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Running For Office: Blaze The Campaign Trail With Promotional Products

By Cherri Gann

Although it is usually said the promotional products industry was "officially" born when newspaper publisher Jasper Meek imprinted the name of a shoe store on a burlap bag in 1875, the truth is the use of lapel buttons-a well-known promotional performer even now-can be traced back as far as 1789, at George Washington's presidential inauguration. Buttons imprinted with "Tippecanoe & Tyler, Too" also helped William Henry Harrison win the presidency in 1840, as they did William McKinley-who set the campaign trail afire with the very first celluloid ones in 1896.

No, this isn't a history of lapel buttons; instead it's an illustration of how promotional products have remained an important part of election campaigns since the 18th century. Dolly Duffy, CEO of Atchison Products Co. says, "I worked in politics before entering this industry, and I find it so interesting how the use of promotional products in political campaigns has hardly changed since I was involved in it 20 years ago."

"Promotional products use in general probably doesn't change dramatically throughout the years, but it certainly has changed some," says Duffy. "But in politics, 20 years ago it was all about name recognition, and it's still that way today."

Rob Felber, MAS, president of Twinsburg, Ohio-based (near Cleveland) Traymore Marketing (UPIC: TRAYMORE), and frequent volunteer and campaign manager for local politics says, "The number-one challenge for political campaigns is name recognition for the candidate, and I've seen a lot of campaign mistakes made when people fail to realize it's all about getting the candidate's name in the public's eye." As can be attested by their enduring legacy, promotional products happen to be one of the best ways to do this, but distributors interested in this market shouldn't confuse the goals of their corporate clients with those of a political race.

"Using promotional products in a political campaign is very different from using them for corporate America," says Duffy. "Corporate America is looking for a long-term objective, whereas someone running for office has a short-term purpose. The functionality is only good for the campaign cycle, so there's really not a lot of residual value in that item after the campaign is over."

One way that issue is addressed is by selecting products that are relatively inexpensive and serve as effective billboards for the candidate's name. Such products are magnets, buttons, lapel stickers, bumper stickers, emery boards, combs, yard signs, household items and even T-shirts. "Above all, these products are an advertising message more so than a gift to the recipient," Duffy says.

So do these "billboards" really do their job? Carl Gerlach, CAS, director of marketing at Gill Studios, Inc. and an 8 ½-year member of the city council in Overland Park, Kansas, thinks so. "When a constituent allows a candidate to put a sign with his or her name on it in the yard, that is a mini-endorsement. Having a lot of yard signs indicates heavy support, and if a community or state is showing heavy support for a candidate, it's more difficult for the opponent to lodge a negative campaign in that area. In fact, it can backfire and hurt him or her more." He says the same can be said for any other product that's used whether it's a bumper sticker, T-shirt or window flag.

"Political events are just like networking, and people need something by which to remember the candidate and his or her message," says Gerlach. "It takes a lot of hits with the public to deliver the message."

As we are seeing now and will continue to see for the next several months, many of these hits come in the form of radio and TV ads, telemarketing and direct mail. Marketers know you can never be certain which hit is going to be the one that resonates and finally sticks with the intended target. There's a good chance a promotional product received at a rally could do it.

Political Products
Although there are a lot of products that seem "standard" to political campaigns, budget is always an issue; so candidates are interested in choosing products that allow the most bang for the buck. "Since 99 percent of the product's purpose is about name recognition and given its short life cycle, candidates don't want to spend too much on promotional products," says Duffy.

Another consideration is how it's going to be used. "I've seen many campaign signs and banners that try to say to much," says Felber. "You really do have to treat these products like a billboard on the freeway-just get the candidate's name out there. Issue-related copy is better suited for literature and collateral pieces." Felber says products only need to have room for the candidate's name, the office for which he or she is running and "maybe a tagline or Web address."

"It depends on the campaign," Gerlach explains. "Breaking it down into city, county, state or federal levels, products are used where they are most cost-effective. For example, bumper stickers don't work well in the suburbs because constituents may drive their cars a couple of blocks and be in a different city where the council candidate isn't running. In a federal or state campaign, however, bumper stickers work better because there is a wider area of awareness."

In another example, Gerlach points out that T-shirts are great "billboard" products, but they are a little more expensive than other products. "You can't pass out T-shirts to a lot of people across the state, so you use them for campaign workers and special events," he says.

Felber mentions one unusual thing he has seen is Post-It® Notes pre-printed with the message "Sorry I missed you" or "Vote For…" along with the candidate's name. Door-to-door campaign volunteers leave them on the door when someone they've called on isn't home. "It's quick, easy to use and very inexpensive," he says.

Mailable products like bumper stickers, magnets or even compact sponges are great, too. "Mailing is also an important part of a campaign strategy," says Gerlach. "Hitting voters in a sequential time frame-such as every three weeks in the final nine weeks before the election-makes targets continue to see the candidate's name. In addition, if recipients get a product they find useful, they'll keep it for a while. A post card will be glanced at or read and then thrown out, but the promotional product helps keep the name exposure in the forefront."

Getting The Business
Obviously, you have to find out who is the decision maker for the campaign. "In city or county level races, the candidates themselves are usually responsible," says Gerlach. "For mayoral and city commissioner races in larger cities, there may be campaign managers who make decisions. The same goes for county commissioner campaigns, and it's definitely the case in state level races. At the federal level, however, there are sophisticated consulting organizations that candidates hire to manage the campaign and buy the products."

To get the business you have to get in early, and you can do it as soon as the candidates have filed their intention to run for office. "You'll need to find out in which events they'll be participating and help plan quantities," says Felber. "Distributors also need to become knowledgeable about the rules for distributing products at events-if it's allowed." He also mentions that opportunities for exposure may crop up at short notice, so there will be times when a quick turnaround is needed.

Felber also points out the need to ask about a candidate's disclaimer statement. "It's the one that says, 'Paid for by the committee to elect…,'" he says. "Candidates sometimes forget about these things and can be hit with a campaign violation. In my county, there is an 'official' list of items that don't have to include the disclaimer, but the list doesn't take into account all the new items that come each year." Although the county where Felber lives has a narrow policy for this, other counties, however, often have a blanket guideline stating that if a product is too small for the disclaimer statement to be displayed clearly, it's ok to leave it off.

Another consideration is that a lot of candidates from the county level races and up will be sensitive about products being union-made in the USA. "In general corporate America, this preference has gone by the wayside," says Felber. "But when it comes to political campaigns, distributors will need to know if the products were made in a union shop, and if the union 'bug' has to be on them."

Finally, if a distributor wants to add even more value, he or she can align with the graphic artist and copywriters to help with the other campaign literature. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to do the mailers, postcards and such," says Felber. "Just make sure you become familiar with postal regulations and have a good mailing house source, unless you want to stick on 50,000 constituent address labels by hand." PPB

COPYRIGHT © 2005 PPB. All Rights Reserved.
Cherri Gann is an associate editor for PPB.

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