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Awards and Recognition Items as Promotional Products

And The Winner Is . . . Awards!

By Charlotte Thomas

With the help of new technology, the use of unique materials and a little bit of customization magic, awards have been rescued from their pedestrian past. Prepare to be dazzled.

You may remember your heart pounding proudly the first time a grade-school teacher or coach handed you one of those little plastic trophies with your name printed on it. And it sat proudly on your shelf - at least for awhile. You probably couldn't begin to say where that award is now, but chances are gold plastic or cast-metal figures swinging baseball bats or bowling balls come to mind when you hear the word "trophy."

Tuck those faded assumptions away, along with that old trophy. Like you, awards have come a long way since grade school. They've grown into custom sculpted crystal art pieces, one-of-a-kind fused glass plates, mixes of fieldstone and brass, incredibly intricate laser engraving on acrylic and more. These days the awards arena is bursting with creativity and originality.

You Want Purple? We Got Purple
According to promotional consultant Jan Martin, more and more people are requesting innovative ideas. New technology has allowed awards-makers to quickly and easily design and produce items using a broad and fascinating range of raw materials. "With more sophisticated and upscale things available, I see more businesses buying awards," reports counselor Dennis Gabriel. Adds Chris Hodge, a Midwest promotional consultant: "People are looking for new and different," adding he used to sell a lot of award-quality timepieces but is increasingly asked about art glass and crystal.

Counselor Shannon Bell notes that she hears more imaginative requests from clients. Previously, they were reluctant to venture beyond the tried-and-true. Now they routinely seek the unusual. Everyone, it seems, wants to stand out.

Pushing The Corporate Envelope
Why are more promotional products users awakening to the allure of awards? Perhaps it's because they realize they can carry a powerful message that's good for business. Scott Siegel, promotional consultant, recalls a recent meeting he had with a client. This person didn't want to put any money into recognizing a salesperson who had put the company over the top. His idea of an award was a cheap plastic frame with a hastily-printed certificate inside. Siegel is a firm believer that recognizing employee achievement impacts a company's future success, so he simply asked, "What kind of message are you going to send to that rep who just sold a million dollars worth of your product?" The client got the point.

Another promotional consultant, Bruce Schermerhorn, likes to tell the story of the counselor who plunked down a $100 bill and a $150 watch in front of a client, asking, "Which do you want your corporation to give as an award? The $100 will be gone next week. The watch will be looked at for the next five years."

What was the last promotional product your firm's CEO or senior VP signed off on? It probably wasn't a mug or keytag, but it could very well have been an award. Counselor Brian Starke believes awards send a clear message to employees about the company that gave it and the value it places on their relationship - not to mention fostering greater loyalty and productivity.

Recognition Resonates
Beyond the look of awards, many corporations are also getting more creative about when they should be given. Though the employee recognition ceremony is still alive and well, more firms are understanding that awards are just as important as other day-to-day perks like dental care, in-house fitness centers and childcare facilities. These days it's not only the employee who stuck it out for 10 or 25 years who gets recognized, it's also those who made it through a tough year or completed a project in record time.

One of Gabriel's clients gave a model of a Titan rocket to 1,000 employees to celebrate a job well done. Starke recalls a customer who needed an award for 3,000 people who had completed a global fiber network. "We see more and more nontraditional awards," he notes. "You still see the sales or employee-of-the-year awards, but we're also seeing recognition for an event or accomplishment."

Mergers/acquisitions, team projects, safe driving, professional certification, safety and more are being considered award-worthy by companies of all sizes. Some even give them to their top vendors, according to counselor Jeff Adams: "Companies want to recognize all those layers that bring value to their organization."

Customization Is Key
One reason awards are gaining momentum with firms is that custom work has become more affordable and acceptable. "We're filling more requests off the menu," says Hodge, adding, "Depending on quantity and lead time, anything is possible."

Customization runs the gamut from a completely new item produced from scratch to standard products rendered 20% larger or in specific corporate colors. Siegel reports that he gets requests for much more contemporary designs with unusual combinations of materials: "Clients come to us with a drawing or rough conceptualization," he says. "People are demanding more unique designs. It's becoming more of an expectation."

For Starke, producing custom awards is really a matter of finding out what a client is looking for. He asks five questions:
  • What is the quantity?
  • What is your budget?
  • What artwork do you want on the award?
  • Where will the copy go, if any?
  • Do you have a sketch or drawing of your ideas?
Starke takes it from there, and thanks to e-mail and JPEG files, clients can see in a short time exactly what the award will look like.

Bell notes the increasing requests she's getting for custom shapes - a sailboat, for instance, used with a "sailing ahead of the competition" theme. Portraits, machines and even buildings can be reproduced in pewter, ceramic and crystal with amazing detail.

But you don't have to do glass sailboats to get a custom look. You can take the traditional and make it unique with a few tweaks. Counselor Sharon Simon recalls an award she sold that used half-inch glass instead of three-quarter-inch in order to come within the client's price point. "If clients tell us what they need, we'll find a way to accommodate them," she says.

Custom graphics are another area where creativity can play a part. By altering a stock item slightly, you can get something that's truly unique. Example: Start with ordinary glass awards and, via special 3-D engraving techniques, make a piece that looks totally custom.

A word of caution: "When it comes to really fancy shapes for custom awards, the cost can become prohibitive," says counselor John Schwartz. His solution is to opt for a standard shape award and work the art so it reflects the originality of the design.

Awards That Carry Clout
While customization is making inroads into the awards category, there are those times when the caché of a brand name can make a difference. Even though most generic items counselors provide are of equal or better quality, some still insist on the name. No problem. Schermerhorn notes that with a brand-name award, recipients also get the history and reputation of a Bulova watch or piece of Waterford crystal.

And while money doesn't have a brand name, it's certainly recognized for its value. But we're not talking folding green; Schwartz says that recipients of coin or medallion awards are often pleased to get something of intrinsic value. "Coins aren't like tokens; they have significant meaning," he says. "They're not like a paperweight or plaque. People are fascinated with them." To make an award even more meaningful, some awards incorporate holders that can accommodate multiple items, which employers can give out annually over a period of years.

Today, awards aren't only a symbol of a company's appreciation, they're also a long-term commitment to the recipient. Creating a meaningful award requires giving your counselor as much information as possible about the goals, message, or recognition program, as well as how and where the award will be presented. As companies continue to search for more unusual, innovative awards, counselors will be there to show them the way.

The Wrapping You Don't Throw Away
You're getting an award yourself. The night is awash in tuxes and champagne. You step forward to receive your honor, and it's handed to you in a brown paper bag. An exaggeration, maybe, but the presentation of awards is almost as important as the award itself.

Colorful wrappers or boxes, die-cut foam cradles, molded plastic inserts, logoed boxes and so on can give even a simple item a lot of WOW. Though most people don't keep the box for more than the evening, you still achieve a tough objective: increasing the award's perceived value even more.

Not Just Décor, Either
Function and utility have also made inroads into the awards market. "The trend in business has been moving to lifestyle items," notes counselor Bruce Schermerhorn. The 10-year pin might still be popular, but it's no longer alone. Now VCRs, TVs, DVD players, etc., are becoming not only acceptable but occasionally requested.

TVs too high-ticket? Picture frames can do almost as well, says Hodge. Beyond the standard stuff, there are dual frames so that a message or certificate from a company can be displayed along with a personal photo, or "talking" frames that can deliver a special voice message.

Wearables are also beginning to make their mark as awards, mostly in larger corporate situations, says promotional consultant Lawrence Schleif. "They can sometimes supply a much higher visibility promoting good staff/department performance than simple wall plaques, certificates, or shelf trophies," he says.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Charlotte Thomas is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

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