products into your current offerings is a “working onthe business” decision, but only if you hone a keen appreciation for — once that trigger is pulled — how much time, resources, people, and effort have to be dedicated to ensure its success. Enter the risk-reward conundrum. 

Business owners come to the realization that playing it safe usually doesn’t pay off. Indeed, risk-taking is an essential skill of anyone owning and operating a thriving enterprise. Good decision making begins with being able to visualize the future, assess the rise and decline of customer interest and demand, and assigning probabilities to each possible outcome. 

Impulsively adding promotional products — or any new potential revenue generating initiative, for that matter — can put a fairly successful awards shop in a bind if they were to take big risks for moderate reward, or even moderate risks for minimal reward. Consider this: if you are going to venture outside of your comfort zone and away from your core competencies, do your homework. There is a wealth of information and insight that is yours for the asking. 

Talk to other awards shops or other businesses — such as screen printers and embroiderers, or sign shops — that have successfully added promotional products to their mix and learn from their experience. Ask them what means to hook up with reliable manufacturers do they use, and make sure that, if this decision doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t sink the entire ship. Good luck!