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Promo Market to Target: Gen Y and Gen Z

The latest in a yearlong series highlighting top sales segments for distributor reps.

Move over baby boomers. So long Gen Xers. The new most popular kids in town are all under 35 – and brands badly want to market and sell to them. For that matter, you should, too.

By now, you’ve surely heard about millennials who make up Generation Y. There are 93 million millennials in the U.S., and the group now represents the largest segment of the American workforce. Its oldest members are only in their mid-30s, making millennials prime current and future targets for promo products and apparel. Of course, not only are they important end-users, they’re increasingly buyers who are in charge of their companies’ marketing strategies. “The millennial generation will be dominant for a long time to come,” says consultant Cam Marston.

But wait, there’s more: On the heels of the millennials is another seriously large and vital group: the iGeneration or Gen Z. Born after 1995, these kids don’t know a world without the internet and mobile devices. Right now, many Gen Zers are moving into entry-level jobs where products and apparel are commonly used as motivators to reach business goals. Meanwhile, the bulk of iGen’s 70 million members make up the college and high school scene, a huge promotional segment itself.

While there are naturally some differences between them, millennials and iGens have more in common with each other than with Gen Xers, especially when it comes to technological prowess and preference. But these younger users also have specific wants – and turnoffs – that you must factor into your sales approach. If you don’t, it could be game over.

Understanding Young Buyers
There’s a unique dynamic at play with millennials who make purchasing decisions. “They want you to share ideas with them,” says Marston, “but it generally can’t involve meetings or in-person appointments.”

Marti Tarmichael, a senior account manager for Summit Group (asi/339116) in Bloomingdale, IL, sees this frequently firsthand. “So much of our communication is email, because trying to get in front of the few decision-makers is hard,” she says. “They are very wary of being sold – even with relationships that are under contract, sometimes there is still a perception of, ‘you’re trying to push something on me.’”

As a result, Tarmichael starts a project by sending several ideas from different categories via email. “The more options I give up front, the faster I figure out the direction they want and can start developing other elements like packaging,” she says. “But I do include in that initial presentation the packaging and wider concepts for a few of the products, because it’s tough to get into a room to explain that we’re partners and we should talk this through.”

One email presentation tactic that Marston suggests: Embedding a video where you can display several product and packaging ideas from all angles. Besides being more enlightening than photos, brief videos have currency with the under-35 crowd – and a video could serve to build a bit of personal connection with the buyer.

Some of young buyers’ skepticism in dealing with reps stems from their own ability to research product and apparel possibilities online, and compare those prices to a distributor’s quotes. But to drive home the value of her consultative services, Tarmichael reiterates in every email or phone conversation exactly how the added elements will make the program more meaningful to recipients, and how she’ll ensure the decorating and shipping tasks go seamlessly. “This process is definitely labor intensive, but we have to overcome their hesitations,” she says.

Ryan Small, a Gen Xer who’s president of Blue Dog Merch in Nashville, notes that most of his accounts with younger buyers are strongly tech-based relationships. In fact, he encourages his clients to use the internet to research items at the start of a project. “If you refer them to a user-friendly website – something that’s mobile-enabled or has responsive design that adapts its look to whichever device they’re using – they are happy to do that,” he says. “Many of them come to us with retail options they know they could not find on their own in the promotional world. They’re counting on us to find something similar that works.”

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Once Small finds the right items, he uses technology to customize them and maximize the client’s interest. “We see a higher closing rate when we apply their logo to a product in a virtual way,” Small says. “So we’re able to maintain the relationship and the value proposition of using our firm versus them trying to go online and do all the work themselves.”

Even with their preference for technology platforms, millennials find product samples to be a central part of their buying process. “They want to touch and feel things to get a measure of quality,” Small says. However, he doesn’t push face-to-face interaction on the front-end of a project. “It is just as successful to drop-ship the samples and get their feedback electronically,” he says. “But then I’ll go in person to pick up the items and talk about other aspects of the program. To me, millennials don’t seem opposed to face time. It just has to be on their terms, at the time they want it.”

Youthful Products
Sandy Hendon, a sales consultant for Geiger (asi/202900) in Myrtle Beach, SC, thinks she has a good feel for what millennials and iGens like. Some of it comes from her industry experience, but much of it comes from her young adult kids who are currently in the workforce. She sees technology taking a leading role both in her company’s programs and among her children’s friends and colleagues.

“They all love the Amazon Echo device that does everything through voice commands, from playing music to ordering products online,” she says. In the under-$10 range, Hendon finds mobile power banks to be popular, as well as four-in-one USB charging cables that ensure compatibility with most devices.

Although millennials and Gen Zers are often derided for their collection of “participation” trophies, Marston finds this ironic. Why? Unlike baby boomers and Gen Xers, their younger counterparts don’t want recognition in the form of trophies or plaques. While they expect to be acknowledged for their successes, any rewards they’re given have to be useful and on the leading edge to make an impact. For instance, Tarmichael says she uses a variety of electronic accessories “that support what they do in their daily lives. A lot of them listen with wired or wireless earbuds while they work, so those coupled with a portable power source are big. They also like Bluetooth speakers, because they’ll put them in different corners of their homes to act like a big stereo system.”

Hendon recently developed a customized item for a state association of physical education teachers that was tailored to how younger people go about their day. It was a leather iPad/tablet case with sleeves for holding money, an ID, credit cards and hotel keys, plus a magnetic closure. “Lots of young people go out with no wallet anymore,” she says. “Their phone or tablet folio does the job.” The feature that made this item most useful: the sleeves were designed to protect credit cards and electronic keys from being deactivated by the magnet or mobile device.

Even pens have greater perceived value when they have a complementary use related to personal technology. More than one rep noted that young users like the rubber stylus tip that lets them tap on their devices quickly and accurately, along with a laser pointer for presentations. These multifunction pens, ranging in price from $4 to $40, are well received.

Another nod to the young lifestyle: high-quality over-the-shoulder bags. “Nylon is being replaced by leather. It’s fashionable and durable,” Hendon says. With many younger people using backpacks to carry their computer, workout gear and shoes to the office, manufacturers have reshaped and padded certain compartments.

How Apparel Fits In
Small has landed a few custom projects for hats in recent months, and the styles are specific. “It has to be something they can pick up on a store shelf right now,” he says. “If you give them a six-panel cotton twill hat, they won’t care one bit about that. The soft-mesh-backed trucker hats and the flat-bill snapbacks are the old-school styles that have come back strong.” What’s more, off-center decorating goes along with younger people’s propensity to wear their hats slightly angled.

Hendon, meanwhile, has had success with apparel programs for her college and corporate accounts. How’s she doing it? “I’m moving a lot of higher-end polo shirts with wick-away and other performance features,” she says. “Where my peers used to wear suits or slacks with button-downs to the office, polos are the corporate look now.” Colleges are also buying them in bulk.

Hendon adds: “The Under Armour line for the promo market is huge for me. It’s fashion-forward, and it’s acceptable in most social situations.” As for T-shirts, the variety of fabrics and colors that young people are willing to wear is notable. “So many events have gone away from white, gray and black,” she says. “Now they use purple, teal and hot pink, even for guys.”

For two of her largest accounts with young audiences – an airline and a fitness-studio franchise – Tarmichael is seeing high demand for mid-weight jackets and lighter athleisure items with subtle logos. “The airline’s internal recognition program has a lot of branded items people can wear to work, and they’re buying for friends and family too,” she says. One interesting variation: “They use different company logos from the past on the apparel, to tap into today’s retro appeal.”

Tarmichael also says corporate logos placed on distress-treated fabrics are clearly becoming more popular. “There’s a ‘cool’ factor,” she says. “Vintage is definitely something young people like, because you see it a lot in today’s retail. And trends change so quickly because of social media exposure that promo offerings can’t lag behind retail anymore.”

One millennial-age buyer who knows this all too well is Emily Allen. As a promotional consultant for a few medical- and health-related associations in Texas, she’s dealing with more and more iGens who’ve recently joined the groups or who participate in their student councils. “In their discussion sections, I see that you almost can’t be cool enough,” she says. “It’s always about having the latest and greatest, having something that nobody else has at that moment. Promos will always have a hard time keeping up with that.”

To find items that’ll resonate, Allen occasionally explores the large artists’ district in Austin. Among her most recent discoveries: One artist who does “underwater photography but also applies it to T-shirts, either as all-over decoration or in a 13-inch-by-13-inch panel. It had muted tones, and there were some feminine cuts, too. It’s artistic and scarce, so it works.” She even found one recognition product that young people might actually want to display on an office shelf: A personalized, hand-carved plaque made of driftwood.

Rob Carey is a contributing writer for Advantages.