The takeaway on giveaways

Paul Nolan

You don’t stop daily to notice the calendar you received from your Realtor or the refrigerator magnets from the neighborhood pizza place. But when you need to reach that business, you know instantly where to turn. Marketing strategies have changed drastically over the centuries, but as Paul Bellantone, president and CEO of the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) explains, promotional products have always produced stellar results.

SMM: Promotional products are generally viewed as merchandise that companies put their name on and give away. Is that shortchanging the concept?

BELLANTONE: You cover about 80 percent of it when you talk about putting a brand on something to promote that brand. I like to think of it as any physical product that a company might use to affect behavior. Whether it’s a recognition plaque or a piece of Waterford crystal on one end, or a pen or magnet that may serve as a reminder for a safety program, they all encompass promotional products. The important differentiator between promotional products and any other advertising medium is the physicality of it – the fact that it’s a tangible product that lasts longer than a fleeting digital or traditional ad and affects behavior.

SMM: I think of your organization as a body that communicates with promotional products distributors and suppliers, but not so much with buyers. Is that fair or do you have reason to talk with buyers?

BELLANTONE:While our core membership is suppliers and distributors of promotional products, we do talk to buyers of promotional products because we use research to help them make their campaigns more successful and to educate our members on how to best serve them. We want marketers to know that promotional products work. We want them to see our research. We want them to see how promotional products work in stand-alone campaigns and in conjunction with other media. So we actually have aggressive outreach. We speak to buyer groups and marketers regularly.

SMM: Are buyers interested in your research findings?

BELLANTONE: They are. We ask people who purchase the products what they want from their promotional products consultant and they tell us, “Give us case histories. Tell us how they compare to other media in terms of expenditure and cost per impression, and give us some best practices for using the products.” That’s the information we take from the buyer and train our members on..

SMM: It sounds like promotional products buyers are as interested in strategies as they are in the products.

BELLANTONE: Absolutely! Anybody can go anywhere and buy a logoed product, whether online, direct to a manufacturer, or they can buy products at retail and have them decorated. That’s the product side of our industry. The part that excites us and that we communicate to our members is the value is added in explaining how to make these campaigns perform. It’s just a pen if it carries a logo and it’s delivered to somebody. It’s more than a pen if it’s given out in the right way to the right people and it carries the right message. I tell our members that suppliers sell product, distributors sell purpose.

SMM: So like any other sale, the rep is expected to bring value in addition to the product.

BELLANTONE: It may be that online is the best way to buy a particular product in the promotional products world, but that’s generally a price-driven decision and it’s when the customer is already absolutely positive of what they want. I tell buyers that price should only be the deciding factor when value is equal to zero. When all things are equal, maybe it is OK to go to retail. But when are things all equal? When it has to be delivered on time to the right people with the right message and it has to be product safety compliant – all of the things that could potentially go wrong – those are the times when promotional consultants bring value to the table.

SMM: Has the role of the promotional product changed over the years?

BELLANTONE:  The purpose of promotional products has had the same staying power over the centuries; how people are using them is what is changing. PPAI has been around since 1903. I think the use of promotional products predates that by a century and a half. They are ubiquitous and they always have been because they are useful items and people keep them for a long time – one of our recent studies shows between one and four years. Also, promotional products give brands access to personal advertising space they can’t buy. As ad avoidance becomes more prevalent in the digital space, marketers are looking to promotional products to help them gain access. Promotional products create a relationship with the person you are trying to reach. You’re actually putting something in their hands and they’re saying “thank you.” Promotional products consultants actually help a company target who gets the product, when they get the product, where they are going to carry the product, or where in their office or home the product is going to be. If you want something with your company’s logo in a kitchen, we can get it there. If you want it in the car, we can get it there.

SMM: Has the role of the promotional products rep changed?

BELLANTONE: It has. The advent of technology has resulted in our industry exploding because promotional products are much more accessible to so many more businesses that never worked with a rep before. It’s also made the rep more valuable. Promotional consultants now have to prove their value with every purchase. The profession is becoming more sophisticated;  more business-like; consultants are learning how to reach and educate their buyers in different ways; while incorporating technology that they have never had to incorporate before.

SMM: Has online availability endangered the role of the rep?

BELLANTONE: If a promotional consultant is only selling based on price and procurement of product alone, those consultants are at risk. Those that are putting together strategically designed creative campaigns – talking about cost per impression, and ROI, talking about product safety and compliance  – they’re actually benefitting from the technology. We’re finding that more of them are being successful by offering an omni-channel full service approach. They are still giving the face-to-face service that their traditional buyers might want, but they’re also offering online convenience for a whole new generation of promotional products buyers.

SMM: How are buyers who don’t have an existing relationship with a promotional products rep initiating one?

BELLANTONE:We have a website called that gives them an opportunity to search for promotional consultants in their area by ZIP code. They will also find research and case histories to guide them along the way. Some of the best referrals are by word-of-mouth. And a lot of them are finding resources online.

SMM: You present a pie chart each year breaking down use of promotional products by category. Does it change much from year to year?

BELLANTONE: The rankings change, but the products that get ranked are generally the same. Wearables is by far the largest category, and it’s been the largest category since we’ve put out the list. Then you have writing instruments, drinkware, bags… the next four may change order, but they tend to remain in the top five. We also monitor fastest-growing products. Clearly, those are on the technology side, whether it’s cellphone chargers or cases for phones, jump drives or an iPad case. That continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments of our industry.


SMM: Are there misconceptions about promotional products that you find yourself trying to clarify?

BELLANTONE: I think there is some misconception that you have to spend a lot of money on a promotional product in order for it to be successful. There is compelling research that tells us that the refrigerator magnet is as effective as the notepad or the piece of crystal or the watch depending upon how you are using the product. One of my favorite promotional products is a pizza cutter that I was given 10 or 12 years ago. It still sits on my counter. It probably cost somebody a buck or two to give to me. Meanwhile, I have received some very expensive promotional products that friends, family and co-workers have disappeared with along the way.

SMM: Are there benefits that people don’t realize come with promotional products?

BELLANTONE: They are personal, they are distributed virally, they can be highly targeted, people keep them because they are useful, and they break through the clutter. It’s the only advertising medium that people say “thank you” for when advertising your brand. They are the only form of marketing that touch all five senses allowing the consumer to own, keep or share the brand experience.

SMM: Has there ever been an industry that isn’t right for a promotional products?

BELLANTONE: (Long pause) Wow. I’d be hard-pressed to think of one.

The PPAI website can be found at