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By Dynise Balcavagek

Understanding the power of positive reinforcement, more companies are using promotional products – in conjunction with strategic award and recognition programs to motivate and reward their employees. The bottom line? A well planned program can easily pay for itself.

You know that good feeling you get when a friend compliments your golf swing, an audience applauds your speech or your boss praises your ideas? It's not limited to you. Everyone likes to be rewarded and recognized. And why not? Positive reinforcement makes us feel appreciated. It heightens our self-worth and helps give us a sense of purpose.

In today's fast-paced, workaholic society, awards and recognition are especially crucial. But what works better to get the message across – a pat on the back or something employees can actually use? Cash has always been an incentive, but it's not as pervasive as you might think. More and more firms are actually looking toward imprinted products to recognize and motivate employees.

Products speak louder than words (or cash) for several reasons: Beyond providing positive reinforcement, they also serve as continuing reminders of the person's achievement and the firm's long-term business goals. If you reward a committed team player with a fancy logoed mug and a selection of gourmet coffees, for example, she'll remember her accomplishment each time she hits the java.

Another benefit is that promotional products stretch a firm's advertising reach. When you honor an employee with a logoed shirt, the public sees your name every time that person wears it outside of the office.

Getting Started
Developing a strategic award/recognition program might seem daunting, but it's actually fairly easy. The trick is to stay organized. Jennifer Specht, an Atlanta promotional consultant, suggests pinpointing specific business goals and drafting your long-term plan accordingly. "Start by brainstorming with the human resources department and other key players within your company," she says. "Then define your targeted end-results, set goals, and determine a project budget."

Sometimes, focusing isn't enough, says counselor Paula Grundleger. "It's important to be extremely specific about the results you want to achieve," she advises. "For example, don't just decide you want to reduce breakage. Decide to reduce the number of tungsten blades broken on line 27."

For those who don't have either the time or resources to do all this planning and strategizing, a promotional products consultant can often help in gathering all the information you'll need.

Aim High (But Stay Realistic)
Jeff McCafferty, president of Philadelphia-based Human Resources Consulting and Research Inc., says a program's goals must be attainable; employees should have the ability to make the grade. An entry-level salesperson, for example, would quickly grow frustrated if an incentive program only recognized new employees who racked up $1 million in sales the first year.

You should also specifically define the length of your campaign. Do you want to improve safety over a period of six months? Do you want to inspire your sales team to reach $1 million by the end of the fiscal year? Plan your recognition program and a series of awards accordingly.

According to Specht, employee award and recognition programs should never be one-shot deals. Campaigns that span a period of a few months and offer different levels of awards are generally more effective. The possibility for greater rewards usually motivates workers to outperform the norm.

Finding A Dream Theme
Once your program's foundation is set, then the fun can begin. Specht recommends picking a theme and sticking to it. "A theme makes programs more fun and more recognizable," she says. "It also gives your campaign a sense of continuity."

Safety was an ongoing problem for a manufacturer of welding equipment and welding gases. "Welding canisters weigh a few hundred pounds each," explains counselor Glen Colton, who worked on the project. "Many long-term employees were getting cavalier about lifting these heavy containers. Needless to say, the potential for injury was enormous."

To help improve safety awareness, the firm followed Colton's advice and rewarded each team of six- to 12-people with points for each accident-free quarter. At the end of the year, the teams cashed in their points for promotional products such as sports and leisure items.

To reinforce the visibility and importance of this program, Colton designed a cartoon character named Art. The mascot adorned the firm's giveaways throughout the year. For example, to help remind workers to use a special safety cart to carry the canisters, each employee received a travel tumbler bearing the firm's logo, the mascot and the phrase, "Be smart like Art. Use the cart." Result: Over a 12-month period, the number of accidents decreased significantly.

The lesson, says Colton, is that sometimes you need to think beyond plaques and pins. With so many unique promotional products available, it's often more fun to give original, useful items as rewards. Specht successfully used an auto-racing theme to help one firm boost sales. First level winners earned a baseball cap. Other increasingly valuable prize tiers included a folding chair, a pair of binoculars and, finally, a logoed racing jacket and a pair of tickets to a NASCAR race.

You Get What You Pay For
Keep in mind that one of the biggest mistakes a firm can make is providing cheap, poorly made items as rewards. "The product must be substantial enough to energize an employee's feelings of self-worth and confidence," McCafferty says. "Even a well-intended idea can breed negative emotions and attitudes if the reinforcement is not significant enough." It's a lot like the incentive industry: People need a hefty motivator to change their behavior, and recognition awards should be similarly substantial to reinforce positive performance. The products you provide also impact your company's image and brand – not only with respect to employees, but also with the public.

For promotional consultant Carl Boothby, quality is far more important than quantity when it comes to these programs. "It's better to spend X amount of dollars on a program that will affect fewer people than it is to spend the same amount on a program that will affect everyone," he says.

Boothby believes products that have emotional appeal work best. For example, one of his clients is an automobile manufacturer. For the anniversary of the debut of a popular vehicle, the firm launched a program designed to increase efficiency on the assembly line. Workers who met specific criteria received a stadium blanket decorated with the anniversary date and a picture of the vehicle. Since most employees felt like proud contributors to this auto's success, the product appealed to their emotions and therefore had a huge impact. Overall efficiency increased significantly.

Spread The Word
It took a lot of bones to make Pavlov's dog salivate. People, of course, are much smarter, busier and more difficult to motivate. That means your employees' enthusiasm for your rewards and recognition program will wane if it's not continually promoted.

With this in mind, reinforce your award and recognition program on a regular basis. Send e-mails and post flyers. Make announcements and use paycheck stuffers. Or, better yet, hand out inexpensive promotional items to remind people of the larger rewards they can achieve. If, for example, the top prize for motivating salespeople is a new car, a plastic car-shaped keytag and reminder message in employees' mailboxes can work wonders.

And along with proper promotion, you'll also need to collect data and measure your results. This may sound intimidating, but the fact is it can be as simple as recording the "before and after" numbers.

"Tracking your results gives you qualitative data on the return of your investment," Grundleger explains. "It also gives you feedback to consider for your next program." She recommends saving the data to promote future award programs.

If Momma's Not Happy, Nobody's Happy
Another critical point: The most creative, well-intended award program won't work if it doesn't have the blessing and support of top management. "The enthusiasm and excitement must come from the top down, or it will have no value," Specht notes. "It's important that management buy into and become involved with recognition programs." And the involvement needn't be extensive. It could include something as simple as sending employees e-mail reminders or presenting the awards in a public forum. Ideally, management should also be involved in the planning process.

Even today, many "old-school" managers believe their employees will work harder when they skimp on praise and rewards. Other supervisors feel dishing out too much recognition gives employees the impression that they're not tough enough.

But McCafferty contends that praise is a more effective motivator than fear. "People like and need to be rewarded and recognized for their accomplishments," he says. "Award and recognition programs are critical components of any benefits and compensation package." Still, he cautions that no program will go far if the underlying aspects of performance management – such as fair performance evaluation programs – aren't already in place.

All parties involved benefit from well-planned employee award and recognition programs that use promotional products. Employees feel more motivated, appreciated and enthusiastic, when they receive useful reminders of their accomplishments. At the same time, companies achieve their business goals.

It's hard to beat a combination like that.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Dynise Balcavage is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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