Resources for the Promotional Products Industry
Is Your Self-Promo an Immersive Experience? Or Swag in a Box?
This sad little self-promo song plays out in our industry, every day:
Distributor or supplier pitches a cool product for a self-promotion item.
You slack your pals, “Hey, wouldn’t this be a cool product for a self-promotion?!” and everyone agrees.
Distributor places an order, slaps their logo on it. Maybe even tastefully. Perhaps pairs it with another equally cool item.
Then, sources a box, makes it plush with some crinkled paper.
And as a pièce de résistance, adds a generic note with some copy (same-message-to-everyone) that all will receive.
And finally, ships it to everyone in their database who has a pulse.
It’s a very product-driven, product impulsive experience. It’s triggered by product, packaged around product, and if there is a story being told with this self-promotion campaign, then the hero of the story is the product.
It even evokes a very product-like response from the customer when they receive it: “Hey, how much is this product?”
And when we get an order for the product, we think we’ve won. And we did. We won an order. Sometimes a nice order.
But while we were winning an order, we were simultaneously losing something far more valuable.
Let me explain:
As a former distributor, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen and shipped it all. We’ve shipped small coffins to prospects on Halloween. Hand-delivered custom art on etched champagne bottles to clients. Gifted handheld color TV’s to prospects. Delivered personal wardrobes of the client’s branded gear in leather overnight bags. We’ve done viewmasters. Monkeys in a barrel. T-shirts that light up the night as we walked around SXSW.
All of it was clever but very little of it created an enduring, emotional bond.
Moreover, it wasn’t unique that we could source, imprint, and ship a highly creative product. In fact, today, that’s table stakes. It’s what we do for clients, all day long. It’s our job. And our client -and the recipient- isn’t concerned at all about how hard it is for us, how the logistics can be a nightmare, how it can be a pain in the ass to get all the pieces working right.
The client only cares about the experience. And you, with your self-promotion, should likewise care about the experience.
A product makes an impression. A brief, momentary impression. But an experience initiates a conversation, it makes your audience lean forward and listen to what you have to say as if you were whispering secrets of the universe to only them and they don’t want to miss a single damn word.
As an example, let me introduce you to Driftaway.
As the recipient of a lot of swag over the years, I’ve got a high bar for cool campaigns, so I can be almost impossible to please when it comes to the merch that crosses my threshold. But I recently received a birthday gift from my brilliant and fun colleagues here at commonsku. (Note: I don’t “do” birthdays - stick in the mud, all around, I say that to emphasis again - not easily impressed).
But this was different. Very different. It was a gift from a coffee company called Driftaway Coffee. And it wasn’t just a box containing a 1lb bag of coffee and a mug with the “Driftaway Coffee” logo on it.
Rather, it was a journey, a story, and a multimedia educational experience in a tiny little box. Here’s how it unfolded:
It was intriguing: When I first handled the box, I noticed it was small, nothing noteworthy, except, printed on the outside of the box was the phrase “Take time to smell … the coffee.” In a Covid-cloistered world, I felt like this was both a clever tag and permission. I was intrigued by the mystery of the message.
It was all-about-me: When I opened it, nestled inside were four small bags of different varieties of coffee and on each bag was a number, a color, and my name - on each bag.
It was inviting: Pasted on the inside box lid was a label with an invitation with my name and a personal message from my team that said I had been gifted a Driftaway coffee subscription, and it invited me to a coffee tasting.
It was personally tailored: The allure attracted me to visit their beautiful website and enter my code to set up my experience. They were careful to note that this initial batch of coffees in the box was a wide variety but that on the website, I could use their tasting profile tool to select future coffee releases according to my preference.
It was easy-like-coffee-on-a-Sunday-morning (sorry): On the website, it pre-populated my address, asking if that’s where I wanted to receive my aromatic joy in the future, and I confirmed with “oh yes I do” and I then received a reply that all was well for my caffeinated future.
It was educational: Inside was an envelope that said “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL YOUR COFFEE TASTING,” which I ignored and promptly ripped open. In the envelope were small postcards that corresponded to each small bag of coffee (color-coded) and on each card was an image of the coffee producer for each bag, as well as the roaster’s notes, and a QR code that led me to learn more about the story behind each coffee producer/farm.
It was multi-sensory (physical + digital): At the bottom of the box was another small, clear cellophane bag with coffee in it that demonstrated to me which grind size I should dial-in for my grinder, and on the cellophane bag was a QR code that invited me to a calendar, showing me when the next coffee tasting would be, which, of course, is a live tasting on Instagram.
This wasn’t merely a one-and-done gift. Nor was it a briefly impressive, flash-in-the-pan advertisement.
It was an experience that invited me to take a journey. It shared with me a story. And gave me an education. Every detail was intentional. It kept me guessing and exploring. It was a continuous opening of a gift that never seemed to end - all in one tiny little box. And the kicker is, it wasn’t that expensive.
But mostly, it wasn’t about the advertiser (Driftaway), nor my colleagues at commonsku, it was all about me.
And yet at the same time, it was actually all about Driftaway and my colleagues at commonsku because it was an experience from both of them that I’ll likely never forget. Is it possible to bond with more than one brand over a box of product? (I think you know the answer to that).
All those multiple touchpoints in this experience: from the tactile to the digital, plus the personalization (which we can all do through variable data printing) and the continuous gifting (which we can all do through shops) engaged and inspired all my senses and created something interactive and unfolding. It wasn’t a promotion that shouted at me when I opened the box, it pulled me into an immersive experience.
Our product hasn’t changed as much as we like to think. There’s better product in our industry now, cooler brands, more sustainable items (thankfully), and more decorating options. But every product -no matter how ingenious or cool it is- is still a blank canvas waiting for an enterprising artist to create their art. Every product in our industry is a bonding experience waiting to happen.
When I said earlier that all of this hard work we put into these complex campaigns is just part of our job, I’m not making light of our work, and how hard it is - it is hard.
Rather, I’m pointing out that our emphasis is too heavily weighted on the wrong part of the job: We’re so concerned and obsessed about cool product and executing flawlessly, that we fixate most of our energy on the item and the logistics rather than the experience.
It’s like we’re holding a powertool but we’re holding it by the wrong end.
It’s more vital now than ever, to amplify our self-promo game because our audience has changed, extraordinarily so. In a post-2020 world, where we are now shipping innumerable kits to homes, the expectations for the product we ship to customers is at an all-time high. While we’re shipping the newest, coolest product in the same ole’ self-promotion packaging, our audience has moved, their expectations have elevated.
I recently recorded a skucast episode with the brilliant Rhys Bowman at Name Brand Promotions and I loved a statement he made, he referred to a campaign they were building for Sony as a “3-part story.” That perspective is what our customers require now. They want to be immersed in an experience. Moved. Challenged. Involved. Inspired. Educated.
Let’s not let the campaigns-in-a-box that we’re shipping to clients’ homes become the next brandfill*.
And of all the marketing tools in our toolkit, our biggest opportunity now is with our own self-promotion campaigns, we should lead by example and demonstrate to clients how it’s done. This ingenious industry can do that. When we do, we won’t just get an order. We’ll create an unbreakable bond with clients that will create a flood of orders. Moreover, we’ll elevate what we do in a way that not only earns immense respect from our clients but expands their minds by showing what’s possible. And we’ll inspire our teams to rise to the level of our ingenuity.
*h/t to our friends at Fairware that coined that word.