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 July 1, 1999

Ad specialties industry grows as firms compete for customers

They’re small, they’re big. They’re “wearables,” “little pieces of plastic” and “swag.” They hold your keys, open your bottles, cradle your computer’s mouse and keep your coffee hot.

Those in the industry of selling them call them either advertising specialties or promotional products, but the important thing is that they are covered advertisements and they are free. They are the reason that you haven’t had to buy a T-shirt in many years. Ditto for key chains, bottle openers, mouse pads and coffee mugs. Advertising specialties are the gifts of business.

The sales of these items to businesses make up a steadily growing industry that, having more than doubled in the last 10 years, brought in nearly $12 billion in 1997, according to Promotional Products Association International.

The question of why businesses want to advertise this way is answered by Natalie Townes, director of education for the ASI Show! The show is the sister group of the trade organization Advertising Specialty Institute, a business that was created to put vendors together with manufacturers.

“Companies are having to account for advertising dollars,” she said. “This takes the place of hard-to-track mass marketing.”

Selling advertising specialties is the perfect business for those who aren’t interested in running a large operation and who don’t want to have to deal with a lot of inventory.

Bruce McDuffy, owner of Proforma McDuffy Agency in Louisville, said those who represent the products are like distributors without inventory. The inventory, made by companies all over the world, is typically displayed in catalogs and given to independent distributors to use as sales tools. There are 250,000 items available for a business imprint, according to the Advertising Specialties Institute, and what’s available for imprint is always changing.

Maxine Brand said it’s because “everyone has everything. So yours (your giveaway or promotional product) has to be better.” Brand runs the Boulder office of On Target Marketing, a 7-year-old Overland, Kan.-based company.

She said her approach to the business is “extreme customer service,” which includes helping businesses put together marketing plans. Brand says new items available as promotional products are more technical and colorful. A dye-injected polychloride vinyl material, used for key chains, is moving into wider use and allowing the customers multiple color options at low cost. New mouse pads give potential customers places to insert their photos or note pads. A mouse pad made of leather is available. Another mouse pad is strapped to your knee, so you don’t have to stretch out your arm to point and click.

Businesses can buy a clock that holds their logo encircled by replaceable note paper where appointments can be written in at the appropriate times. Kinder, gentler stress balls are coated with a silky cloth and contain a squishy gel.

Key chain puzzle games are big. Sunglasses that contain a company’s logo that can be seen only from the wearers’ perspective (but look perfectly normal otherwise) are available. Sponges made into cells phones and computer discs the size of business cards that contain information about a company can be ordered.

Millennium-themed items including calendars, clocks and coffee cups are also available. Having things to give out that contain a businesses name means nothing if they aren’t memorable. Don King of the Longmont-based Pro Products is helping a local newspaper with a campaign where they send out 1/8-ounce bottle of hot sauce and talk about their “hot deals.” The 18-year-old company helped a restaurant put a kids’ menu on a giveaway balloon.

“You can get your name on everything you can think of,” King said. King said there are at least 2,200 suppliers in the country. King’s business includes salespeople throughout the state and in Nebraska, Wyoming, California and Arizona.

While anything with a surface could hold a business name, wearable advertising is the fastest growing part of the advertising specialty market taking 30 percent in the last five years, according to Advertising Specialty Institute. McDuffy of Proforma McDuffy Agency has noticed the trend.

“It’s mostly polo shirts, caps and jackets and mostly embroidered, not screen printing,” he said. Orders for the things he sells aren’t usually lower than $150 but can go as high as $15,000. He said the more expensive imprinted items are usually gifts companies give to employees such as an engraved hammer provided as a safety award. But whatever it is, the item should fit the customer.

“If they are in their cars all the time, a seat belt cutter that could be used in the case of an accident is great for insurance companies (to hand out),” he said. “Then the insurance company’s logo and name are all there.”

Proforma is a franchise operation with 400 locations in the United States and Canada.

They’re small, they’re big. They’re “wearables,” “little pieces of plastic” and “swag.” They hold your keys, open your bottles, cradle your computer’s mouse and keep your coffee hot.

Those in the industry of selling them call them either advertising specialties or promotional products, but the important thing is that they are covered advertisements and they are free. They are the reason that you haven’t had to buy a T-shirt in many years. Ditto for key chains, bottle openers, mouse pads and coffee mugs. Advertising specialties are the gifts of business.

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