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Promotional Incentives

by Bruce Bolger

Last year, U.S. businesses spent over $23 billion on tangible incentives and recognition, including merchandise, travel, debit cards and gift certificates, according to research by the Incentive Federation. Unfortunately, many companies threw away vital marketing dollars with poorly conceived incentive programs, simply because so few people have any formal training on the subject.

But your company doesn’t have to take chances. You have an incentive expert on call who can help make sure your programs succeed. The fact is, most promotional products counselors are extensively and successfully involved in the incentive business, creating programs to promote safety, attendance, ride-sharing and length of service, in addition to traditional sales incentive programs.

So why not introduce your counselor to your sales manager, HR director, safety manager or other execs who handle incentive programs? Or, for that matter, why not take on the job of incentive director yourself? After all, your counselor will do most of the legwork, and you can impress your boss – just like you do with all those successful promotions involving specialty advertising.

Compare And Contrast
Of course, there are a few things you’ll need to know about incentives up front in order to create a productive partnership. First of all, even though they’re similar, there’s a subtle difference between promotions and incentives. The goal of an incentive program is usually to increase performance or spur an action, whereas by definition, promotional products function more as a communications medium. You should also know that incentive programs often include structures, rules, legal and tax issues, tracking, training, employee involvement, etc., that don’t usually come into play in most promotional products programs.

Finally, while both incentive and ad specialty programs involve creativity and the need to understand audience demographics and program objectives, an incentive campaign revolves around the fundamental and often complex issue of what will motivate and equip people to perform a desired action. Products That

Promote Performance
Incentive programs designed to motivate consumers, dealers and distributors, salespeople and operations employees have to do three things:
  • Grab attention

  • Create excitement

  • Tie into the marketing theme of company culture
This is why companies often look for the newest and most exciting awards to use as top prizes. At the same time, since many employee and dealer/distributor programs can last for as much as a year, you’ll need to make sure that whatever awards are marketed at the beginning can be delivered at the end. Here are some of the different types of products that are frequently used: Consumer products. Just about anything people want has a place in the incentive world, which explains why many of the top makers of brand-name apparel, appliances, consumer electronics, clocks/watches, furniture, etc., are heavily involved in the incentive market. To most employees and other program participants, who makes the product is just as important as the product itself.

Catalogs. A number of incentive and merchandise companies have developed turnkey incentive catalogs that are available for resale through promotional products counselors. With catalogs, incentive users can offer potential winners a choice, organized in plateaus by level of performance. Many of these catalogs are modular in nature, enabling you to “customize” a catalog for a specific target audience.

Debit cards. Many of the largest credit card issuers, including VISA, MasterCard and American Express, have developed incentive card products precharged with a value, and redeemable at major retailers. These come in all sizes and shapes. Some cards come with pre-established value, others can be loaded as the program goes along. Some have credit features; others don’t. Some can be used anywhere the parent credit card is accepted; some are accepted only in certain places. Your counselor can work out the particulars for you. Just be aware that there can be hidden costs to the user, so make sure the issuer spells out all costs up front.

Gift certificates. Almost every major company that sells gift certificates has discovered the incentive business, and many sell these products through middlemen. Your counselor can add value by providing customization features.

High-tech products. While computers, cellular phones, satellite televisions, etc., have considerable appeal, they often involve complexities that add needless bother to firms more interested in motivating consumers or employees than fussing with complaints about setup or monthly fees. However, computers are already being used regularly as an incentive to view advertising online or sign up for online access. Cell phones have already found a place as a high-end perk for salespeople, and certificates for satellite television access are now available. Expect the increased emphasis on simplicity in the high-tech world to gradually increase the use of these emerging technologies in incentive programs.

Travel. According to the Incentive Federation, U.S. industry spends billions on travel incentives every year. While only a few of the largest promotional products professionals have ventured into group travel, almost any counselor can help you take advantage of the individual travel market. And if you do decide to use travel incentives, don’t forget to purchase support products to be used before, during and after the trip.

Recognition Awards. This includes some consumer products like writing instruments, watches, crystal and so forth, but there’s also the traditional stuff like trophies, plaques, certificates and pins to consider – particularly as ancillary products to other less tangible incentives like travel or gift certificates.

It’s Easier Than You Think
Granted, all this is more complex and comprehensive than the standard list of promotional products. But incentives are, in most cases, a more complex entity. The great thing about already having a counselor working with you on promotions involving specialties is that many of the same companies that supply those products also handle brand-name and high-ticket items that are tailor-made for incentive and reward programs.

So the next time you meet with your counselor, don’t forget to ask about incentives. You’ll be glad you did.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Bruce Bolger is president of Selling Communications, Inc., a target sales, marketing and communications firm based in Irvington, NY. He is also the former publisher of Incentive magazine.

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