Hi. New here? Click to learn about us

Custom Promotional Products

A Custom Product Primer
By Charlotte Thomas

You need it longer, shorter, wider, thinner. It must have your company logo's exact shade of teal. It needs inside pockets and colored stripes on the outside. In other words, you need a custom product. Don't worry; it's not as daunting as you might think.

In the promotional products universe, different, unique, never-been-done-before items are commonplace. From die-cut CD-ROMs to color-match mugs to special length robes for basketball players to packaging shaped like miniature stores, there are counselors ready to take your ideas - no matter how sketchy, complicated or wacky - and turn them into a product and program that suits your needs (and your budget).

Counselor Sharon Rossi calls custom giving her clients "options they didn't realize they had." Custom, she explains, can be anything from improving the features of an existing item to reducing the cost by slightly modifying it to boosting the brand recognition of a firm with a completely new item. The scale of custom goes from one to 1,000 - with all the increments in between.

"A custom product may begin with an existing product that's revised to meet an objective, or it can be created from scratch," says promotional consultant Matt Cottrill. Or, as counselor Natalie dePicciotto succinctly puts it, custom isn't a "stamp-it-out-and-go" product niche. She should know. She rarely, if ever, sells stock products, instead preferring to work from ideas.

Sure Standout
Custom can also be seen as sort of a barrier to your competition; the idea that your company can differentiate itself by using something out of the ordinary. "It doesn't take all that much more to get something custom," Rossi notes. "All it takes is ingenuity." She says she finds it interesting when she brings up the concept of custom to clients and watches them get excited about the potential of going beyond the norm: "I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'We don't want another desktop item. What else have you got?'"

And when recipients of your imprinted item realize you took the time to come up with something truly unique, just think how much more likely they'll be to appreciate it, display it and (most important) keep it.

Counselor Thomas J. Ketterer finds that there's a general lack of awareness about the endless possibilities of custom items. "In my experience," he says, "the majority of companies simply assume that we can only do exactly what we show them. We make every effort to teach clients to ask us for what they want." To Ketterer, custom is a way to differentiate; a way, if desired, to pick up on current product trends in the marketplace.

So remember: If you hear the word "custom," don't panic or automatically assume it has to be something wild or off the wall. Custom can be anything from a stock item with a minor variation in size, shape or color to designing something that won't be used by anyone but you.

Shades Of Meaning
Take journals, for instance. A fairly standard promotional item. Promotional consultant Larry O'Boyle notes that there are all sorts of gradations of customization, depending on your budget and needs. Starting with the cover shape or the kind of paper used, you can design a journal to fit whatever requirement you may have. For instance, O'Boyle recalls that one corporation wanted an etched aluminum cover. Another wanted a certain number of vinyl pockets. No problem.

Another point: Custom doesn't only mean achieving a certain look. It can also be a way to fulfill a specific need. For example, a roofing company needed an extra-heavy-duty case that would hold bulky, heavy shingle samples. "We designed a sample case that was specifically sized and shaped for their needs, which included wheels and a telescoping handle," says Cottrill, who notes that bags can be completely created from scratch if necessary - anything from customized zipper pulls to the fabric itself.

Tami Wainscott is a promotional counselor who has sold a large number of mugs with revolving beads set into the handles that function as a decorative stress reliever. One would think that with 38 different stock-design beads (ranging from sports, hobbies and animals to food, cooking and travel) she's heard just about every request. Nope. She once had to come up with a human brain bead for a pharmaceutical company. That's how customized ultimately becomes customary, a common occurrence in the promotional products industry.

Wearables, too, occupy a big part of the custom realm, with manufacturers who cut and sew their own shirts or knit their own trims and stripe colors. Dialing down the customization, you can simply change colors and trims. Says counselor David Holmes: "By customizing wearables, you can offer any firm a look that's unique to that company."

Though the sky is truly the limit when it comes to custom products, there are some basic guidelines you should consider before - and after - contacting your counselor and jumping into the creative pool:

Your budget. For counselor Tim Brown, budget is really the first consideration and the most critical issue. But this can cut both ways. Many clients, he notes, are often unaware of all the possibilities that fall within their price range. "There's not just one pot," he explains. "There are 50."

Attention to requirements. While your counselor can pretty much provide every single color there is to make up custom shirts, robes, aprons, mugs or whatever else you want, try to be as precise as possible in conveying your needs, right down to the size and shape of the imprint. This will ensure you get exactly what you wanted, not "just about" what you wanted.

Don't worry about boundaries. Never dismiss an idea you have as being too complicated or involved. You never know if it'll work until you ask your counselor. And if you're not quite sure but you have a vague idea, even better; the two of you can come up with something together.

When Rossi gets a request for a really wild idea, she doesn't bat an eye. She immediately begins researching to see whether it can be done or not. One project she worked on involved a bank that used a seal as its mascot. Many of the products used for the campaign were relatively simple, except for one - a stuffed seal wearing a sailor suit. "We got help with the drawings and prototypes and selecting the fur for the seal and the material for the sailor suit," she recalls, adding "We never want to say we can't do it." Even when a client comes to her with only the germ of an idea for a custom product, inside her head the wheels are already turning.

Most of the requests that come in to counselor Kathy Brock, who sells a lot of fabric items, are usually pretty specific as to what the client wants. One, for instance, needed a quilted bib with a crumb catcher. Another asked for a zippered tote with zippered pockets on the inside and outside. She's also been asked for aprons with pockets in different areas, longer or wider ties and even adjustable neck straps.

Ask for a prototype. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to see an actual product. Of course, that's always best (if possible), but with some products, this can be expensive. In such cases, a proof or digital (or close-to-digital) image can work just as well. In fact, they often work better - while you're going over every detail to make sure everything's OK, if you do happen to notice something amiss it can be easily modified on the computer. Obviously, this is a lot faster than waiting for a new real sample. And don't forget to ask to see chips or swatches when custom colors are involved.

Proprietary rights. Once you and your counselor come up with a really unique, clever, custom-designed product, the last thing you want is to see a competitor using it six months later. Talk with your counselor about whether the item design will remain exclusively yours - especially if it's something you'll likely be using for several years. "This is a major issue," cautions Brown.

So are you still scared of custom? Now that you know some of the basics, maybe it's time to sit down with your counselor and do a little brainstorming. Like they say: It never hurts to ask.

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

Search our promotional products - click here!