Up for promotion

Poor quality free merchandise can put a dent in your reputation. So think about your brand’s image, says Matt Barnard

Everyone has turned up to a conference and been given a bag full of freebies – the nasty ill-fitting T-shirt, the ghastly mug with a corporate logo and a bunch of other stuff which usually finds its way straight into the nearest bin. The only thing that’s missing is the Crackerjack cabbage that the infamous children’s TV show used to dole out to unlucky losers.

The real bug-bear for Nerissa Martin, managing director of sales promotion company NMB, is the awful pens. “If you go to a conference you judge a company by what they give you as a freebie, [such as] the horrible pen that clicks and irritates everyone around you,” she says, “That’s really badly thought out.”

In the past, promotional material has tended to reflect the fact that it is normally considered a last minute add-on. But, says Martin, that is changing as companies recognise the power of their brands and the fact that their merchandise reflects their brand values.

“Clients are recognising that they have got to pull their socks up and come up with original ideas to stay ahead,” she says.

At the same time, manufacturers have realised that there is a market for high quality merchandising products and are selling more aggressively. Meanwhile, design and branding consultancies are becoming more involved in the merchandising aspect of a branding exercise and more ambitious with their ideas.

Design Bridge created the logo for the European football competition Uefa, now the world’s third most valuable sports brand after the Olympics and the World Cup. Mark Budden, client services director, says the logo’s application to all areas of the stadium and venue was planned down to the last detail. “Even in the VIP areas we tried to have an influence on the kind of glass you drink from and the kind of tablecloth that would be there, so it wasn’t the tatty paraphernalia that you usually see,” he says.

It was something that Design Bridge had to push hard for, because at first the client didn’t recognise the importance of the detail.

It is an attitude that the world’s biggest sports brand, the Olympics, could learn from, according to Claudius Konig, a director at Wolff Olins. The consultancy won the competition for the design of the logo for the 2004 Olympic Games, to be held in Athens. “I think merchandising is very underdeveloped,” says Konig. “We are not involved in doing pens and T-shirts, but from a brand perspective it is interesting to think about the power of those vehicles, which now basically permeate society.”

Konig points out that there are no Olympic shops and the movement misses out on branding opportunities such as the golden shoes Michael Johnson wore when he won his gold medals at the 1996 Olympics, smashing the 200m world record in the process. Products like these could carry the Olympic logo and be sold jointly with Nike, he suggests.

To be really effective merchandising needs to feel fresh and innovative, Konig says. “The big challenge is to be topical.”

Poor quality promotional materials can do more harm than good, says Jeremy Scholfield, creative director at Interbrand Newell and Sorrell. So when the group worked with British Airways he was keen to make sure the gift range reflected the quality of the brand.

“We did get involved in theming it so it worked within the boundaries of the identity,” says Scholfield, “We had problems sourcing good stuff. As a general rule, companies that are out there tend to produce a product which isn’t of brilliant quality, and when you’re working with a premium brand you need to match that.”

Some sales promotion companies have their own designers and are ready to provide innovative solutions when given a brief. Mark Joy, director of sales and promotion company Ingrams, says that one of his most successful examples was a series of specially designed characters created for Ribena, including a “chuckling berry” which laughed when it was rubbed on its head.

The most successful merchandise can move a brand forward, he says, citing the Tango voodoo doll. However, Joy feels that some companies are still churning out badly thought out merchandise.

It is clear that merchandising has still got some way to go, and part of the hurdle is to get the leading above-the-line consultancies to take it seriously.

There are signs this is now happening. Wolff Olins’ Konig says, “I think there is a long way to go in merchandising, but if it is relevant for the brand to be active and to be part of the community, then we would look into it, not as an appendix but as a core activity.”

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