The Evolution of the Promo Industry

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2020 has been a year like no other and will undoubtedly change the future of the promotional products industry. With a 200+ year history, it’s worth taking a look at where our industry has been and where it is going as the most effective form of advertising for any business. (1)

Thanks to George & Jasper

The first promos on record in the U.S. were commemorative buttons used during George Washington’s election. Their success led to the development of other useful promotional items like calendars and wood items like rulers, but the industry as we know it today wouldn’t be born until the 19th century.

Enter Jasper Meek, a newspaper owner who also took on job printing on his press between editions. Meek approached his friend, Mr. Cantwell, with the idea of imprinting burlap bags with the message “Buy Cantwell Shoes” after seeing a child drop her schoolbooks. A bag was given to every child who came into the store and soon the message was seen all over town as kids walked to and from school. Eventually Meek founded the Tuscarora Advertising Co. and sold ad specialty items with practically no competition for years.

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In 1904, 12 promotional products manufacturers agreed to form the Advertising Manufacturers Association. This group would eventually become the Promotional Products Association; holding conventions, designating promotional products as a legitimate advertising medium and creating uniformity in terms and trade practices. (2)


Continued Gains

In more recent history, the promo industry saw steady growth for over a decade with Distributors regularly describing the industry as healthy, competitive and steady.(3) With the growth in popularity of retail brands and consumer preference for higher-quality, attractive and useful items, the perception of promos shifted from low-cost giveaways to products people undeniably wanted to keep. 2019 even saw a new annual record for industry revenue of $25.8 billion.(4) Then, along came Coronavirus.

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The Test of 2020

The promotional products industry has faced challenges before (remember ’02 and ’09?) and recovered well each time. However, this time things feel different as most social events have disappeared and almost every industry has felt the devastating impacts of COVID-19.

According to ASI’s State of the Industry report, over a decade of growth in our industry has been wiped out this year. But we agree with ASI that our Distributors are up for a comeback challenge. After all, we’re #ReboundReady! It will be exciting to see how promo adapts, changes and persists to come out of this latest challenge stronger than ever.


Looking Ahead

We’re all waiting to see exactly how the promotional products industry will evolve. But the trends, popular categories and processes that have persevered over the last year are probably here to stay. At least for a little while.

The Power of PPE

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71% of Distributors and 66% of Suppliers are selling PPE as a result of the COVID-19. (5) The category has sustained many businesses through the crisis and doesn’t look like it is going anywhere soon. At first items were needed to protect essential workers and industries. However, in just a few months everyone from retail shops to professional sports teams were providing imprinted PPE for their customers. This shift is transitioning personal protective equipment from industry/situation-specific to brand-building promos suitable for almost anyone.

If you aren’t going the PPE route, these categories have also seen a rise during COVID-19:
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It’s Time to Embrace Tech

Shutdowns in the spring forced many businesses to embrace new technology – and fast. From remote work to skyrocketing eCommerce transactions, technology helped keep people connected and companies in business throughout 2020. Video conferencing, virtual trade shows and digital collaboration platforms are being used more than ever before and many businesses plan to keep these practices in place moving forward. However, personal relationships are the driving force behind creative success in the promo industry, so our future may see a more virtual/in-person hybrid environment. (6)

Use Past Lessons to Build a Profitable Future

The industry has faced challenges before, so we can use the lessons we learned back then to survive and thrive. Here are a few tactics Promo Distributors can use to get through this difficult time and build a strong and successful future as our industry evolves. (7)

  • Use social media, your tried-and-true methods, out-of-the-box thinking and your (possibly newly-discovered) virtual expertise to keep prospecting. Plan ahead, use all your options and follow up to be sure your efforts are effective.
  • Avoid having too many clients in only one industry or region. A diversified client base spread across several markets can help overcome weakness if any sector is struggling.
  • Even if purchasing promotional products may not be on the table for a client, it’s still important to prioritize your relationships. Connect, build bonds and provide added value instead of just selling. Small actions can show you care and can keep you top-of-mind when it is time to buy.

How is your business evolving? After this challenging year, it’s more important than ever to look ahead! Visit bicgraphic.com for thousands of creative promotional product solutions to help brands get noticed in 2021 and beyond.


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©2020 BIC Graphic NA, Clearwater, FL.

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