A Learning Experience
We all have those recurring school nightmares. For some of us, it’s a dream that you’ve gone through a whole college semester, only to realize you’ve been missing one class and it’s too late to make up all the lost work. Maybe you’re stuck in a high school exam you didn’t study for. It’s terrifying.
But going “back to school” in the business sense doesn’t have to be scary. Even if you’re doing something new, like incorporating promotional products into your business to appeal to the education vertical, there’s no reason to be afraid of the unknown.
That is, of course, if you’ve done your homework.
Bring Your Supplies
We can practically hear our teachers’ voices scolding us for coming to class unprepared. At minimum, students should always have a pen and pencil with them. Use that as a good place to start when you’re thinking about what promotional products educational institutions are looking for.
“Being in the writing instruments sector for so long, one of our top five vertical markets we produce for is the education sector,” Melissa Bettua, director of sales for HPG Brands, says. “They are a huge purchaser of writing instruments, and guaranteed reorders because of that.”
Pens and pencils are, unfortunately, finite, and easy to lose. Also, there will always be kids asking to borrow one and never returning them. So, Bettua says that writing instrument orders can be as frequent as once a quarter to even once
Writing instruments also create an opportunity to kit together paper products, easing the transition from strictly working in print to working with promotional products, too.
“What I always say to people who have a print background is that pen and paper go really well together,” Bettua says. “You don’t have to reach too far into your back pocket to think of a creative way to sell your print customer on promo. The great thing is that they’re built in, so start by pairing something with your existing product line. Pens are the type of items that transcend a lot of barriers. It’s not like an apparel piece. There’s no sizing requirement. It’s good for selling in any season through any vertical market.”
Look Beyond Just the School
Your first instinct might be that a school is the primary buyer in the education category. That’s not wrong. Schools play a huge role here. But there are tangential categories related to education that also look for promotional products. Going from kindergarten all the way up through college, promotional products play different roles in a student’s lifestyle.
For colleges, Bettua said that products that would be at home in both elementary schools and college bookstores do well — things like kitchen and houseware products, coolers, and lunch totes.
“If you break down education, you can look at it in several different ways,” she adds. “There’s elementary education and high school. You have college, and that could be people using promo for recruiting, new student onboarding, [and] to promote events and clubs. We see lots of projects for alumni associations as both items of everyday use, or as donor and sponsor gifts as well. The list does go on.”
Mark Jaroszewski, vice president of global sales for Soardist, remembers at his own high school how parents’ associations were present at school events, and often needed branded products.
“A school always has events,” he says. “Where I went to school, we had the father’s club and the mother’s club, and each one was their own entity, but they’d be at each and every sporting event for sure. Nowadays, a lot of schools and colleges, they have those things set up on site.”
Those groups are often looking for products like table throws, tents, flags, and signage, products that Jaroszewski says aren’t far from what a lot of print professionals are already used to working with.
“For a large-format printer, I’d say start with a tent, because they certainly have some sort of familiarity with the print process and the way that it works already,” he says. “That’s something they should feel comfortable talking about first and foremost.”
From there, he says, incorporating basic apparel like T-shirts or sweatshirts is a logical progression.
“We do custom printed apparel,” Jaroszewski says. “We do custom homecoming shirts, we do team gear, we do a full line of bags, too. The things that we sell are easy to be applied to the lineup in a bookstore. A custom hoodie or a custom polo for a school. We have tote bags; we have fanny packs — these are all things we can do customized.”
Wherever you start, Jaroszewski says, try to perfect a few products before jumping in too fast and trying to specialize in too many things.
“People hear ‘promotional products’ and they get overwhelmed,” he says. “I think it’s smart to start with one or two products, where they can move into it.”
He remembers a lesson he learned from observing another successful business completely separate from the world of print or promotional products: In-N-Out Burger.
He was eating with a coworker and used the burger chain to prove a point.
“Look at their menu — single, double, fries, shakes — that’s it,” he says. “Every time we order, doesn’t your food taste exactly the same? He said, ‘Yeah,’ and I said that’s because they take the time with the ingredients, and they make sure it comes out exactly the same.”
With that in mind, he stripped his own business’ website offering from about 200 products to just 30.
“It worked,” he says. “We can build it back up again, but let’s get really good at this handful of products. Let’s be known for consistency and our quality. And if you have a good quality product, the rest is easy. You make it harder for people to not buy from you when you offer them a good, consistent product that is reasonably priced. You have a customer for life.”
Using some of these promotional products that you’ve added to your business’ offering, create self-promos to advertise yourself to potential clients.
“I know a lot of print companies have a lot of foot traffic so to speak,” Bettua says. “Some of them are franchises with storefronts, and they have a lot of walk-in business, where other areas of the industry might be selling in more of a digital format. I think the people who are focused on print have the advantage of being more in a client-facing atmosphere, where they can easily hand someone a product. Items like lip balm – that’s something that fits in the palm of your hand, easy to walk out the door with. Someone’s going to pick up that product and utilize it every day. It’s going to go in their cupholder. It’s going to go in their purse. Again — same thing with a pen.”
Whatever products you decide to add to your print business, whether it’s writing instruments, notebooks, flags, tents, apparel, backpacks, or table throws, the key is to work with products that you know are of a high quality and are things that the end-user will ultimately use. Maybe they’re the students, or the office workers, a PTA organization, sports team boosters, you name it.
But whatever you choose to do, don’t overwhelm yourself. There’s a reason advisors in college tell you to only take a certain number of credits per semester. At a certain point, you’re in so many classes that you aren’t retaining any information. Specialize in a few things at first and do it well. From there, you’ll start having repeat orders and a reliable stable of buyers. You can branch out from there. But just like you wouldn’t go from elementary school math to trigonometry, you need to focus on every step of the way.