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Gifts for Keeps

By Betsy Cummings

Nix the annual fruit basket. It's time to rethink your corporate gifts. Several other companies did and built stronger client relationships in the process.

Few tasks bring on more angst within companies than corporate gift giving. What to give? When to give it? How to present it? Such questions become sweat-inducing, make-or-break business decisions, since gifts can actually push prospects to close deals. "We could be looking at a large case worth a lot of money and if we give the client flowers or a gift that actually closes the deal," or at least it's been a deal clincher for many clients of Leisman Insurance Agency Inc., in Waltham, Massachusetts, says Beth Lynch, the company's office and marketing manager. Indeed, gifts are a crucial marketing tool for many companies. So much so that a 2004 survey by American Express showed that gift giving is up, at least among small businesses. Last year, 69% of business owners bought gifts for valued customers, up from 57% in 2003. The 2004 Small Business Monitor by OPEN from American Express surveyed 773 small-business owners and found that average budgets for gifts were $923.

But it's what the gift means rather than how much it costs that really drives its marketing and business value, says Bill Wood, human resource manager for Welch Foods Inc. in Lawton, Michigan. "Gifts can be something as simple as a baseball cap or as elaborate as lifestyle items like the latest…portable PlayStation." But, regardless of what the gift is, it needs to be valuable to the recipient.

Easier said than done? Not necessarily. We highlight several companies below that have managed to find reasonably priced gifts that had a monumental impact on their customers - and on the company's client relationships.

Customize for Clients
Puzzles are a common business metaphor as companies "put the pieces together" for great business. So when Catherine Weber was contemplating what to give her top 36 clients, she naturally sent them puzzles. But not just any random jigsaw puzzle available at the mall. Weber, president of CW Consulting Group, an interactive communications company in Southborough, Massachusetts, had hers specially designed and made for her customers. The 4-inch by 6-inch puzzles were wooden (not cardboard), were imprinted with leaf cutter ants - a nod to CW Consulting's Web site, where an industrious ant sits atop a branch with a leaf in its mouth - and cut into leaf-shaped pieces. Stamped on the puzzles was CW Consulting Group's message: "Ants do a lot of heavy lifting, up to 50 times their body weight. We use the power of virtual teams and do the heavy lifting for you. Your virtual marketing team at your service." At the bottom of the puzzle in large type was the company's logo and web site. But Weber didn't stop there. The $20 puzzles were packaged in bright yellow boxes with tissue paper and sent with a note to each recipient. And she sends them in November - early enough so they don't get lost in the haze of holiday gift giving.

"I'm known for giving special things and people remember me," Weber says. She gives herself at least a six-week lead time on gifts to make sure she can customize them as much as possible. And she thinks about the shelf life of each gift, so her customers can be reminded of her as long as possible. "I know people put the puzzles together on their desks and look at them every day," Weber says. That's effective branding.

"You want to give a gift that people will display or see on an ongoing basis," says John Mills, vice president of business development for Rideau Recognition Solutions, a corporate recognition services company in Montreal. "That will remind the client of who sent the gift and the relationship" that client has with your company, Mills says.

Sending a pen might do the trick as well, but the more unusual the gift, like Weber's puzzles, the more likely it will remain out and visible, serving as a reminder of your company to that customer.

Give the Brand
Giving gifts to clients is an ideal opportunity to promote your brand, but making the gift all about your branding message can be overkill and fail to captivate clients. While CW Consulting managed to create a clever, personalized gift with their company's message, that won't work with every client. Smaller client groups where stronger bonds have been formed between the company and its customers are likely to be more receptive to such gifts as opposed to Fortune 500 companies that are sending out mass corporate gift mailings where relationships may be more distant. And when companies do include their logo, imprinting it on a gift tastefully is the key. "When you're giving gifts to clients you want them to know your name, but you don't have to put your [logo] all over" the gift, says Stephanie Jo Klien, founder and president of Klien Communications in New York. "It's much more important that the recipient knows you're thinking of them."

And plastering a gift with your company's logo, tagline or contact information says you're thinking more about yourself than the customer. For companies that feel compelled to include a branding message with their product, there are better ways to do so than stamping their name all over a gift. One way is to give the product with a card that has the company's logo and branding message, Mills says. Otherwise, gifts emblazoned with company symbols and such often end up in one of two places: the closet or the trash.

Moreover, there are more subtle and far more effective ways to dovetail a company's brand with corporate gifts. Since 1907, the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts chain of luxury hotels has welcomed famous guests and built a collection of tales that go along with them. To honor that legacy the hotel put together two CDs of 22 songs from hotel guests the likes of Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Rosemary Clooney and Celine Dion. Lounging at the Fairmont CDs I and II are given to clients, such as travel agents, says Leslie Dodson, global accounts manager of travel industry sales for the company. "Over the past two years, I've given away about 3,000 of them," Dodson says.

But they're also a great theme gift for client events as well. Last August in Las Vegas, Fairmont, using a 1920s theme borrowed from the Louis Armstrong songs from the company's first CD compilation, coordinated a supper club party and invited 100 top producing travel agents, gave them boas and fedoras and the CD, as a Louis Armstrong impersonator sung in the background. "This is a gift that has a $15" monetary value, Dodson says, but its connection to the hotel and celebration of the company's history through various performers is powerful for clients fascinated by the mystique of various properties that it drives business year round. "We ordered 20,000 CDs recently and have already given out 10,000 this month," Dodson says. The gift is so popular and has sparked so much buzz that a line of drinks sold in the hotels was created to complement the brand's gift. Now 25% of all Fairmont cocktails sold are those on the Fairmont Lounging drink menu, she says.

Make It Useful
If you want to make sure your gift will be used repeatedly and remain in front of your customer everyday as a reminder of your business with them, make the gift irresistibly practical. That's a trend that's likely to continue, says Richard F. Beltramini, professor of marketing at Wayne State University and coauthor of Gift Giving: A Research Anthology. "Business gifts should be appropriate to the recipient," he says, and "they need to show that the giver took time to select the gift that's appropriate for that individual."

That's the approach Leisman Insurance Agency takes whenever it sends gifts to clients. Most recently the company gave out Clean Shoppers to clients with babies. The quilted fabric device slips over the front end of a grocery shopping cart where children often sit so that toddlers and babies aren't exposed to disease-causing germs while riding around supermarkets with mom and dad.

Whenever a child is born among the company's 1,000 clients, a Clean Shopper is sent out to the customer, at a cost of $20 each to Leisman. "It's a daily reminder that we're part of their company's growth," says Beth Lynch, who recently bought 20 additional Clean Shoppers to deliver after future births. The company has already sent more than 20 Shoppers out this year. "There are certain changes in people's lives like marriages and births, and we're there for that." That tactic not only thanks clients for their business, but reminds them of the personal, meaningful relationship that each client holds with Leisman and how the client is personally as well as professionally valued. That's strategic gift giving, experts say - personal but not invasive or inappropriate.

"Giving personal gifts is a great idea" and a growing trend among companies, says Rideau's Mills, as long as companies keep the gifts practical and appropriate while being personal. "More companies are saying, 'how can I differentiate myself from someone else who might be giving a gift?' " Sending gifts that are customer specific is a great way to stand out, he says. The key is not to get risqué or overstep the boundaries of personal gift giving.

Regardless of the gift, it's important to make sure it will be opened and kept, not tossed in the trash bin or shoved to the back of the closet. "The key to finding the right gift is to go through the process of determining what will make each gift a success," says Woods. And, whatever the gift, "it has to have value for the recipient."

COPYRIGHT © 2005 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Betsy Cummings is executive editor of Successful Promotions.

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