The promotional marketing industry has seen 3 defined eras.

Era 1: From the time The Bill of Rights was ratified through ~1999. This was the golden age of printed catalogs with obvious pricing codes. There was a time when you had to search by microfiche to source foam stress relievers in the shape of an @ symbol. Production took 3-4 weeks. And clients gave us business cards to grab their art from.

Era 2: In ~2000, the industry saw the rise of ecommerce. Ecommerce and access to the internet ballooned and gave buyers access to our industry’s “secrets.” In 2019, 4imprint, the ecommerce juggernaut, sold almost $1 billion in branded products. Some distributors went the ecommerce-only path while the majority did not bet solely on ecommerce.

Era 3: Today, we are witnessing the rise of engagement commerce. Engagement commerce means “marrying the efficiency of ecommerce with strategic and creative direction to solve a customer’s problems.” Solving customer problems is the holy grail. It commands stronger margins and fortifies value. If you are not striving to be the next 4imprint, the most powerful thing you can do in a crowded digital space is to invest in what matters most—relationships. You must change your thinking from “customer acquisition” to “relationship acquisition.” And you must work to understand your client’s problems.

Three time periods marking industry milestones. 1789-1999 (printed catalogs), 2000 - 2019 (Rise of E-Commerce), and 2020 (Engagement Commerce).

We used to have intimate, in-person relationships with 40 customers; now, the industry is struggling to recreate those close relationships with 4,000 customers. Intimacy through technology is not easy. And while some buyers just want to make Google their first (and possibly only) call without the help of a trusted source, there are a host of buyers who are craving institutional knowledge about products, badass decoration techniques, logistics insights, best practices and … they are willing to pay a premium to help them address their problems.

So, in order to help solve client problems, we must identify what those problems are. And then, we must deliver answers that motivate – not manipulate them to purchase. Here are some of these problems, ergo opportunities:

  1. According to The Society for Human Resource Management, 19% (!!) of employees will work remotely in 2021. This is the new flexible workforce…How can the promotional products industry help unify employees when they cannot be together?
  2. HR is updating policies at a blistering pace. How can we help HR depts communicate all the changes?
  3. How can we create culture-keeper campaigns to help virtual employees feel connected and cared for? Note: Caring is always a brilliant strategic plan.
  4. How can we help our customers find new customers as well as reach existing customers now and in the future?
  5. How can we help customers plan and execute programs to stay in touch with their clients and help them connect with high value prospects throughout the year?
  6. Marketing’s role is to help the sales team sell more, so how do we help marketers move in that direction?
  7. How can we help reduce a client’s investment exposure and minimize inventory risk?
  8. We must sell sustainable products that last. Anything less is a liability to our client’s brands.
  9. Events have proven to be expensive and time consuming. So, how do we help clients convert budget into something meaningful in an all-virtual or hybrid event model? If we cannot experience events in person, can we deliver event experiences in a box?

And here are some answers and what the future might look like:

Value of Time. If we can better understand the value of our client’s client, we can make a strong case for ROI. Example: Imagine the lifetime value of a client’s client is $150K.  If that’s the case, then why are we suggesting $.99 C-handle mugs with our client’s big, obnoxious logo on them as the gift that is exchanged for spending time with a $150K value target? We must convince our clients that their client’s time is valuable – and that they must invest in the relationship with the gift of high-quality branded merchandise, perhaps with subtle logo treatment. A handmade $70 sustainable Cotopaxi bag is likely a better answer than the ceramic mug that will end up in the back of a cabinet or in Aunt Sally’s garage sale.

A white coffee mug with the text "Your logo not here" and Cotopaxi backpack with the word "versus" in betwen.

Zoom. We must map the new customer journey. “Where are the customer’s touch points?” Before the Zoom. During the Zoom. After the Zoom. We must help clients meet their customers along the way in an appreciative, memorable, and perhaps, a fun, gamifying manner. Otherwise, they will be not be paying attention.

A woman sleeping during work with eyes drawn on to Post It notes and stuck to her glasses.

Direct Mail. The meteoric rebirth of direct mail is happening as you read. As a bonus, 60% of those surveyed by Epsilon said, “Going to the mailbox and receiving a piece of mail provides an emotional boost.” Mail is personal, tangible, interactive, relevant – and if done right, it can be highly targeted to individuals’ specific interests. Direct mail stimulates all five senses. Digital channels only affect three. In the future, direct mail will deliver better targeting, automation, more personalization, right-timing and scale. More analytics and ROI. Less junk mail and LESS environmental impact.

A statistic saying "60% of customers said that going to the mailbox and receiving mail provides an emotional boost."

Marketing In-Person is Tough But… How about merging digital activation with in-person brand experiences? Create memorable brand experiences associated with social media. Marketing is about participation, not promotion.

Text saying "Online and In-Person Engagement Commerce" with a photo of WWE wrestling icon Randy Savage

Design Beyond the Logo. Put yourselves in your client’s shoes. Do they really want a mug with a massive logo of a brand they have never engaged with? Or, do they want a beautiful design or message with a more subtle logo treatment on what will become their favorite mug? The future will include more designers, artisans and creatives in our space. Creativity and impactful design are what clients crave. In the future, more executives will wear tshirts and flip flops as well as don tattoos, colored hair and nose rings at work. Creative entrants in our space will evolve the whole industry.

Two red mugs with the BrandFuel logo and "Find the poem in every moment" written on it and an assortment of Starbucks cups.

Ungettable Gets. I think customers are craving what I call “ungettable gets.” For example, an artist friend reached out and asked me how we could work together. She works in mosaics and I work in plastic things from China. Why can’t we create designs connected to brands in mosaic patterns as gifts? We can! Let’s partner with artisans! Getting – or making – original art versus the same thing for everyone is not only super special, but it allows us to do what I call “kidulting.” To bring out the kid in each of us. That is memorable.

A mosaic of the BrandFuel logo and the BrandFuel logo next to it.

Choice. The future is going to be driven by giving customers a choice of what they want versus what you think they want. Giving every customer the same thing in the future will be a fail.

Hyper-Customization. Love or hate them, Nike gets it. Check out the “Nike For You” online store where you are given an opportunity to choose many of their shoe styles, upload your own design on the shoe panels and your order will be delivered in 2-5 weeks! I believe the promotional products industry is positioned well for this type of brand experience.

Photos of the Nike shoe design process and the final products of two sets of shoes.

Trends Analysis. We must get out ahead of trends. Wayne Gretzky once said something like, “You must sell products that connect where customers are going to be, not where they are.” Imagine if you were the company that bought in early March? Other trends today: exercise, wellness, on-demand, smart offices and workspaces, remote work, social media influences fashion, home as the new domain, learning … and crowd-pleaser, a focus on employee happiness.

Artificial Intelligence. With access to AI we will know exactly what products a certain demographic will favorably respond to. Could suppliers, distributors, clients and search engines work together to cull that data? Imagine a new search revolution where we search beyond product and price. Where we conceivably search for products that 30-35-year-olds, in accounting, in California would really appreciate. So much so, they will give you their time, information and possibly business! This will help the industry tackle the challenges that come with gifting. In the future, there will be personal experience and gifting platforms in our space. This is Quality at scale versus Quantity at scale. Again, the same thing for everyone will go the way of the dodo bird.

The text "imagine a new search revolution where we search beyond product and price. Two crash dummies sit back-to-back next to the text.

Product Life Expectancy. Imagine a future where products have a Life Expectancy statistic associated with them. Where we could tell clients that one mug is $9 and lasts for a year and another mug is $35 but lasts for 10 years. I know where I would invest my budget.

Product page of a 18oz vacuum bottle with its life expectancy next to it.

Sustainability. This matters to our customers, their employees and it better matter to you. Sustainability is the future of our industry. Less crap. More quality. The words “specialties” and “promotional” will be replaced in the future. Maybe our medium will be called “tangible media” or “product media” in the future. [Happy rebranding ASI and PPAI.]

Bài bài la (goodbye) China. Most everything we have learned about our industry’s relationship with China may be wrong for the evolution of our industry. The reliance. The quality (or lack thereof). The knockoffs that drive us to focus on price. The tariff wars. We will source smarter and differently in the future.

The Maker Revolution. Crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter are where we can pull in more exciting entrants and products into the industry. Etsy, as a marketplace of 2.5 million makers, artisans and creators is another answer. New products have always reinforced our industry’s security. But how are distributor’s going to source – or create – in the future? In the future, lines will be blurred as distributors bring products to life and create alliances with suppliers or spin off ideas into retail.

I believe the magic is on the edges of the industry, with niche suppliers like HHPLIFT,  Refresh Glass, Redwood Classics, Love Bottle, Xactly Life…

Text saying "We need a maker revolution" with photos of a milk bottle, backpack, t-shirt, and plant holders next to it.

Location Marketing. Parents are allowing apps to access their children’s information. Where they are, for example! That is scary. In the future, businesses will get even more locational visibility for commerce. Why not let a restaurant know where you are so they can hit you with a drink or dessert special? Buyers will agree to giving up very personal data and to be advertised to if they get something in exchange. Is this INSANE? This is already happening! Hello Facebook and Snapchat/Snapmaps. In a way, this is permission-based marketing. How does that translate in our space? At future events, for example. [Personal note: with 2 teenage daughters, I call SnapChat “Stopthat.”]

SnapChat logo with the ghost replaced with a poop icon. The word "Stopthat" is listed below.

User Feedback. Imagine an app called “PromoTinder” that distributors and end buyers use when suppliers are shopping or creating new products! It would operate like the hook-up app, Tinder. But instead of swiping people left or right who you were (or were not) interested in, distributors and end buyers would actually swipe products to get a sense of what they might buy so suppliers could make better inventory purchasing decisions.

The word "PromoTinder," which is next to two iPhones with a popcorn bucket displayed, with one of the iPhones x'd out.

Corporate Social Responsibility. We must show clients how to take care of employees during a crisis. To look out for the environment. To take care of community. To help them tell their brand’s story with honesty. Buyers are watching and videoing and commenting thru peer to peer reviews. And they care and will vote with their dollars. So, know this – PR stunts often don’t last. Bake Corporate Social Responsibility into your strategic plan and invite staff and customers along for the ride. Check out for more insight.

What is our industry’s role in the world view? How can we better address diversity, equity and inclusion, unifying voices, pride, and activism? Purpose is the 5th P of marketing. Companies must embrace a values-based approach in their marketing strategies. Today’s young, socially progressive customers have shown little hesitation in boycotting brands that they perceive to be ethically questionable. Authenticity and trust, in particular, are proving harder to come by – so we must invest in meaningful relationships.

Text saying "we must reassess our industry's values if we are to remain relevant."

Continuing Education. We need to invest in a deep understanding of our customers – and our customer’s customers. We need to invest in our curiosity through educational courses at and and within communities like

Human Connection.  We must invest in personal relationships – especially in the face of rising digital competition and disruption – in order to not only survive – but to thrive.

Now is time to be a part of paving a pathway to a fruitful future. To create. To source smarter. To open the industry’s doors to exciting new entrants. To focus on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. To offer choice and reduce risk. To get ahead of trends and offer brilliant design beyond the boring logo. To double down on direct mail. To marry digital marketing with physical marketing, a.k.a. “Phygital Marketing.” To better show that we value a person’s data, time or their business. To embrace tech but balance it with a human focus and intimacy.

The future is a verb. Giddy up.

  • Danny Rosin, Co-President, Brand Fuel, 11/2020