Coming to you live from Las Vegas at the Promotional Products International Association’s (PPAI’s) largest event of the year and the biggest trade show in our industry, I’m excited to reveal some of the insightful marketing trends we’ve seen at this year’s Expo. In case you aren’t familiar, PPAI hosts over 1,300 exhibiting suppliers and 11,000 distributors from across the globe – all clamoring into the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on the heels of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to find out what the hottest new products for 2016 will be.
After closing out day two of the Expo, I sat in my hotel room trying to digest everything I had been absorbing over the past couple of days. I could have easily started writing about the cool life-hack products that are perfect for, say, people who are taking photos all day (like me), or just want their phone readily available to make sure they can check email without digging through their bag (see below for “slingback” and “pop socket” to name a few). But while these little life hacks are cool, catchy, and buzz-worthy, they aren’t the real takeaway of the event.
Even more impressive than capitalizing on the mobile trend is how deeply our suppliers are invested in their products. From specialized trend research teams, to full-fledged development departments, to entire facilities dedicated to quality assurance, our suppliers are investing in resources that will ensure their products are not only on-trend and meeting consumer needs, but also following compliance laws and making sure they are safe, and risk-free for our clients and end users.
I initially predicted that come time to write this blog post, I’d be sitting here compiling the brand new items hitting the market. In a recent Facebook post, I remarked on being curious about which trends from last week’s CES show would carry over to PPAI—I joked about seeing branded holograms and mused about new wearables. And while I did see plenty of wearables (and even virtual-reality products…and drones!) what I found is that most of the products at PPAI are not, in actuality, “new.” At first, I was surprised to see that most of what I looked at was the same as last year, with a slight enhancement—a 2.0 version. But this is, in fact, the crux of one of 2016’s guiding trends.
On Wednesday, I spoke with a supplier partner of ours about their fitness tracker device, and in discussing a proprietary app they built for it, he actually said the words “to us, the app was the most important part.” Hold the phone. That is quite a strong (and telling) statement. We are in a PRODUCTS industry, people! Promotional products. But as it turns out, the most important thing about promotional advertising moving forward won’t be the product alone, and this show wasn’t about the next groundbreaking item on the market that no one had ever seen before. It was about driving the next level of engagement…it was about the enhancements that can be made to products to make them even more useful, even more necessary, even more relevant to a consumer.
The seeds of this trend were planted in my head at the first session I attended on Tuesday morning with marketing guru and renowned author Seth Godin. Godin speaks in an almost lyrical way—gliding through pretty words and impactful phrases. He is ever-inspiring, and seemingly easy-to-follow—yet he spends most of his time illustrating abstract concepts that are eventually boiled down into a simple idea. His style, his writing, and his whole point is to get marketers to think differently. As Godin said, “one of the biggest marketing challenges is that most of the people you are trying to sell to don’t think they have a problem that only you can solve.” In essence, brands are challenged to put products into the world that play a critical role in consumers’ lives—and do it better than the next guy.
In case you haven’t been following Boundless on Twitter, we’ve been tweeting out soundbites heard throughout the Expo from our top suppliers. Reading them back to myself gave me the opportunity to clearly identify the theme that had already been manifesting in my mind.
All the suppliers I spoke with told a similar story in a different way: the product is only a part of the equation. The critical ingredient is finding a way to create a marketing tool (a promotional product) that builds a relationship. How do we enhance a product so that it actually becomes a necessity, or occupies a permanent spot on your desk or in your bag? Something you couldn’t imagine living without?
We need to pay attention to how people interact with products. In what situations and contexts do people have challenges that need to be solved? How can a product be enhanced to meet those needs?
For some suppliers like the one mentioned above, that means building a client-branded app that not only connects to a fitness tracker like a FitBit, but lets users interact with each other—from engaging in fitness competitions to arranging meetups. For others, it means designing a special pocket in a bag that addresses a unique need for a certain demographic or interest group. And yet for others, it means leveraging a digital rewards code to connect on the platform we use most: the internet. Some suppliers embrace the age of digital connectivity by creating products that continue to make it easier for us to stay connected with one another—from chargers, to tablet stands, to storage devices—they’ve developed a product that once you have, you cannot live without. Or at least, you think you can’t. Addressing a unique need, driving people to a connected platform, serving up a branded web experience—all of these methods produce a more engaging interaction with a consumer.
All this to say: the pen, the water bottle, and the grocery tote aren’t going anywhere. Value can be found in any product that is suited for the audience and is “sticky” because of utility or novelty. But the future of our industry lies in the type of functionality that goes deeper than the bag that sits in your trunk. It taps into our basic human need to connect. It gives us avenues to build relationships over an extended period of time, and it makes us feel like we can trust in brands. From what I can tell, 2016 is going to be a great year for promotional marketing.
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