Recently, we shared a presentation at Skucon in Las Vegas that outlined the Was, Is, and Must Be for the Branded Merchandise Industry. We shared hilarious old-school stories of yesteryear, talked about where we are today and crystal balled the branded merch industry’s future. Here is the entire video plus some of the highlights….

WAS Sell everything to everyone.
IS A focus on B2B sales in specific industries through every department, better understanding how our medium can be a solution to our client’s challenges.
MUST BE If you want to choose your future, you’ve got to choose your customers. Also, there will be blurred lines between business-to-consumer and business-to-business selling. More B2B orgs will create playful, limited edition, corporate-branded pajamas and sell them out at retail prices, and the profits will support nonprofits.    

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WAS We sold things to make money.
IS Selling creatively and strategically. And therefore, making more money.
MUST BE Consider this for the future. Your client wants to give a gift to their customer. If you knew that your client’s customer brings them a lifetime value of $150K in profit margin, why are we selling our customers $.99 C-handle mugs that will end up in the back of their customer’s cabinet or in a garage sale? That is 0% ROI and 100% BrandFill. There must be a focus on tools and products that deliver quantifiable ROI to customers.    

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WAS The most successful sales archetype was the Relationship Builder.
IS The most successful sales archetype is The Challenger.
MUST BE The most successful sales archetype must be a mix of the digitally literate and data-driven, highly empathic, ethical storyteller who understands fashion trends and delivers value through consultative selling. [Good luck with creating a job description for THAT next unicorn of a sales hire]

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WAS You could make a pretty good living taking orders and selling “stuff” tactically.
IS You better start looking for another career if you can’t sell strategically.
MUST BE In our commoditized industry, you must differentiate or die. Be an original.  

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WAS The phone would ring, and clients would order “stuff.”
IS Order takers are losing the game, unless they own a massive e-commerce engine, invest heavily in marketing and SEO, and sell products at the lowest common denominator – cheaply. For non-ecommerce orgs, selling is much more complicated and remains very competitive.
MUST BE Buyer behaviors and decision-making will begin to shift towards purchasing from trusted vendors. Trust indexes and certifications will be a part of how customers find distributor agencies. These trusted agencies must invest in conversational commerce technology which will make communication efficient, personalized, and give 24/7 access via AI tools.  

WAS There were high error rates with suppliers, and they often did not have your back when the sh!t hit the fan.
IS Distributors and suppliers are focused on long-term relationships through alliances where issues get addressed equitably for the most part. Social media and rating systems create checks and balances. MUST BE AI-powered visual inspection systems will scrutinize products, helping meet client-expected quality standards – and, as a result, will elevate our industry.  

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WAS Distributors going overseas meant painful communication. Going overseas meant extremely long turn times, currency exchange issues, risking your client’s order and your relationship with them.
IS There is a more efficient and accessible model for buying overseas where you bypass traditional sales channels. And it’s a dirty distributor secret.
MUST BE Distributors will embrace new suppliers who have invested in production around the world that can ship in a few days, with as few as 1 item, that can be decorated beautifully on sustainable products that are consistent in every global market.    

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WAS Turnaround times were 3-4 weeks – if you were lucky.
IS Many suppliers offer 24-hour production. It’s like a unicorn. But real.
MUST BE There remains a desire for instant gratification through convenience and production. And yet speed takes the place of giving our industry time to consult and be creative. When we begin to trade for convenience, we also surrender our creative right brain and much of our humanness as well. Think about that.  

WAS Our industry’s greatest competitor? Ourselves. Anyone could sell logoed stuff. Our industry was full of “drop the same catalog off in every office park” trunk slammers who sold ad specialties as supplementary income and whose sales pitch was to beat the lowest price. And that approach devalued our medium.      
IS Our industry’s greatest competitor: digital gift cards. [Also, here’s a public service announcement for you about gift cards: never ever, ever buy gift cards for “your boss” who emails or texts you, requesting you to purchase them for her urgently. So many scams.]  
MUST BE You either ride or die with digital transformation. We will see more digital platforms, digital experiences, and digital products tailored to individual interests – all of which will be associated with AI-driven analytics. There will be new, on-demand custom curated products that today’s buyers can access directly without our industry’s sales channel.   

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WAS The hottest products were carabiners, stress relievers and can coolers.
IS The hottest products are from retail and … can coolers???? What’s even better? Retail products that are also sustainable.
MUST BE The hottest products might not be products. They might be experiences, or investments in mission-aligned nonprofit partnerships to elevate brands. If they are products, they are products that don’t feature the old school, maximum imprint area, logo-slap. They do feature designs that mirror the recipient’s interests. they are artisanal and where possible, locally made.

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WAS It took forever to bring retail brands into our market. Retailers didn’t learn about or invest in a long-term relationship with our industry. So, many left.
IS When ASI asked what the “Product of 2023” was, guess what people respond with? “The Stanley 40 oz. Tumbler.” Our response was, “The Retail Brand.” We have done a much better job recruiting and retaining retail brands. This helps validate our industry. Let’s keep that up!
MUST BE Technology will drive more retail brands, but they will deliver highly personalized, on-demand, custom-made gifts that focus on the recipient, not the giver.    

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WAS There was no regard for product safety. We had zero access to point of manufacture. We hoped and prayed we did not get sued.    
IS There are whole conferences dedicated to Product Responsibility. PPAI has made that a core pillar for its strategic plan. And product testing is a hot topic with CPSIA compliance being critical to safeguard the industry’s reputation.  
MUST BE Corporate Social Responsibility will be a part of every strategic plan and purchasing requirement. We believe PPAI will require members to have sustainability education credits so we can all speak that language confidently, proudly, consistently and intentionally. #SustainabilityAware  

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WAS Every event you attended had cheap giveaways with in-your-face corporate logos, adult trick-or-treaters, and lots of waste.
IS A more thoughtful and targeted approach to quality products, minimizing BrandFill, and tracking ROI.
MUST BE This one is more of a concern, where there is a movement afoot. A “Less is More” approach is being activated. Late last year, Microsoft proudly posted signs at a major event that read, “This is a swag-free event!” And people celebrated. We are seeing a shift towards anti-commercialism and anti-materialism! This is an existential threat to our industry.      

WAS Marketing was based on telemarketing, word of mouth, and a steep investment in stamps associated with an overabundance of catalogs.
IS Marketing is about relatable voices, participation and promise, not just promotion.
MUST BE Trust will be more valuable than attention-getting tactics. Marketers understand that their customers want a company that cares about them, their employees, and the world’s issues. Empathy Marketing will create stronger relationships and reputations. AI tools will deliver deeper customer insights that will equate to higher lead conversions. Brands will need to invest in creating online and offline communities where customers can connect, share ideas, and support each other.  

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WAS Everyone received the same advertising specialty item, no matter the demographic. The max imprint logo-slap (on both sides) reigned supreme!
IS Some recipients are given a choice of product options that appeal to them versus what you think appeals to them. Sadly, clients are still choosing “Max Logo Imprint” on what they think are gifts but are really advertisements. We are seeing that even the most boring merch can be effective. We all know those $24 retail-priced ceramic mugs actually cost, and the margin is impressive. This is a good thing! Thankfully, design and messaging versus logo-slaps are more prevalent.
MUST BE New platforms will emerge to personalize a customer’s experience with our industry. They will get to choose the product AND, choose the design they want.      

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Bobby Lehew, the industry’s poet laureate, said the following: “Merch is becoming more and more the ultimate social signifier. Merch is delivering more ways for us to convey our tastes, moral sentiments, and even our political opinions.”    

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WAS You spent a lot of money with local artists and waited a long time for creative design.
IS Creativity has been democratized. Hello Canva.
MUST BE Everyone will be a creator. There will be more tools accessible to more people, which equates to more productivity, which yields more impact. And please remember this as you foray into being a creator: creativity that is effective moves us. It makes us feel something. It calls us to action.    

WAS We searched for products on Microfiche which consumed hours of our lives we’d like to have back. IS Clients do the preliminary searching for us and they send us links. We then make recommendations by filtering searches in SAGE and ESP.   
MUST BE AI will upend search. Customers will be able to shop for the hottest selling 5 products, under $20 that can be printed with a full color design, by next Friday, distributed in Brazil, to a demographic of 25–35-year-old males, who love Funyons and kite surfing, who have nightmares about global warming and work in the field of marine engineering. [pause] Products will also have a life expectancy designation in search. Those stats will help us challenge clients to buy sustainable products that last.

WAS We’d add top-selling industry products into stores and hope they sold. Distributors owned their client’s merchandise and assumed much of the risk. Companies sold their branded ad specialties to their employees. This was a horrible time in our industry.
IS Companies that sell their branded gear to their employees suck. We all agree that branded merch should be given to employees. We are also more focused on getting departmental buy-in and creating an exciting product offering that is associated with company event calendars, promotions, and employee recognition. For the most part, clients own their own merchandise in their stores, diluting the risk for the distributor.  
MUST BE We are not advocating for this but on-demand platforms will cut into the inventory model’s market share. There will be more personalized shopping experiences. AI will help analyze browsing habits to make recommendations. Chatbots will get better, decreasing the need for human customer service. That said, AI does not have soul. But you do.  

WAS Top-down Capitalism. (all about owners)
IS Bottom-up and Top-Down Capitalism. (both about the owners and taking care of staff)
MUST BE Bottom-up and Top-Down Conscious Capitalism will be most effective.  

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WAS There were pensions for long-term employees. People drove the same routes to the same job for 30 years… in a row.
IS Is loyalty dead? Employees no longer pledge allegiance to the firm. HubSpot says the average tenure for a sales rep is 18 months before they leave for another company or career. Ruh-roh.
MUST BE In the future, we will see more gig economies, continued remote and flexible work, plus work-life balance will continue to overtake the in-office, estranged, “Thank you for working #431” hollow employer sentiments. There will be a battle between efficiency and privacy. Incognito tools will track productivity. Smart offices, AR/VR, wearable tech, AI-powered surveillance, geolocation tracking RFID, and computer monitoring will create an unhealthy tension with ethics.

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WAS Leaders created culture through office foosball tables and unlimited Jolt Cola and Zima in the company fridge.    
IS Leaders struggle with culture in remote, flex work environments. Leaders get staffers to be productive by way of 3 methods: coercion, motivation, or inspiration. Inspiration is the one to aim for.
MUST BE The next frontier of leadership is a framework for conduct and morality. Leaders must rethink how to govern, hire, and operate. Decision-making must support stakeholders as well as shareholders. Leaders must reshape their businesses to scale culture. Culture must be a priority for moral leaders. Moral Leaders must do beyond what is required legally. They must do what is inspired. They must have an “above and beyond” philosophy. Leaders won’t just run a business anymore. They will affect lives. They must invest in their employee’s well-being. And a company’s values should guide all decision-making. Trust must be the currency of leaders – and that will drive loyalty. The HOW Institute for Society Report stated “88% of employees say moral leadership is more urgent than ever, but only 12% of CEOs and 16% of managers consistently demonstrate top-tier moral leadership.” That’s tragic.

This is time for an infomercial for becoming a B corporation. Brand Fuel proudly did it and we invite you to join us. So that you too, can have a stronger moral compass and create an even more caring company. And in doing so, you will elevate the entire industry.

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We must continue to challenge our clients to think differently about our industry and to show value. We must leverage our physical medium in a growing digital world. We’ve got to be attracted to “difficult” and continue to invest in R&D. There is margin in “new” and in mystery. We must put an emphasis on being trusted partners, on deeply understanding our customers, and on sustainable and quality products – We can’t settle by selling crap even if it pays for our kid’s braces. Doing so damages your and your client’s brand as well as the industry’s reputation. Today, we are seeking scale and efficiency. Tomorrow, we will be seeking meaning and scarcity. Meaning and scarcity. How does that translate to you?        

Our industry is not facing an enemy. It is facing a shift in values. We must build on our industry’s role and its potential in the worldview. We must help unify voices, build pride, and stimulate activism. And while we don’t claim to be Promostradamus with all of this, thinking about our industry’s future is an important exercise. We need to dream BIG and take charge of our future. The question is – what are you going to do about it?  You’ve got this, friends.  

What an incredible lineup of thought leader speakers at Skucon 2024. Bravo!

Mark Graham, Danny Rosin, Catherine Graham, red couching.

Thank you Mark & Catherine Graham and Bobby Lehew (not pictured) for inviting us to speak.

ps For listening-only pleasure, here’s the Skucast podcast!