3 Key Elements That Make a Promotional Products Company Great to Work For

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“Because we actually give a shit about the people we employ.”

That’s what Andy Thorne, President of UK-based distributor Outstanding Branding said when I asked him why they made Promotional Product Business Magazine’s (PPB) Greatest Companies to Work For list. PPB is the official publication of PPAI (Promotional Products Association International) the largest trade association in the $21 billion dollar promotional products industry.

Skeptics think these lists are just about marketing, marketing for the magazines, marketing for the companies that make the lists. But most of these lists (including PPB’s) require anonymous feedback by employees: peers and colleagues must rank their employer worthy enough to qualify.

The PPB list featured 60 industry companies: 19 suppliers, 39 distributors, and two service companies. What are the common threads woven throughout the companies that make a “Best Place to Work” list? We spoke with a number of companies to uncover what their secrets were in making the list. What we found were 3 common threads that emerged.

1. Fun

This theme repeated itself consistently across all the interviews we conducted. Jeff Sampson, Founder and President of Elevate Brand Marketing stated that the fun starts from the very beginning, during hiring and onboarding.

“We do a little extra during the hiring process to make sure candidates have the ability to think critically and have an appropriate personality for our team,” Jeff stated. “For instance, we scatter deliberately provocative verbiage in our job posting and can judge a lot about personality by the cover letters we get in return.” Elevate’s job postings include:

  • Willing to work long hours with minimal complaining (whiners have to clean the fridge).
  • We offer paid vacation and holidays and we’re closed on Ranger’s Opening Day and May 4th – if you don’t know why you may not be a fit for this position.
  • Qualified candidates will be invited to a personal interview and possibly a dance-off (either the Macarena or the Chicken Dance).
  • Email us your resume AND references (inquiries without BOTH items will be ignored or set on fire during our weekly pagan rituals).

The promotional products business is a fun and creative industry, using humor in the recruiting process helps ensure Elevate attracts team members with the right chemistry to be successful at their company.

commonsku is one of only two service companies who made the industry list. When I first joined commonsku six months ago, laughter was something I noticed immediately. The software business is an open office culture. It’s serious work: squashing bugs, developing, testing. Everyone is heads-down and hard at work. But I noticed that they laughed together. A lot. Not derisively, at each other, but with each other. Even the developers, who have an intense job and who are perceived as being cerebral and solemn (which is far from the truth) laughed heartily. Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines calls this, “serious fun.” This cultural barometer of humor eased the fear looming in my mind about whether or not I would like the environment and my new colleagues. Smiles and laughter convey far more about a company than most people realize.

2. Autonomy

Laughter is only possible when colleagues respect one another and regard the respective roles each person plays as stakeholders in the business. Dan Edge, National Sales Manager for Peerless Umbrella, said that “We try to give everyone the space and freedom they need to do their job the way they see fit. Quality and Customer Service will always be our top priority, so it’s important that no matter how you go about getting the job done, you do it with that in mind … everyone operates at a different pace, and their results will speak clearly in the end.”

Jeff Sampson with Elevate Brand Marketing agrees, “Once we get the right people, it’s about setting expectations, providing necessary resources, then getting out of the way. As managers, we hold our people accountable but let them do their jobs with as little oversight as possible.”

3. Flexibility

Autonomy implies the third characteristic: flexibility. If trust is the emotional undercurrent behind all good working relationships, then it quite naturally leads to more flexible work environments.

This flexibility is possible due to a core of guiding principles that help orient each employee toward making the right decisions. Southern California supplier Goldstar also made the Greatest Companies to Work For list. Howard Cubberly, General Manager, said that “Goldstar has some typical SoCal things like free coffee bars and Yoga classes several times per week, but really it is about building a team atmosphere around a common theme of ‘Simplicity’ which is our customer commitment that differentiates us as the easiest industry supplier to do business with. Since we began this effort more than two years ago, Goldstar has experienced consistent double-digit growth. This has fueled a great positive energy that all employees want to be part of and created an organic culture of service and relationship building with our distributor customers.”

Regarding flexibility, Jeff Sampson stated, “First, we give clear direction, empower our employees to accomplish goals and then get out of their way. Second, we don’t have a paid time off policy. Our employees work flexible hours and can take time off whenever they want for however long they want (as long as client responsibilities are handled). Combined with fair pay, an opportunity to advance, and profit sharing and you’ve got a fun workplace with plenty of reasons to stick around for the long haul.”

Andy Thorne of Outstanding Branding stressed four key values that provide the foundation for their business: respect, understanding, creativity, and professionalism. Here’s Andy discussing their principles and how it allows for a flexible work environment:

Fun, autonomy and flexibility are three major threads that hold together the fabric of a company’s culture. Are they the only threads? No. But the fact that these shared characteristics are prevalent among many of the greatest employers means that we can use them as barometers for the health of our own companies. John Mackey of Whole Foods Market states it as an imperative, “If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.”


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Also published on Medium.