It’s time to start kicking ass again. That wasn’t the case in 2020, which delivered a swift blow on the collective tuchus of the promotional products industry. Overall sales revenue last year was projected to drop by 25%. The only reason it wasn’t worse is that distributors showed remarkable poise by rapidly adapting to the changing marketplace and quickly adopting new product categories, including PPE.
Now, with a new year dawning, ambitious distributors are sick of being in survival mode. They’re ready to start prospering again – on their terms. While so much remains agonizingly uncertain, that’s not stopping hard-hustling firms from crafting and implementing proactive plans for making 2021 a success. With the right amount of planning, tenacity, creativity and confidence, these distributors are intent on having their best year ever.
And guess what? You can too.
To get there, here are top sales, marketing and operations strategies that will make 2021 a new peak for your business.
Aggressively prospect and build relationships to thrive in 2021. Hustle with purpose. If anything, that sums up the approach promo sales professionals must take to generate success in 2021. From digging into recent sales numbers to uncovering hidden opportunities to stepping up intelligent, focused prospecting, distributors are going to need to put themselves out there with renewed vigor. Trust us – the effort will pay off. 1Forecast Strategically Dive deep into customer sales reports from the last 12 months with a mind for trend spotting and projecting what each client might spend in 2021. “Going through the annual forecasting exercise, we often spot trends with certain customers or industries, which gives us motivation and something to build a plan around for the new year,” says Joseph Sommer, president of New York City-based distributor Whitestone Branding (asi/359741). He adds: “Because of the rapid change last year, you probably had customers who you never expected would grow to become top clients. Those customers should tell you something about the change in the market. If you consider why they were successful and what they bought, that should give you an indication as to what companies similar to them will also be buying.” 2Ramp Up Prospecting Amid the tumult of the pandemic, some sales pros found prospecting more difficult and retreated from the practice. Now’s the time to get back to it. “I’m committing to doing more prospecting to reach new customers and to remind existing clients and prospects I’m here,” says Nicole Baker, an account executive with Top 40 distributor American Solutions for Business (asi/120075). “Business needs are evolving, so someone who may not have wanted to work together in the past may be more open to it now. Or, maybe they’re realizing that to stay in the game they need to get creative with their marketing, and that’s where I can help.” Managers and C-suiters should build accountability and support into prospecting. “Our entire sales staff will be engaged at some level in communicating with prospects and will be responsible for a specific conversion rate,” says Bob Lilly Jr., president of Garland, TX-based Bob Lilly Promotions (asi/254138). “We will likely add several appointment-setters as well.” 3Be Human As you go about prospecting, empathetically connect with clients on a human level – something that’s become even more important during these hard times. “People like doing business with people they like, so I’m going to build my network that way and let the business follow,” says Baker. Having the right human touch includes striking a balance between being persistent and tactful. “Be assertive and be top-of-mind but don’t be annoying,” says Bill Feldberg, EVP of business development at Nashville, TN-based distributor Something Inked (asi/329822). “Not everything has to be a video call or meeting. Many times, a simple check-in text to a client goes a long way.” 4Diversify Into More End-Markets Expand your customer base by adding clients in more verticals that have significant sales potential. “If your sales dropped in 2020, perhaps your client base was lopsided – too many customers in hospitality or education, for example,” says Mike Brugger, president of Florida-based Top 40 distributor Fully Promoted (asi/384000). “Actively pursue other verticals so your business cycles will be smoother. No one customer or vertical should kill your business.” “The silver lining of the COVID environment is people want to hear our strategies and learn what other clients might be doing. Never have we had such a captive audience.” 5Dig Deeper Into Current Accounts Work your existing relationships to penetrate more deeply into current quality accounts, perhaps earning a referral from a contact in a corporation’s human resources department to a contact in marketing, for example. Nurture relationships with existing clients, too. As part of this strategy, The Icebox (asi/229395), an Atlanta-based distributor, plans to focus on higher-volume customers. Sales pros should “leverage technology (like quality CRM solutions) to stay organized about keeping in touch with top customers at a regular cadence,” says Icebox President/CEO Jordy Gamson. The lack of face-to-face time with clients isn’t slowing salespeople down. More than half (52%) have found video and phone calls to be just as or even more effective than in-person meetings. 6Know Leading Clients’ Calendars The Icebox has a good grasp on the marketing and event calendars of its top clients. Team members begin strategizing six months or more in advance of leading customers’ expected in-hands dates to hone tailored solutions for the initiatives. Emulate this approach. For The Icebox, it’s helped secure client loyalty, ensured customers get curated creative products and taken the pressure off buyers. “Start the conversation early and drive the process the entire way to execution,” says Gamson. 7Work Your LinkedIn Network Sales pros at firms like North Carolina-based distributor BrandFuel (asi/145025) will be implementing a “peer-to-peer” strategy on LinkedIn, reaching out directly to contacts on the platform to see how they can help potential clients or others in their networks. “While we could potentially strain relationships, we think this will be effective because we have hopefully earned a 22-year reputation as a company with both integrity and marketing success,” says BrandFuel co-president Danny Rosin. 8Step Up Your Zoom Game Meetings that might once have been held in-person will continue to occur as video calls on Zoom and other similar platforms, even after the pandemic subsides. “It’s part of the new norm, so invest in making your Zoom presentation as professional as possible,” says Noel Garcia, managing director at Austin, TX-based Top 40 distributor Boundless (asi/143717). This includes being adept at the technical elements of the platforms and creating a physical space that will present the on-camera image you desire. 9Become a True Partner This starts with listening. “We need to ask more detailed questions about our clients’ 2021 marketing plans, goals and challenges – and then really listen to and understand what they’re saying,” says Brandon Kennedy, owner/president of California-based Proforma Progressive Marketing (asi/300094). “That way, we can maximize our position as a strategic marketing partner.” Doing this could lead to opportunities that extend beyond just promo and PPE. “Your clients will lean on you, especially during desperate times, if they trust you as a real partner,” says Garcia of Boundless. “You’ll become entangled with their business and have more opportunities to prosper in areas you might not have considered, whether it’s providing actual products that support their business and what they sell or other needs, such as warehouse services.” 10Help Clients With CSR & Sustainability Sustainability and corporate social responsibility will continue to grow in importance. Come up with creative ways for using promo to advance CSR/sustainability goals, and to promote customers’ achievements in this arena. It’s something BrandFuel is doing. “There’s a movement we align with to help focus on caring for employees, the environment and supporting the nonprofit sector,” says Rosin. 11Do the Tried & True Continue to put long-standing smart sales practices into play. Qualify prospects. Ask satisfied customers for referrals. Network everywhere, from formal in-person or virtual networking events to the kids’ soccer games. Make sure everyone in your circle knows what you do. Understand your sales cycle and plan accordingly to keep income as consistent as possible. Stay in touch with – and show empathy for – former clients who might have lost their jobs during the pandemic; they’ll remember that when they’re in a new position. “Follow up with clients who may have ordered once and offer them new ideas,” advises Feldberg. Additionally, thank customers with handwritten notes. Learn the channels through which each client prefers to communicate – phone, text, email, Zoom or maybe a combination of these – and go with that. Crucially, recommend solutions, not just products. “The silver lining of the COVID environment is people want to hear our strategies and learn what other clients might be doing,” says Ed Levy, president of Chicago-based distributor Edventure Promotions (asi/186055). “Never have we had such a captive audience.”
A new age requires new approaches to attract more qualified clients. Digital marketing strategies already mattered tremendously before there was a pandemic; in 2021, they’re basically mandatory, and everything from implementing a winning content marketing plan to strengthening your social media presence should be on your agenda. Still, it’s not all about the internet. Promo product-driven direct-mail campaigns, among other real-world initiatives, remain essential for creating success. 1‘Use Promo to Sell Promo’ Baker, the ASB sales pro, plans to orchestrate clever self-promotions powered by promo products, including solutions that she would like to sell to customers. “Use promo to sell promo,” Baker says. It’s important to consider the times and get the tone right in your initiatives. Baker praises certain themed gift packages, such as the Taco Tuesday Night Gift Set from Top 40 supplier Gemline (asi/56070) with its apron, tote and taco-related food stuff, as good items to leverage. “It’s perfectly timed with all of us at home because of the pandemic,” she says, “and creates an experience around my brand for the client and their family, which helps keep me top-of-mind.” Many smart distributors are taking a similar approach. Some are focused on sending clients work-from-home kits. Others are keying in on creating brand-in-a-box direct-mail initiatives they hope clients will want to have created for their own organizations. Many are also formulating mailed self-promotions that feature a combination of promo and PPE. 2Strengthen Your Social Media Presence According to The Harris Poll, half of U.S. adults were using social media more this past spring during the pandemic, which underscores the fact that prospects are going to check you out or even discover you through social media. Be active on platforms where your customers are, sharing content that’s relevant to them and positions you the way you want to be perceived by those audiences. “Having informative content on our company’s LinkedIn page, an up-to-date Instagram feed, and a heavily populated Pinterest board has helped us convert prospects and stay in touch with loyal clients,” says Sommer, the Whitestone Branding president. “In 2020, we had multiple prospects compliment our Instagram, saying that was a reason they returned our call.” 3Elevate Your Content Marketing Game Content marketing isn’t about hard selling or in-your-face product-pushing. In 2021, make your content pop with stories – human narratives, not just dry information recitation – that speak to the pain points of different market verticals you serve, advises Colleen Heikka, chief marketing officer at Minnesota-headquartered Top 40 distributor ePromos Promotional Products (asi/188515). Videos and written case studies featuring testimonials from happy clients should be part of this effort. “Content marketing is one of the most effective ways to engage with your customers, develop a strong brand identity and increase sales – especially in B2B environments,” says Melissa Ralston, chief marketing officer at Top 40 supplier Koozie Group (asi/40480) – formerly known as BIC Graphic. “A consistent, high-quality content program will show off a distributor’s promo authority and build trust as customers are moving from survival mode to recovery mode.” "Content marketing is one of the most effective ways to engage with your customers, develop a strong brand identity and increase sales – especially in B2B environments." 4Implement a Sound Digital Advertising & SEO Strategy The way Joshua White sees it, “there’s huge opportunity if one can master the art of digital advertising of promotional products.” A growing number of industry companies are awakening to the reality articulated by the SVP of strategic partnerships at Top 40 distributor BAMKO (asi/131431) and they plan to intensify their digital advertising/search engine optimization efforts in 2021. With the help of an expert consultant, for instance, Whitestone Branding is delving into the arena for the first time, using Google and Facebook advertising and SEO strategies to target its geographical area. Recessions don’t come along that often, but when they do, one thing’s clear – companies that continue marketing and invest in their business fare far better than those that cut all spending. Percentage of sales increase for companies that advertised aggressively during a recession compared to those that stopped advertising. 5Deliver Great Digital Experiences Good SEO and a smart digital advertising strategy will only work if you can provide prospects with great digital experiences once they hit your website, landing pages and social media accounts. Deliver that experience with things like an updated, informative, easy-to-navigate website and a responsive social media presence. “It’s important to show clients the same level of care when they interact with your brand digitally as you would during an in-person interaction,” Ralston says. Make sure your entire web presence is coordinated and on-brand. “We’re currently refreshing our website, along with our social media marketing,” says Lilly Jr., president of Bob Lilly Promotions, “to create a unified branding strategy that’s about selling solutions.” 6Exhibit at Virtual Trade Shows Participate as a vendor in virtual trade shows that cater to niche markets in which you’re eager to score clients. “With the shows being virtual, we expect to get more bang for our buck with lower prices for exhibiting,” says Sommer. “The fortune is in the follow-up. I believe this will be effective, since many buyers will be evaluating their vendor list and be open to changing.” 7Host Targeted In-Person Events The Icebox plans to hold several invite-only experiences in its showroom, spotlighting potential solutions for a particular client while treating them to catered food. “Only having one client allows for post-COVID protocol and social distancing to be complied with,” says Gamson, an Icebox executive, “while allowing us to give the customer a high-level individual experience.” That’s expected to help generate more business.
Last year turned the work world on its head, but nimble distributors found ways to adapt. They’ll have to do so again in 2021, evolving to account for everything from COVID-influenced offices, work-from-home practices and increased threats of cyberattacks to establishing the physical and technological infrastructure necessary to compete and meet clients’ changing needs. The only constant is change, so be prepared for it. 1Focus on Warehousing & Fulfillment Infrastructure With demand for kitted and drop-shipped orders soaring because of the COVID-rearranged world, adaptable distributors are focused on forging tight relationships with reliable kitting and fulfillment partners – a phenomenon expected to accelerate in 2021. “We’ve started relationships with several fulfillment centers,” says Whitestone’s Sommer. “We plan on strengthening those and starting more relationships with similar businesses.” Some of promo’s largest companies are bulking up their internally owned warehousing and fulfillment capabilities. “It empowers us to win and service major national programs,” says BAMKO SVP White, noting that the distributorship is investing $10 million to upgrade technology and facilities at its flagship Eudora, AR, warehouse. 2Enhance Cybersecurity With cyberattacks from ever-more sophisticated digital criminals on the rise, a robust cybersecurity position will reduce the likelihood of a successful hacking and help distributors win business from high-spend clients, says Dale Denham. “Proper cybersecurity helps you avoid the cost of downtime by preventing an attack, but it also can and should be leveraged to grow revenue,” says Denham, senior VP/chief information officer at Lewiston, ME-based Top 40 distributor Geiger (asi/202900). “Larger clients are demanding secure systems and putting significant penalties in contracts for when security fails. Many millions of dollars will be won based on proper cybersecurity.” Getting security right includes a strong tech architecture, constant adaptation from IT professionals to protect against emerging threats, and continual employee education. 3Be Set Up for the COVID Work World By 2021, distributors should have strong systems and protocols in place for handling the continued reality of the COVID-impacted work environment. This can include having the necessary technology and protocols to make working from home a success (video and digital communication apps, cloud-based tools and more), as well as implementing onsite practices and initiatives that prevent the spread of the virus. The Icebox, for instance, is running on a schedule that includes both work-from-home and in-office hours, while the firm’s office itself has been transformed to reflect the post-coronavirus reality. “This includes new socially distanced furniture and HEPA filters,” notes Gamson. Signage about social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitization, as well as hand sanitizer dispensers, should figure into offices and production environments as well. "Many millions of dollars will be won from larger clients based on proper cybersecurity." 4Stay Conservative With Expenses While it’s important to make the necessary investments in cybersecurity, marketing, personnel and more to keep your business competitive, it will also be important for many industry companies to keep a firm control on costs as the pandemic presents ongoing challenges. Know your cash flow numbers and what your essential investments must be, and then belt-tighten accordingly without squeezing the air out of your business. 5Initiate Integrations This year, Bob Lilly Promotions is planning a full integration between a popular CRM software and the distributorship’s ERP and e-commerce platforms to more efficiently engage with clients who use the CRM. Once that’s done, the distributorship intends to onboard several more enterprise CRMs. “The ability to automate the customer engagement process inside the CRM environment will create efficiencies and ROI for our customers,” says company president Lilly Jr. In 2021, more distributors should consider taking a page from that playbook and integrate with customers – as well as suppliers. “It brings immediate value both in efficiency and a better experience for everyone,” says Denham. There are initiatives underway to establish supply chain integration standards in the promo space, including efforts like PromoStandards. Meanwhile, ASI has launched OpenASI, a technology initiative that encourages industry firms to embrace standards for sharing data. 6Seek Out Automation Beyond integration, distributors should automate other aspects of their operations where possible, Denham asserts. “It can be very small, such as saving a user two hours a week by automating a repetitive task, or very significant, such as leveraging artificial intelligence to make decisions on when to replenish inventory or even responding to clients’ requests instantly,” he explains. “Regardless, when done right, automation has immediate payback” in terms of service levels, efficiency and cost savings. 7Strengthen Vendor Partnerships Even more broadly than integration, leading distributors say they plan to deepen relationships with important suppliers and other vendors to improve workflow and service to the end-customer. For some, this will include expanding their direct-sourcing footprint overseas. “We’re going to place a heavy focus on developing supply chains throughout Central and South America,” notes White. Rosin adds that BrandFuel will be “fine-tuning overseas decoration and distribution relationships so our international clients see us as a single-source partner.” 8Perform a Tech Audit In 2021, the Icebox plans to review and upgrade its technology systems. Companies across promo should do the same. You don’t need the Lamborghini of every tech application, but you do need up-to-date programs/systems to compete and protect your business. “We’ll be upgrading our CRM software,” notes Levy of Edventure Promotions. Tech advancement should include finding ways to deliver improved e-commerce solutions to clients, particularly online store programs, for which demand is rising. “Custom e-commerce sites for specific purposes have been driving significant sales growth and simplifying the process for customers and sales partners alike, including the ability to handle large batches of individual orders,” says Denham. “We’ll continue to invest heavily and expand these e-commerce efforts.” These digital initiatives can be more targeted and short-term as well. For example, BrandFuel plans to ramp up its online store program with “‘lighter-weight’ options, like pop-up shops and MOQ sites,” explains Rosin. 9Consider LTL Carriers When orders are large enough to warrant, distributors could save on shipping costs by using less-than-truckload (LTL) freight brokers. Says Rosin: “It’s a way to claw back some of the markup that some suppliers are putting on ground and expedited shipments.”