Promotional Products: waste of money?


A client just called my attention to a piece published in Fast Company by Elizabeth Segran arguing that cheap promotional give-aways are destroying the planet and do little to achieve a company’s marketing goals. On the surface, this premise seems to invalidate what we do here at Reno Type. Yet I loved the article. I’ve been trying to get this point across to clients for years.

At first, the article seems to contradict itself. The author begins by admitting that she cancelled her New Yorker subscription so that she could re-subscribe to get her hands on the latest Tote-Bag gifted to new subscribers.

I did a little digging and learned that the New Yorker made half a million of these tote-bags. These bags probably cost them between $1.50 and $2.00 per. If they had only ordered 100 bags, they’d have cost $7-$10 product, so economy of scale certainly helps. A subscription to the New Yorker costs $120 a year. I’m not sure what the average tenure of subscriber is, but picking ten years as a reasonable median, the average “lifetime value” of a new subscriber is $1,200. So this two(ish) dollar investment returns $1200 in gross sales. That’s a 99.625% ROI, if my math is correct

Let that sink in for a moment.

Now consider that every one of those 500,000 bags is circulating as a walking billboard for the New Yorker. Giving away promotional products is not a marketing practice to avoid; it is one to emulate!

The article goes on to accurately point out that most cheap promotional products are simply nuisances destined for the landfill. I agree 100%. I go out of my way to avoid accepting a useless promotional product offered to me at a trade-show or open house. Unless you are a hoarder, I bet you do too.

Promotional products are TOOLS. And like the tools you’ll find at the hardware store, they should serve a particular purpose. You buy a hammer because you have nails in need of pounding. The New Yorker bought a promotional tote-bag to gain and maintain subscriptions. If you come to me for a promotional product, I’ll ask you why you are buying it. What problem do you need to solve?

Offering a promotional item that doesn’t serve as a tool will be a waste of your money and will wind up in the garbage. Buying cheap items to give away is not a marketing strategy. It’s an irresponsible waste of time and money, and as Elizabeth Segran points out, bad for the environment.

Wondering how not to waste money on promotional items? The most important tip is to buy from a consultant rather than a distributor. Here’s another of my bullet-pointed PDF Tip Sheets with some simple guidance for planning a promotion that solves problems and helps you meet your business goals.

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Get the most from your trade show exhibit experience.


Exhibitors put lots of energy into designing the perfect booth for the trade show they’re exhibiting at. The booth is important, but not nearly as important as the steps you take before, during and after the show. The point of going to the show isn’t to have a booth. It’s to sell your products and services. You can download a 2-page pdf with my best basic tips by clicking here. The best advice I can give on this topic is simply to “do it on purpose,” or don’t do it all. The pdf will give you a good outline of HOW to do it on purpose.

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There’s a reason you are asked to sign off on a proof.

On any job produced by a printer, whether Reno Type or another reputable outfit, a proof is provided to the client prior to production. Mistakes happen. We hate them. We do everything we can to prevent them. But they sneak through. The proof is YOUR opportunity to catch and correct them.

An error could be in the original art provided by you. It could be a typo made by our staff. It could be an artifact created by a mismatch in software versions. Or any other of a myriad of reasons. And regardless of the circumstance, it is the client’s responsibility to review the proof carefully, and approve it.

If you notice an error upon receipt of your job — and that error was on the proof that you signed off on — guess what? It became YOUR error, even if it wasn’t originally made by you.

The good guys (and I like to believe Reno Type qualifies) will never use this to flog a client, and will work to resolve the situation fairly. But fairly SHOULD be fair to both sides. If a printer is expected to be responsible for all errors, regardless of whether a proof was signed off on, regardless of the situation, 100% of the time, no matter what… well… that’s just not fair.

No one wants errors, and certainly, no one wants to PAY for them. So please look at your proof. Approve it ONLY if you are willing to pay for a product that matches the proof.

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What’s in a proof?

As our industry has changed, so has the nature of “proofing.” Advances in technology have changed the accuracy of proofs (not in the direction you might expect), and many folks don’t understand the limits or even –as it turns out — the PURPOSE of a proof. This was drawn into stark relief for me on a recent user-group thread for the promotional products industry. The topic isn’t as simple as I wish it were… but it is important so I’ll take my time here.

The purpose of a proof is pretty straight-forward: to ensure that the finished piece is as expected/desired/specified. Ultimately it is a communication tool, and its efficacy is only as good as intention and understanding of those on both sides of the communication.

The best, most accurate proof is an example of the actual finished piece. In printing, this is called a “press proof,” so called because it is printed on the same paper and on the same piece of equipment (press) that the entire job will be produced with.  In case you wonder how print shops feel about press-checks, you can learn here. In the Promotional Products world this level of proof is called a “pre-production sample”. a supplier actually makes one and sends it for approval prior to completing the entire order. Not surprisingly, these are very expensive and usually cost prohibitive, as a significant portion of the manufacturing cost in either case is the tooling and set-up. And unless the entire group of “approvers” happens to be standing at the tail end of the press or production line, the entire set-up will have to be repeated upon approval. Printing presses and assembly lines can’t sit idle while waiting for your blessing. Either they will tool-up for the next project, or you will be billed an hourly rate for the idle “waiting” time.

And guess what? When your job goes back on press, it is very possible that the final project won’t perfectly match what you approved. The weather might be different. There may be a different operator. Ink could be contaminated by the last color used. Not saying it WILL be different… just pointing out that even this level of care and cost can still allow errors.

Now a brief historical interlude.
When type was made of lead and set by hand, the galley would be hand-inked and piece of paper pressed onto it so the typesetter could ensure that his work was accurate (the letters p, q, d and b look remarkably similar, and while the journeyman typesetter knew which spot in the tray each should come from, the apprentice who “sorted” the type back into trays after the last  could have mixed em up.) Once that was done type was locked up on a “proofing” press, and a higher quality proof was pulled for the “client” to approve.
When printing plates were made from “film,” the film could be exposed to material that simulated the printing process. A “blue-line” if you needed to show front-to-back orientation and show bindery operations (though it could only represent color by differing densities of blue). A “velox” if you wanted a high-quality black-and white proof. A “Color Key” or “Matchprint” if you wanted to show “accurate” color (note: these are brand names, like band-aide or kleenex. There were many other brands).

Though most printing and “decorating” is still, when ink-hits material, an analog process, the artwork is usually prepared digitally. Most of the old analog steps that allowed some sort of “accurate” interim proof no longer exist. Plates are not made from film, but are imaged digitally, for example. What is important is that the electronic proof be produced after ALL work has been done. Electronic files are always modified somehow prior to printing. Imposition. Trapping. Adding color bars. A stray keystroke in this process could lead to a change.

Recognize that the proof is likely delivered electronically and viewed on a computer monitor. Ever noticed that when you look at a wall of televisions at an electronics store, all set to the same program, that no two look exactly the same? Alas… it’s the way of things. The proof you see on your screen will not — CAN NOT — be accurate for color. Or size. Or shape. You simply must accept this, confirm specifications that can be confirmed in writing, and trust that the supplier of the proof knows what they are doing.

So if a proof can’t be absolutely accurate, what’s the point? It is simply the best we can do. It is a communication tool. To use it correctly everyone must understand the processes involved so that the ways error can creep in can be given extra attention.

Here’s my best advice:
Instead of assuming the proof will be an exact representation of the finished product, consider the proof as a GUIDE to the producer. They should use it as their “target,” and do their best to make the finished product look that way. The proof is simply one additional specification to the pressman, supplier, or assembly line. To evaluate the proofs quality, ask yourself if it communicates all of the relevant information clearly.

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Customer supplied stock

Most printers (the smart ones, anyway) simply won’t print on a customer supplied paper. Not for love or money. Today i’m gonna take a stab at explaining why that is, because print buyers and general consumers don’t understand it, and the reasoning is illustrative of the printing process in general.

All printing, even digital printing, is analog. That is, there is a mechanical and/or chemical process that the paper has to undergo. Pigment (whether toner or ink) is mechanically transferred to the paper as it moves from feed to delivery. In any mechanical process, there is a possibility of waste and failure, and frequently that waste/failure is completely out of a print shop’s control. Preventive maintenance, training and careful environmental control can mitigate some challenges, but can never eliminate them. That’s why it’s a common trade practice to charge NOT for the number of pieces you ordered, but the number you actually get. Ever notice that line on printing estimates that says “subject to over- or under-run of 5%, billed accordingly”? It means that the printer has to predict, in advance how much waste there will be… and since they can’t, many move this predictive burden to the buyer. Printers who promise “exact count” simply MUST charge more for their work than those who bill for the actual quantity including “overs” or “unders”

Printers always have “house” papers. These are sheets they buy in bulk and hold in inventory. Because they buy a lot of these papers, they get a better price and can pass that savings on. But more importantly, they are familiar with these papers and can control the environment the paper is stored in: humidity and temperature are significant factors in how paper and presses perform. They can very accurately predict the amount of waste. Also if they screw up, they have the resources on-hand to just fix it… so the exact prediction of waste is unnecessary. When you specify a paper that is not a “house” stock, you will ALWAYS pay more… even if the paper itself is cheaper. They aren’t generally buying enough to get a extraordinary discount, and they have to allow for greater waste, as so many variables are out of their control.

When you provide paper, you take responsibility for providing enough overs for the job to be properly printed. This means understanding a whole bunch of pretty esoteric stuff. How will the job be run? How many pieces will fit on a page? What is the waste associated with make-ready? With pre- and post- bindery operations? Is the job easy or hard to print? Does the paper have any unusual characteristics?

And these challenges are multiplied. You see, if the printer buys the paper and is wrong about the waste factor, they can just go and buy more paper. but if YOU provide the paper, they have no recourse. And problems are MORE likely to occur on papers you provide, as the printer has no idea of how the paper has been stored, how it was transported or where it came from — all important factors. The printer is either forced to potentially deliver a product that does not meet their standards, OR deliver a quantity below that specified. Even the best craftsman with the best equipment will face this challenge. A printer who values their reputation simply will not take on the risks associated with customer supplied paper.

Why do customers want to provide paper then?

The usual given reason is the belief that they will save money that way. They wont. Leaving aside the fact that your printer can almost always get the same paper WAY cheaper than you can, the waste concerns require extraordinary care when printing on customer supplied stock, so presses run slower, bindery is dome in smaller lots etc.

Occasionally it is a question of availability. For whatever reason, the printer can’t source the paper. In most cases, it’s not that the printer CAN’T source it, it’s that they WON’T. Either they KNOW there is a problem with the paper or the supplier, OR it is only available in a retail situation, so they can’t get the discount they are accustomed to, and so can’t make the margins they need in order to stay in business.

A common reason turns out to be quantity. Since printers understand the reality of paper waste, they are unwilling to take on a micro sized print run. They know that to guarantee quality work on a 50 piece print run, they will have to buy enough paper to print 150 or 250 pieces. When the client sees the price, they think “huh? how can 50 pieces of paper cost so much? I’ll just provide 50 sheets.”

If you have a need for a non stock paper on a regular basis though… give us a call. So long as you’ll commit to using it, and often enough to be worthwhile, we’ll happily buy it and store it. Essentially making it a HOUSE stock.

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