How to Make your Promotional Products Business Stand Out

For aspiring entrepreneurs and salespeople, the promotional products industry is a pretty great place to build a business: It’s a $22 billion industry, growth is steady, and most people need what you sell.

This is the good news.

The bad news is that the industry is extremely competitive, barriers to entry are low, most people have access to the same products, margin pressure is real and your clients can source direct on the internet.

In this guide we will give you the tools and resources to help get your promotional products business off the ground and stay 2-steps ahead of the competition.

Contents:

Identify a target market or niche
Research your competition
Find your unique angle
Create your own brand identity
Curate your own product line
Think how you can go beyond the product
Use modern technology to run your business
Marketing strategies
Industry resources and tools
Summary

Note: When we refer to promotional products business, we are specifically referring to a distributor versus a supplier. A distributor refers to a company that sells products and concepts to end clients. Look for another guide on how to start a supplier company down the road.

Identify a target market or niche

It is so much easier to start a business when you understand the needs of your target customer. This may sound obvious, but the trap that many new (and experienced) distributors fall into is the “I can get any customer any imprinted promotional product” trap.

Resist this urge. Stop and focus. It may be easy money in the short term, but you will pay the price down the road.

Here are some things to consider when identifying a target market:

 

  • What are you passionate about in life? Is it yoga, photography, camping, hockey, technology, music, dogs, kite surfing, knitting … you get the drift.
  • Look at your network. What sectors do your friends work in? Call them up and interview them about the challenges they experience in their business lives. Look for opportunities as this will help you build your value proposition when you enter the market.
  • What types of people do you want to be around all day? The best clients are those who share your worldview and want to see you succeed. Do you want to spend time working with clients who cause you stress? Paint a picture of the perfect personality type and then target those people. You will always do your best work for people you like and respect.

 

If you can answer these questions, you will have a clearer view of the market you want to serve.

Let’s go through an example with a fictitious distributor named Sally. Here’s how Sally might go through this exercise to determine what market she might target.

1) What are you passionate about in life?  

Sally is a big music fan. She attends festivals throughout the year and is always up on the latest trends in the music industry.

2) Look at your network  

Because of her interest in music, Sally is friends with a few people who work at some smaller music labels as well as a number of friends who are in bands themselves. She calls them up and asks them a few questions about how they currently use promotional products in their marketing.

Note: this is not a shameless sales call, rather it’s a research call to find out: (i) how they use promotional products at the moment, (ii) who they buy from, (iii) why they buy from their current vendo, (iv) what gaps exist.

3) What types of people do you want to be around all day?

In Sally’s case, she likes to be around creative right brained people as that mirrors her personality. This is not to say that she has to run the other way when faced with a left brained client, it just means she needs to work harder to connect.

Research your competition

Your true competitor is not the generalist promotional distributor that sells anything to everyone. Your competitor is the distributor that sells into your market already.

Do a quick Google search for “promotional products XYZ target market”

Ask any friends of yours where they currently buy promotional items (this should be part of the information gathering I mention in point #1)

 

  • How have your competitors positioned themselves in the market?
  • How are they differentiating themselves?
  • Are they competing on price?
  • Are they competing on design?
  • Are they competing on product selection?
  • What’s their silver bullet?
  • Where are they weak compared to you?

Find your unique angle

Why are you starting this company? What makes you different from the competition? Why should anyone buy from you over the competition?

It’s important to remember that customers naturally put their vendors into a box. This can be a bad thing, but if you are unique enough, that box is your angle. That’s your goal.

While “competitive prices”, “creative ideas” and “great service” are important elements to have in your business, these are table stakes for any business today in the promotional industry. You need to go further.

Ask yourself these questions:

 

  • How do I stand out from my competition?
  • What opinion do I have about my client’s business?
  • What problem is your target audience grappling with?
  • How do you want your customers to remember you?
  • Do I understand my client’s business objectives?
  • Do I know what keeps my client up at night?

 

If you can clearly answer these questions, then you are well on your way to having a unique angle for your business.

Create your own brand identity

It is essential you create a unique point of differentiation in the marketplace. The trap many distributors fall into at the beginning is they take the easy path and sign up for a service with a white label site with a generic product catalog that looks like everyone else. This is seductive because it costs very little money and takes almost no effort.

Don’t do this.

Take the time to create your own brand. Armed with answers from Points 1-3, you should now have a pretty decent understanding of who you want to serve. Build a brand that caters to this audience. Some things to consider:

  • Pick a distinctive name that people will remember. If you can find a name with a standalone url, even better. The industry is currently littered with bland and forgettable company names. Stand out from the crowd!
  • Hire a designer to help create a brand identity for your company. This brand identity should be consistent across all of your materials (website, promotional materials, marketing collateral, etc). Treat this designer as an important part of your team.  Get them invested in your vision.
  • Ditch the white label product sites. Build a case study, story centric site using a tool like Squarespace, WordPress or Wix. Your designer will also be able to help you.

Focusing on case studies and solutions you have built vs showcasing generic product catalog on your site will keep you from having to compete against deep pocketed e-commerce promotional products distributors. Remember, the generic product catalog is available to all of your competitors for very little money. Take the path less traveled and showcase your own ideas. That can’t be copied.

Some great examples to look at include Fairware, Buzztag,  Anthem Branding.

Curate your own product line

Armed with an understanding of your target audience, you now have an opinion on the kinds of products that appeal to your customer base. Now build a collection of ideas that will resonate with your customer.

Ask yourself these questions as you source products:

 

  • What story can I tell my client about this product?
  • How will this product help drive business for my client?
  • Does this product fit into the worldview of my client?
  • Will my supplier have reliable stock of this product throughout the year?
  • Can I share potential sales volumes of this product with my supplier so I can achieve preferred pricing?

 

Roger Burnett has written a few brilliant posts here and here on this subject of having a focused product line.

Think how you can go beyond the product

While it’s important to remember that you make money as a distributor when you sell products, it’s also important to think beyond the product as you differentiate yourself in the eyes of your customer.

The advantage to thinking this way is that you open up two revenue streams: (i) for the service and (ii) for the product. As a bonus, the product sale now becomes part of the package and can’t be shopped around as easily.

Examples include:

 

  • Graphic design services

 

 

  • Fulfillment and kitting services
  • E-commerce stores
  • Content marketing and social media services
  • Event planning
  • Selling complementary product lines like packaging or print products

 

Overall, what you are going for here is a consultative based approach where you dig deep into what they are trying to accomplish. Sell your customers an ROI on their promotion, don’t just sell them a cheap widget.

Use modern technology to run your business  

When RIGHTSLEEVE  was started in the late 90s, all of our customers, vendors, presentations, orders and invoices were managed through Excel, Word, handwritten PO’s, Quickbooks and a filing system. It was a joke, but it was a joke that worked at the time. It was all also desktop software so information could only be accessed at the office.

As RIGHTSLEEVE grew, we built our own cloud software solution to solve our sales workflow challenges. This software was spun out as a separate company and became commonsku.

Whether you choose commonsku or another business management solution on the market, here are some things we learned in our journey:

  • Select a 100% cloud based software solution. This will allow you to work anywhere, on any computer (PC and Mac). It will allow also give you a platform to grow if you add employees in other parts of the country or world.
  • Product research software is important, but is less important than it was 10-20 years ago when it was harder to find suppliers. If you are taking a focused approach to your business, then your product line and suppliers will be focused and curated too. Don’t run your business searching for products all day long. The best distributors are already on top of product trends, they’re not solely relying on search engines for ideas. If you need a product idea, try searching on Google or Pinterest
  • Off the shelf software can work well if you are prepared to customize the workflow yourself. Off the shelf software does not often tie the promotional products workflow from beginning to end, thus requiring multiple systems.
  • Make the switch to VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). This will allow your phone calls to go through the internet rather than traditional phone lines.  The major benefit of this is that your phone can be with you not only when you are in the office, but anywhere there is WiFi.

Marketing strategies  

Content marketing has quickly become an essential part of the overall marketing strategy for today’s most successful brands.

The key to great content marketing is having good, quality content. This is made that much easier after you have completed the steps above. Armed with a target audience, a point of differentiation, a curated product line and a strong brand, it’s so much easier to present yourself as a thought leader and create appealing content to draw in prospective clients.

Here are some other marketing ideas to explore:

  • Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn are the most high profile social sites and represent great opportunities for you to build a community around your company. Once you have that tribe/community, you create a wider moat around your business
  • Blogging: Create your own blog on Squarespace or WordPress and publish topics relating to your business. You could also look at guest posting on partner blogs or even look to publish on blogging platforms like Medium where a built in audience already exists.
  • eBooks: like blogging, there are many advantages to creating an eBook. They’re mobile, inexpensive to create and distribute and provide value to potential clients. You can also collect leads easily by creating a landing page with a form that is required to be filled out before the eBook is delivered to their inbox.
  • Podcasting: If you like to interview people and tell stories, you might connect with your audience through podcasting. Podcasting tools are very easy, it’s preparing the content that takes the time. To produce commonsku’s podcast,  we use a Blue Yeti mic, Zencaster to record, Soundcloud for publishing and work with a freelance editor to clean up the files.
  • Public speaking: Create a presentation on trends or some other macro topic that will help your audience be more successful in their line of work.

Industry Resources and Tools

Knowledge is power in the promotional products business. It’s critical to invest in ongoing education so you can stay in touch with trends, product information, and what’s happening in the industry.

Free Resources:

commonsku’s Industry Social Network: commonsku has the industry’s largest social network that caters exclusively to distributors and suppliers. This is a great resource for professionals looking for help with projects, new ideas and new connections across the industry. The social network is free to join for distributors and suppliers.

PromoKitchen: Promokitchen is a non profit organization devoted to education and mentorship for the promotional industry. It’s a great resource for new and experienced industry professionals alike. PromoKitchen features content via its blog, podcast and offers mentorship opportunities through its mentor program.

DistributorCentral: DC is a solid option if you are looking for a free product search engine. There is no downside to signing up if you are looking for a quick and free way to find products and suppliers.

PromoMarketing: Like DistributorCentral, PM is a free search database with hundreds of thousands of products. It’s a good resource for distributors looking to see what’s available without any cost.

Top Industry Blogs for Distributors: Check out this list of fabulous industry blogs that are geared towards distributors.

commonsku blog: This is where you will find range of articles and podcasts on how to run a modern promotional products business.

Paid Resources:

PPAI – the industry’s largest non profit association. PPAI offers education, trade shows, a search engine (through SAGE) and publishes a popular industry magazine (PPB). While the base membership will cost you a little under $1000/year, there is ample value here for a new business getting into the industry.

Regional Associations: Affiliated with PPAI, there are several regional associations that cater to distributors and suppliers in the smaller markets. They are quite affordable and offer educational and networking opportunities with other professionals in your immediate market.

ASI – the industry’s largest for profit industry trade association. Like PPAI, ASI offers education, a product search engine (ESP), trade shows and publishes their own magazine (Counselor). The cost for a basic distributor membership is about $50/month.

In the spirit of transparency, commonsku has business relationships and integrations with ASI/ESP, PPAI, SAGE and DistributorCentral.

Summary  

Like any business, building a successful distributorship takes time, patience and lots of hustle. We have found that when a distributor takes a focused, disciplined and brand-centric approach to their company they end up creating a valuable business that goes well beyond what the owner-salesperson’s book of business. They end up creating a defensible business where business comes to you, strong margins are maintained and your customers can’t live without you.

Now that’s something to be proud of.

Here are some other resources offered by commonsku:

  • Our Guide to Creating a Modern Office
  • Our Guide to Growing your Team
  • Our blog is full of business resources, sales and marketing tips and industry updates
  • Request a demo of commonsku’s business management software to help you save time, sell more, and simplify your processes