By Tom Kronberger, Director Vendor Relations, Fully Promoted
The time has come for distributors to diversify to help clients deal with one of the most pressing issues of our times made even more urgent in the Covid-19 crisis—how to fully engage and build meaningful relationships with all critical stakeholders. This includes essential employees, customers, distribution partners, supply chain partners, volunteers and communities. Distributors can serve vital customer needs by addressing the need to engage key audiences in two ways 1) through the use of brands in the booming surprise and delight employee and customer gifting and amenities business, and 2) through a variety of engagement services as profitable if not more so than promotional products.
The promotional products industry has asked this question for years: should distributors expand beyond promotional products? If ever there were a time to consider this question, it has arrived. Never have organizations had a greater need for our industry’s unique capabilities and business model: the ability to help clients search through multiple ideas and solution providers in different categories who can meet their ever-changing needs to engage critical stakeholders.
While the need for promotional products may have dropped, organizations have a greater need than ever before to engage their key stakeholders. To help them, what we need to do as distributors is broaden our horizons to recognize that today’s customer in human resources, sales, marketing, fund-raising, or politics needs more than promotional products and graphics. Some distributors already are focused right now on supporting “surprise and delight” and other gifting programs using brand name products to engage key customers, employees, or distribution partners now working at home. "Surprise and delight" is the term used for gifts sent without pre-condition as thanks to customers, employees, or any stakeholder. Companies are looking for new strategies and tactics to engage, communicate with, or reward new work-at-home employees, salespeople, or distributor partners, including surveys and feedback, engagement technologies, digital communications, and the design of return-on-investment based programs.
Promotional products have and will always play an important part of the communications mix because of their unique three-dimensional messaging capabilities. The opportunity for enterprising distributors is to use their access to human resources, marketing, sales, fund-raising and other management to broaden the range of solutions offered to clients, from brands used for business, event, and promotional gifting and amenities and rewards and recognition, to an entire range of engagement solutions.
There was a time when the most successful promotional distributors had almost daily access to the marketing and human resources departments of many of the world’s largest companies, so much they were seen as people who could find solutions to address the ever-changing needs of clients. A lack of time, increased security, and the Internet changed that culture in the 2000s but the best distributors have always asked questions and found ways to be helpful to address diverse client needs.
Over the years, a small but significant percentage of distributors stepped out of promotional products into safety, recognition, incentive programs; signage and digital marketing, and customized apparel. More recently, some have begun selling brands for business, event, promotional gifting, and corporate amenities and, recently, facemasks and other PPE. These are but a few of the many tactics used by the managers distributors call upon to help engage stakeholders, including customers, employees, distribution partners, supply chain partners, volunteers, and communities.
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed to CEOs like never before the value of essential employees, customers, distribution partners, and in some cases volunteers and communities. It has driven home the fact that people truly are their biggest and perhaps only asset of value. The crisis will also shine light on the fact that most current incentive, recognition, loyalty and related programs undergo little or no return on investment analysis.
As a result, there will be a growing need in human resources, marketing, sales, and fund raising for a more efficient and measurable use of solutions, and many companies simply don’t have the time and expertise to sift through the dizzying array of offerings to find the right ones: they will benefit from the help of experts who understand all the key tactics of engagement and the best solution providers appropriate to the client.
With business models changing rapidly and budgets getting re-set, with more employees and customers working at home, and the pressures growing on CEOs to demonstrate their commitment to people, there will be an increasing need to find a more strategic, systematic, and measurable way to engage people. Distributors who can inform their clients of new, proven strategies, and provide practical measurable solutions, can be of invaluable service.
The two most obvious opportunities for distributors in this new world are in Brand Media and Enterprise Engagement.
1) The Brand Media Opportunity
Brand media refers to the selective and creative use of brands for business, event, and promotional gifting and corporate amenities. This is a good time for distributors to embrace the power of brands for business and promotional gifting, and amenities, and the ability to elevate their own brands with higher profits per sale. Well before the Covid-19 crisis, brands had begun to make major inroads in categories once unheard of in promotional products, including clocks and watches, apparel, water bottles and drink ware, pens and accessories, and even retail gift cards. Multiple studies confirm that distributors are a major source for corporate gift cards, even though the margins offered are the lowest in the business. The reason? Clients increasingly want brands because of their perceived value and because they have become much more targeted in their use of gifts of any kind. Even before Covid-19, many companies had begun to reduce their use of promotional products given away to just about anyone, spurred by articles in multiple business media questioning their sustainability and value, and have focused more dollars giving higher-value items to fewer but more qualified people.
Brands tell a story and have a high perceived value. Research and common sense confirm that each brand has a personality and has a different message to different people, making them highly effective in supporting an organization’s own brand message in a memorable way. The ability to help companies select, source, and personalize brands and the presentation experience is an art and science fully aligned with the expertise of most distributors: understanding the audience, knowing about the brand’s story as well as the product, along with the goals, objectives, budget, and potential return-on-investment measures of the program.
Brand Specialists can make more money per sale than on promotional products helping clients with selective of use of brands and related technologies and platforms and have a stickier relationship simply because the typical corporate customer simply doesn’t have time to keep track of all the brands, stories, wholesalers, availability, and how to customize the experience. Brand Specialists must learn about the nomenclature of Brand Media; how the industry works, how to curate a catalog, where to buy from trusted suppliers, and update their web sites to better tell that story.
2) The Engagement Opportunity
Whatever happens in the coming months or years, organizations of every size are going to grapple with the glaring reality made clear by the pandemic something that many had taken for granted--that their businesses boil down to their human assets: customers, “essential” employees, distribution partners, suppliers, volunteers and/or communities. Given that both customer and employee engagement rates tracked by the American Customer Satisfaction Institute and Gallup Inc. have shown little improvement over 10 years, it’s obvious that all organizations can benefit from a more strategic, systematic, and aligned process of engaging all stakeholders now that customers, distribution partners, and essential employees have become such precious assets. The ad hoc, reactive way in which organizations threw tactics at human resources, marketing, or sales problems is giving way to a more strategic and systematic approach that better connects and aligns the promises made to customers and internal stakeholders and better integrates the branding, coaching, learning, communications, rewards and recognition, and multiple other tactics.
Distributors so inclined can create a new practice helping clients discover the power of an Enterprise Engagement solution, by learning about the field and methodologies, building relationships with key solution partners, and identifying prospects charged with making the most of their organization’s human assets through a more strategic and measurable approach to traditional incentive, recognition, and loyalty programs.
This requires more time and effort than becoming a Brand Specialist, because one must learn about a new field, its effective practices, the different types of solutions, and build relationships with solution providers in all areas of engagement. It also requires in most cases a separate web site. The reward is an even stickier client relationship and the ability to make money on a broad range of tactical services.
To learn about Brand Media and to become a Brand Specialist, go to BrandMediaCoalition.com. Click on resources for background on Brand Media, and shop for brands through trusted wholesale sources using its online marketplace. You can get the latest news in the field through its trade media RRN at RewardsRecognitionNetwork.com.
To learn about Enterprise Engagement, go to ESM at EnterpriseEngagement.org to view the latest news and trends and to the Enterprise Engagement marketplace at EEXAdvisors.com to access hundreds of potential suppliers for your clients as well as information on their business models. You can join for free to become an EEX Advisor to learn about the field or join the EEA to become your learning and certification process in Enterprise Engagement.
Education, Certifications, and Information to Activate
Brand Media and Enterprise Engagement
A complete learning, certification, and information program and a course syllabus for educators.
Resources: The Brand Media Coalition, the only guide to the story-telling power of brands and where to source them for business, event, promotional gifting, and rewards and recognition. Enterprise Engagement Solution Provider Directory. The only directory of engagement solution providers covering all types of agencies and tactics as well as insights on how to select them.
Communities: The Enterprise Engagement Alliance and Advocate and the Brand Media Coalition free resource centers offering access to the latest research, news, and case studies; discounts, promotions, referrals, and commissions, when appropriate to third-party solution providers from participating coalition solution provider members.
Training and Certification
Enterprise Engagement Alliance Education: Certified Engagement Practitioner; Advanced Engaged Practitioner, and Certified Engagement Solution Provider learning and certification programs on how to implement Stakeholder Capitalism principles at the tactical level.
International Center for Enterprise Engagement: The only training and certification program for ISO 30414 human capital reporting and ISO 10018 quality people management certification.
The EEA offers a complimentary course syllabus for educators.
This is the definitive implementation guide to Stakeholder Capitalism, written specifically to provide CEOs and their leadership teams a concise overview of the framework, economics, and implementation process of a CEO-led strategic and systematic approach to achieving success through people. (123 pages, $15.99)
The first and most comprehensive book on Enterprise Engagement and the new ISO 9001 and ISO 10018 quality people management standards. Includes 36 chapters detailing how to better integrate and align engagement efforts across the enterprise. (312 pages, $36.)
10-minute short course: click here for a 10-minute introduction to Enterprise Engagement and ISO standards from the Coggno.com learning platform.
• The Engagement Agency at EngagementAgency.net, offering: complete support services for employers, solution providers, and technology firms seeking to profit from formal engagement practices for themselves or their clients, including Brand and Capability audits for solution providers to make sure their products and services are up to date.
• C-Suite Advisory Service—Education of boards, investors, and C-suite executives on the economics, framework, and implementation processes of Enterprise Engagement.
• Speakers Bureau—Select the right speaker on any aspect of engagement for your next event.
• Mergers and Acquisitions. The Engagement Agency’s Mergers and Acquisition group is aware of multiple companies seeking to purchase firms in the engagement field. Contact Michael Mazer in confidence if your company is potentially for sale at 303-320-3777.
Enterprise Engagement Benchmark Tools: The Enterprise Engagement Alliance offers three tools to help organizations profit from Engagement. Click here to access the tools.
• ROI of Engagement Calculator. Use this tool to determine the potential return-on-investment of an engagement strategy.
• EE Benchmark Indicator. Confidentially benchmark your organization’s Enterprise Engagement practices against organizations and best practices.
• Compare Your Company’s Level of Engagement. Quickly compare your organization’s level of engagement to those of others based on the same criteria as the EEA’s Engaged Company Stock Index.
• Gauge Your Personal Level of Engagement. This survey, donated by Horsepower, enables individuals to gauge their own personal levels of engagement.
For more information, contact Bruce Bolger at Bolger@TheEEA.org, 914-591-7600, ext. 230.