Wide-Format Shops Should Consider Adding Promotional Products — And How to Get Started
Promotional products are everywhere. Look around right now and you’ll probably find one — a pen you swiped from the bank, a mug you purchased from your favorite brunch spot, a lanyard you kept from a conference. Most of the time, we don’t even realize they’re there. Or, at least, we don’t actively think about them as promotional products. They’re just products, things we keep and use because they look cool, help us with small daily tasks, or let us show support for brands we love.
This, of course, is their super power. Promotional products are an incredibly effective marketing and advertising medium, largely because they’re so unobtrusive. They’re not an unskippable ad before a YouTube video — they’re items we welcome into our daily lives. There are countless studies and stats that show how well they work. They’re so effective, in fact, that the promotional products industry was generating upwards of $24 billion in annual sales before the pandemic.
If you’re seeing dollar signs, well, you should be. Many of the customers coming to you for wide-format printing are already using promotional products they’re buying elsewhere. Others may not even realize promotional products exist, but could benefit from using them if introduced properly. Either way, the promo segment represents a major opportunity for wide-format providers to become a one-stop shop for customers while growing sales at little or no up-front cost. Sounds good, right? Here’s how to do it.
Understanding the Promo Market
The barrier to entry for selling promotional products is relatively low, which is a good thing when it comes to making the jump from wide-format provider to wide-format-and-promotional-products provider. But there’s a difference between doing it easily, and doing it right. Yes, wide-format and promotional products are both fundamentally ink-on-substrate. And, yes, there is considerable overlap in the customer base for each product type. But understanding how the two product types differ is essential if you want to provide the best service for your customers.
From an artwork standpoint, wide-format and promo are essentially on opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, the majority of promotional products are produced using legacy print processes that require spot color rather than the CMYK typically used in wide-format graphics. And the scale is entirely different. “What can be communicated on a 10-ft. backdrop will not fit on a pen barrel,” says Kevin Walsh, president of Showdown Displays, a promotional displays and signage supplier based in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
In other words, what works for a wide-format product won’t work for a promo item. Wide-format is designed to be viewed from tens or hundreds of feet away. Promotional products are generally viewed up close. It’s an obvious distinction, but it’s a reminder that being an expert in one printed medium doesn’t necessarily make you an expert in another — though it should help reduce the learning curve.
“Your graphic design team should translate well from wide-format to promotional products,” says Mike Brugger, president, Fully Promoted, a promotional products distributor based in West Palm Beach, Florida, whose parent company also operates Signarama. “However, your designer may need time to adjust to the scale of promotional products. Most promotional products only contain a customer logo, and rarely have the four-color immersive graphics that wide-format contains, so it should take them less time to mock up a design.”
Artwork aside, there are important differences in the typical production process for promo items versus wide-format. You’re likely doing most of your wide-format printing in-house on your own equipment. Doing the same for promo has the usual advantages (more control over quality and turnaround time, for example), but it requires significant investments in equipment. With thousands of different types of promotional products and printing methods varying between each type, it’s not always practical — or possible — to identify, purchase, and find room for the right decorating equipment.
Luckily, the promo industry is already structured to accommodate this. Few promotional suppliers sell direct. Rather, they manufacture and decorate products, relying on distributors to work directly with customers to source the right items and match them to their needs. Going the distributor route removes the need to buy specialized equipment or train staff to operate it, and it allows you to better meet your customers’ product needs. You might have the right equipment to print full-color on a water bottle, but what if a customer wants laser engraving on a pen, or dye-sublimation on a can cooler?
“I would strongly advise against bringing equipment in-house,” Brugger says. “I’ve had a chance to visit some of the largest decorators of promotional products in the industry, and the amount of equipment and staff they have is huge. The best thing to do is to work with a promotional supplier or partner with a company that does promotions to get your feet wet in the business.”
This approach allows you to test adding promo without expensive long-term commitments in equipment, inventory, or staffing. You can experiment with products and sales strategies to find what works (or doesn’t work) for you. And, if things are going really well, you’ve got options when it comes time to expand.
“Leverage the scale and capabilities of existing supplier partners,” Walsh says. “As your interest and business grows for promotional products, you’ll have learnings and experience as to what products drive the most volume. From there, you can assess which products — if any — would be best to internalize. Ultimately, this could/should be a mix of both internal and external production based on need/demand.”
How to Get Started
Once you’ve made the decision to add promotional products, how do you actually start selling them? Walsh advises first getting input from customers about how often they’re purchasing promo items already, or even directly asking them how helpful it would be for your shop to handle their promo needs in addition to wide-format. “This will provide you with important intelligence about what to offer,” he says.
After you’ve identified the product categories that make the most sense to offer, start making a list of suppliers that carry those products. (A simple Google search is usually enough, but you can also try free resources like Wide-Format Impressions’ sister publication, Promo Marketing’s, annual Top Suppliers list.) Make some calls, find out what each supplier carries and what services they provide, and ask any specific questions you may have about working with them. Then, narrow down your list.
“Walk before you run, and add just one or two promotional suppliers at first,” Brugger says. “The industry has tens of thousands of vendors, and over a million products, so if you try to work with more than two vendors at once, it could cause chaos.”
From there, you’ll want to start letting customers know you’re now offering promo. One way to do that is to look for creative ways to combine it with wide-format. At trade shows and events, most exhibitors are already using booth displays and signage in combination with promotional giveaways, so there are natural crossover opportunities. Brugger, for example, describes one project where a customer used apple-shaped sticky notes and stress balls to match the apple graphics on its backdrops and display banners. Walsh, meanwhile, suggests interactive components like a bean bag toss game with custom graphic inserts and branded bean bags.
And what better way to advertise your new promo capabilities than by using promos yourself? Creating some samples and handing them out to customers is a surefire way to show what you can do while putting promotional products to work for your own business. It could be as simple as branded pens that act as conversation-starters (“Hey, look what we just had made up”), or it could be something with a larger imprint area that allows you to spell it out right on the product — a travel mug with your logo and the words “We do promo!”
Whichever approach you choose, don’t be afraid to try things, or to ask for help from suppliers. It’s okay to not be an expert right away, as long as you’re committed to improving and going the extra mile for your customers. In most cases, that means treating promotional products not as a simple add-on, but as a missing piece that can unlock the full potential of your customers’ overall print marketing and advertising strategy.
“Your greatest success will occur when considering promo items as part of the overall project concept, rather than bolting on a solution at the end,” Walsh says. “Weaving solutions together with wide-format and promo will encourage your clients to consider you an idea source, rather than just a print partner.”