June 21, 2021

Latable du Moulin

Think Marvelous Computer

Inspiring Tales from the Pandemic

14 min read

It was over a year ago that the pandemic first pushed promotional products companies to the brink. To survive, distributors and suppliers had to adapt and get creative. They made new products, serviced new markets, even launched completely new business models. In short, they reinvented themselves.

ASI Media is celebrating that resourcefulness with “Reinvention Week” – a series of stories that honor promo’s ingenuity and explain how to stay agile in the face of future challenges.

It started with bacon, grew into barbecue and ultimately bloomed into an all new business channel during the worst pandemic in 100 years.

That’s the outline for one of the more unique business reinvention stories to occur within the North American promotional products industry during the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s by no means the only one.

As traditional sales crashed amid lockdowns and event cancellations in 2020, companies throughout the promo space demonstrated an incredible dexterity, nimbly adapting to find new opportunities in a marketplace turned upside down.

The stories could fill volumes. When ASI Media asked industry firms to share their tales of reinvention, dozens and dozens of emails flooded in. Yes, many of the stories focused on the pivot to PPE – a collective flex that saved thousands of industry jobs and added billions of dollars into promo’s coffers in 2020. But there were other unique journeys as well, filled with creativity, adaptability and grit.

In total, they call attention to the entrepreneurial ingenuity that pulses in the collective heartbeat of the promo market. And they serve as inspiration that even in the darkest of times, there always is a ray of hope.

Grilling Up Success

Russell Bird likes him some good eats.

That predilection led the owner of The Promo Addict (asi/302225) to the world of competitive cookoffs, which in turn laid the foundation for You Need a BBQ. He started the initiative during the coronavirus pandemic as a division of his Sherwood Park, AB-based promo distributorship. It was a means of generating some revenue during the days when promo sales were barely a trickle. So successful was the venture that it’s grown into a full-blown second business centered on sales of grills, seasonings, barbecue accessories and BBQ education classes.

Russell Bird translated his love of barbecue into a new business.

“Like a lot of people, the pandemic gave me some time,” says Bird. “It forced me to get creative and consider doing something different. Once my thought went in this direction, it was a matter of following through.”

Following through is something at which Bird is adept. It’s how he was able to build a successful promo distributorship pre-pandemic. It also helped him take his love of good food and cooking and transform himself into a master bacon cook.

Bird claimed second place in the bacon category at the World Food Championships (WFC) in 2016. While at the competition, he was impressed by the breadth and quality of the offerings in barbecue categories, so he decided to try his hand at it. He honed his barbecuing skills, experimenting at home and competing in events around North America. Ultimately, he did very well and finished second in barbecue at the WFC in 2019. “It was a really wild, fun ride,” says Bird.

Russell Bird and his wife Jocelyn, The Promo Addict’s creative director, are having fun with their new barbecue business, You Need a BBQ.

Even so, when the pandemic crushed The Promo Addict’s sales in 2020, Bird didn’t initially turn to his hobby as an avenue for new business. First, the company did mask sewing and printing. Then, Bird invested in a sublimation printer that allowed for printing on mugs. The Promo Addict team offered direct-to-consumer mugs themed around the concept of being home during the pandemic. With the graphics and messaging, there were pop cultural references aimed at lightening the mood around quarantining – think Tiger King and bottles of wine. “They went over like gangbusters at retail,” says Bird.

Still, it wasn’t enough to get back near the revenue range that The Promo Addict was accustomed to before COVID. Bird needed something additional. Then the “eureka” moment occurred: Maybe he could sell a few barbecues and tap a bit of cash flow from that. He spoke with his competitive barbecue sponsor, grill/smoker brand Pit Boss, about bringing in a few grills. Swiftly the seven he stocked sold out.

“So,” Bird explains, “I brought in more. Then they were gone. Then I ordered 15 barbecues and they sold. I thought, ‘I think I’m in the barbecue business now.’ And we were. We started offering seasonings, sauces, accessories and mini-grills. We sold those too. Our promo team was doing this, but by November there was so much business we brought in a full-time barbecue salesperson. We added another full-time barbecue team member on March 1.”

Initially, Bird and his team ran You Need a BBQ out of The Promo Addict’s space, but the venture’s success necessitated moving the business, now a standalone entity, into a place all its own. Renovated to have a barbecue-themed appearance, the digs allow for an expanded selection of grills and related products, while providing more space for BBQ education classes. “We predicted a certain amount of sales for January this year – and we tripled it,” says Bird.

In 2021, Bird is projecting year-over-year growth for both You Need a BBQ and The Promo Addict. He believes the barbecue business could do so well that its sales will rise to account for the equivalent of about two-thirds of what the promo business generates. Even so, The Promo Addict remains his first love, and he’s fully invested in driving the company to growth. “It’s exciting figuring out how to do both businesses,” he says. “It’s been an adventure. We’ve taken the challenges of the pandemic and made something new.”

Going All-in on Digital

Much of the future is digital, and Luke Freeman is helping to write it.

No, that doesn’t mean the owner of Florida-headquartered distributor Wizard Creations (asi/362568) thinks tangible promotional products are going to be obsolete. Far from it. But it’s a tacit acknowledgement that more and more dollars will migrate from traditional advertising mediums – like, say, print and radio – to digital ones.

Seth Rand (left), a digital marketing expert, and promo pro Luke Freeman partnered to form Wizard Digital.

That’s one key reason why a couple years ago Freeman partnered with his friend Seth Rand, a digital marketing expert, to begin offering digital marketing services as a complement to branded merchandise. Branded as Wizard Digital, the partnership proved a serendipitous move to which the pandemic lent an air of almost preternatural prescience.

“Our digital business has just exploded,” says Freeman, whose career highlights include being swag czar for Super Bowl LIV. “We were literally up thousands of percent year over year in 2020 in digital.”

That didn’t happen by accident.

When COVID-19 struck, Freeman and Rand collaborated to vastly accelerate a go-to-market plan that had been gaining steam over the previous year. It was rooted in becoming the go-to digital marketing provider to Wizard Creations’ merch clients, of which there is some 4,000. “With the pandemic, we were seeing a lot of companies shift their spend over to digital from other advertising mediums,” says Freeman, “and we were in a great position to help them get the most out of their digital marketing and advertising efforts.”

Students of the marketplace, Freeman and Rand directed sales efforts heavily toward merch clients that were thriving during the pandemic, which included construction companies, contractors, pool builders and air conditioning businesses.

“Because we had those relationships, it was a natural segue for us,” says Freeman. “We could say, ‘Hey, you normally buy T-shirts and hats from us but we can also help you with SEO.’ We had the trust, and they had a genuine need for the services, so they were willing to have a conversation.”

“With the pandemic, we were seeing a lot of companies shift their spend over to digital from other advertising mediums.” Luke Freeman, Wizard Creations/Wizard Digital

Soon, Freeman and Rand were diversifying their digital prospect roster, targeting a demographic that might surprise some: Other promotional product distributors. Part of the pitch was that Wizard Digital could help distributors do what Freeman and Rand were doing: Capture more business from existing merch clients by providing them with digital services, which include website design, search engine optimization, pay-per-click campaigns, social media management, email marketing, web-based content creation/writing and video/photography.

Distributors began signing on, with Wizard offering a white label service. Wizard has agreements with distributors that it will not pursue direct business with those firms’ end-clients, Freeman notes. “We don’t – and won’t – do promo for the end-clients,” says Freeman. “We’re a partner to these distributors, helping them deliver digital services to their clients. This model has proven very successful, with distributors able to offer more services to their customer base when promo spending is possibly down.”

In early 2021, Wizard Digital’s staff is three times what it was in 2019. Freeman is predicting exponential growth for the digital channel in 2021, and a bounce-back for promo, too.

“Just like with promo, there’s a low barrier to entry with digital marketing, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to be out of business very fast,” says Freeman. “That’s why I partnered with Seth, and why we have a team of experts that are masters at handling the technical stuff. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.”

Making It as a Mom-and-Pop Shop

If Corvus Crafts (asi/169246) proved one thing, it’s that you could be a tiny mom-and-pop promo business and pivot successfully in 2020.

Candace Mangold and her husband Christopher are the dynamic duo that own and operate the distributor/decorator in Port Townsend, WA. They’d purchased the business in 2018, and heading into 2020, they were pumped. Everything was lining up right for it to be a breakout year. Then COVID-19 brought those high expectations crashing down.

Candace and Christopher Mangold, owners of Corvus Crafts, with their kids.

“Sixty percent of our business was event-centric,” says Candace. “Overnight, it just disappeared. Right away I started thinking about what clients and businesses in our area would need that we could provide.”

That led to Corvus’ first reinvention: Offering web services.

Candace relates that her area is a touristy locale with boutique retail shops, artists and various types of small businesses. Many, she says, lacked a strong online presence – or, for some, any real presence at all. Drawing on their technology backgrounds and the help of a techy intern, the Mangolds began providing basic website design. “We were able to give clients who needed it basic websites for under $500,” Candace says. “It was a way of increasing their visibility online.”

Beyond websites, Corvus also built and managed clients’ social media presence and provided virtual assistant work, among other offerings. The tech solutions helped open the door to other opportunities, like creating COVID-related signage for retailers. “We really dug into the vinyl and signage side of our business,” says Candace.

Throughout 2020, the Mangolds kept looking for new niche opportunities. “We helped struggling artists by creating web storefronts to showcase their art on a variety of merch that we could easily provide,” says Candace. “In one case, we became the backend for one organization’s Shopify site and had a record-breaking December.”

“Small businesses in our industry can thrive with the right level of positivity, motivation and creativity.” Candace Mangold, Corvus Crafts

Parents of young children (Candace heads the local PTA), the Mangolds established pop-up shops online for local kids. The shops featured artwork the children had made that could be printed on various products and retailed. Corvus did the fulfillment. “The kids were so excited about being entrepreneurs,” says Candace. “It wasn’t huge money, but it kept business coming in.”

A keen eye for timely opportunities in the market also stirred sales. “We learned that local nonprofits were receiving grants in December and had a tight timeline to spend the money,” Candace explains. “We offered them the opportunity to pay for future services in advance. Many placed orders for the 2021 year, but it was paid for in 2020. It worked well for us and helped them afford services when they had the money and needed to spend it.”

Additionally, when a local competitor was preparing to close, Corvus acted to acquire the small business and bring the former owner on as a salesperson. “We wanted to retain her clients, and she loved the idea of working on a commissioned structure with us,” says Candace. “Like that, we had our first sales rep.”

Corvus executed other mini reinventions through the year – all of which amount to the fact that this small family business remains standing, ready to make 2021 a success.

“Despite all the challenges,” says Candace, “small businesses in our industry can thrive with the right level of positivity, motivation and creativity.”

Powering Sales With PPE & Kitting

No article about pandemic-driven business reinvention in promo would be complete without PPE.

After all, had it not been for the industry-wide shift to selling PPE and hand sanitizer, promo distributors’ sales would have declined about 40% in 2020 compared to 2019. Instead, according to ASI research, distributor sales only dropped 19.8%.

PPE and hand sanitizer contributed significantly to promo distributors’ overall revenue of $20.7 billion in 2020.

Still, it wasn’t just Top 40 firms that hit home runs with PPE. There were companies like Color Legends (asi/53458), a Buford, GA-based supplier that usually operates with a staff of seven people. Flags, banners and items related to trade show displays are among the firm’s top offerings. COVID tanked those sales, but owner John Fontaine led the swift launch of a line of virus protection products. Items included cashier shields, clear room dividers, vaccination booth partitions, retractable protective screens, “sneeze guard” free standing shields and more.

End-client demand for such items was rampant, which sent distributors flocking to Color Legends. Staff levels temporarily more than doubled amid the greatest sales rushes. “We had our best year ever from a sales perspective and were up 34%,” says Fontaine. “It was all because of the COVID products. Without them, we would have been down 50% to 60%.”

The Farley Calendar & Promo Company (asi/191229) can relate. The small industry firm in northern Michigan generated a 20% year-over-year revenue rise in 2020 thanks to embracing PPE. It all started with a hospital contacting Farley for help sourcing face shields, gowns and masks. “We got our feet wet with an order of around $25,000,” says Tom Dawson, general manager. “Then it just took off.”

Initiatives included targeting local chambers of commerce with the intention of helping them provide face masks for their communities. Farley also bought 55-gallon drums of sanitizer from a local distillery and empty spritzer bottles. With these materials, the company created custom label sanitizer bottles, which allowed Farley to fulfill sanitizer orders as small as 25 pieces. “If we would not have pivoted to PPE, 2020 would’ve likely been a very damaging year for us,” says Dawson.

Elsewhere, a fast-paced but still strategic jump into PPE helped the team at Philadelphia-based Pop! Promos (asi/45657) execute a record year in 2020. “Revenue was up 50%,” says Marketing Director Jesse Gray. “We eclipsed $20 million in sales.”

Full-color adjustable face masks from Pop! Promos (asi/45657) have been popular, the company says.

Pop! pulled it off thanks, in part, to launching an all new line of full-color cotton face masks, expanding its neck gaiter offerings, and developing a new line called the Protection Collection, which included items like masks for adults and kids, as well as face shields.

Pop! also drove revenue gains through its “Mailer Kits,” a new direct-mail/kitting service that saw the company shipping custom-branded products to end-clients’ individual recipients around the country. “It opened a whole new line of business for us, which is still doing amazing,” says Gray.

Like Pop!, suppliers throughout promo began offering creative kitting and fulfillment solutions to account for the reality of working from home and virtual events during the pandemic.

Gemline, for instance, served up kitted packages that included PPE and traditional promo products – a winning combination that helped fuel the firm’s all-time best year in sales. Top 40 firm HPG (asi/61966) debuted Batch & Bodega, a line that bundles exclusive, award-winning snacks from small-batch brands with best-selling hard good products from HPG. The line enjoyed considerable popularity during the Q4 gifting season.

Again, it wasn’t just the big guys having success. New York-based supplier Cocktail Kits 2 Go (asi/45579) grew sales more than 300% year over year in 2020. The company’s cocktail kits were a natural fit for bringing a bit of cheer to recipients while they worked at home, but it was the firm’s adept dive into drop-shipping that really ratcheted up the mega growth.

“It got our custom virtual happy hour cocktail kits into the hands of people working remotely across the world,” says owner Justin Durling. The gains led to hiring more staffers and the creation of new products, like a whiskey poker card game and seeded/plantable coasters.

Inventive Product Pivots

Indeed, product innovation went beyond PPE. Inventive suppliers brought to market products they identified as on-point for catering to niche trends during the pandemic.

Quality Lapel Pins (QLP; asi/80196) primarily manufactures pins, coins and patches, but last year the Littleton, CO-based supplier started offering charms for necklaces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, Apple Watches and shoelaces.

QLP decided to offer the items following interest from customers and research that revealed online search volume for making homemade charms had increased. To capture that audience, QLP analyzed Google keywords and created a new search campaign targeted toward charms. “The charms certainly helped fill in some of the gaps from big event orders that disappeared,” says Bret Minix, QLP’s marketing manager.

In 2020, Quality Lapel Pins had success selling charms for necklaces, pendants, bracelets – even shoelaces.

As COVID took hold, The Gavel Company (asi/56020) had much less opportunities to sell its flagship product – gavels. So, the Illinois-based supplier shifted to producing a work-from-home line of American-made wood products, including word coasters, iPad holders, clipboards, block clocks, desk fidget toys and more.

The wood coasters have been especially strong sellers. Some feature motivational sayings, like “Wake Up and Be Awesome,” or humorous sayings – “I’m Just Here for the Food.” Sayings can also be customized. “We’re seeing an increase in sales on the work-from-home line every month,” says Marketing Director Rachel Jacobs. “We’re excited about bringing these products to the industry.”

No doubt the pandemic will continue to present an array of challenges in 2021. Just as assuredly, creative companies in the promo industry will keep rolling with the punches and finding ways to prosper.

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