Creative Inspiration

Advice On How Companies Can Ramp-Up Innovation

Erik WahlArtist and entrepreneur Erik Wahl highlights The ASI Show Long Beach with advice for how companies can ramp-up innovation – and success. Plus, a look at the education and new products offered at the show.

With U2’s “Beautiful Day” filling up the ASI Long Beach ballroom, artist and entrepreneur Erik Wahl bounded onto the stage in late March. His message? Unlock creativity if you really want to succeed today. His method? Painting.

While U2’s song blared on the speakers and its video played for all to watch, Wahl painted a perfect picture of Bono, the group’s lead singer – in less than four minutes. That’s right, in the time it took for the group’s song to finish, Wahl banged out a painting of Bono, which one lucky show attendee got to take home.

“You can’t be successful today without being creative,” Wahl told the Long Beach audience when he finished the painting. “You have to find ways to differentiate yourself from the competition, and creativity can do that. The companies that are successful right now are the ones that create unique experiences for their customers.”

To do that, Wahl recommends that ad specialty distributors begin to analyze their business in different ways than they may have done in the past. He told the audience to look at their operations and customer relationships and find where there are spaces of opportunity. To Wahl, that opportunity often exists in the places where company managers are most fearful. “Take a step back and look at the spots in your business that are risky or that you’re fearful of,” Wahl said. “Turn those around and begin to view them as opportunities.”

Wahl believes that truly creative people embrace risk and fear, while most people in business today too often shy away from those risks. “You can’t let fear get in the way of creativity, performance and growth,” Wahl said. “Expand your own definition of risk from minimizing liability to actually capitalizing on the opportunity that risk provides.”

And, ultimately, Wahl believes that fear is what holds most people back from being creative and innovative – and finding real success. “You have to continually differentiate yourself from your competition and, maybe even more important, from companies today that you don’t even know are your competitors,” Wahl said. “Creativity can do that. Innovation will help to separate you from the crowd. But you can’t be innovative until you let go of fear and actually embrace the opportunity that those pain spots provide. Break outside of your comfort zone to really succeed today.”

How To Defeat Price Cutters
Johnny Campbell, head of consulting firm Rise Up and Win International and keynote speaker at The ASI Show Long Beach, has clear advice for companies coming up against competitors that are all-too-willing to cut their prices to win deals. “If you help clients increase their profits and increase the loyalty of their customers,” Campbell said, “then price will never matter. You have to exist to help clients.”

The key, Campbell said, is that distributors focus on becoming more than just product sellers to customers. “You need to be more to them,” he said. “You want to be more to their business, to their marketing plans, to their community, to everything they do. It’s a process, but if you can integrate your company into your clients’ operations and their everyday business, then price never becomes an issue.”

To get to that level of relationship with customers today, ad specialty distributors need to ask good questions. They need to understand the pain points and challenges of clients, and they need to find out exactly what drives their business today. Ultimately, they need to have valuable conversations that reveal how you can be a trusted resource – and not just the low-cost provider – for customers. “Ask the right questions so you know the higher purpose that promotional products can provide to your clients,” Campbell said. “There’s something that promotional products can bring their organization that gives a higher purpose than just buying items. What challenge do they have that promotional products can help solve? Knowing that for all your clients is the key to overcoming price cutters today.”

Grow Your Business Exponentially with Digital
Distributors can’t keep up today if they’re not matching their sales and marketing efforts to the ways that clients currently want to make purchases. That was the advice of Kathleen Booth of distributor firm Quintain Marketing, during her education session titled “Top-of-Mind Branding: Develop a Winning Marketing Plan,” at ASI Long Beach.

“The number-one way distributors sell today is through word-of-mouth and referrals,” Booth told her audience. “But there’s a disconnect with that, because the number-one way people buy today is through online research first. That’s where people go before they contact anybody or make any decisions. They go online to Google or Yahoo or Bing to do research, and if you’re not there, you’re missing a major opportunity.”

Booth said it’s fine for distributors to maintain the status quo and grow slowly with local referrals and sales to friends and community contacts. However, if you want to really grow and expand your business outside of your local community, the way to effectively do that today is to expand into digital marketing. “I made a sale to a company in Alaska because they found a blog of mine online that detailed a case study about products they were interested in,” Booth said. “They were searching online for specific products and my blog, which named those products, came up in search results. They called, and suddenly my small promotional products company in Annapolis, Maryland, had a deal with this big company in Alaska.”

Booth implored her Long Beach audience to invest in creating a great website and online content that contains keywords that are important to their customers and target markets. To Booth, great content (not just a well-designed and attractive website) is the key to success with online marketing. “Blogs, social media posts, website descriptions – they all need to be optimized with the terms your potential customers are using in search engines,” she said. “Stop selling online and start educating people. Tell stories, show case studies, be fun and be an information resource. Self-promotional information should be no more than 30% of the content you post online. Give people a reason to connect with you, and that most often today comes from educating them.”

The Power of Free Marketing
Marki Lemons-Ryhal, owner of Marki Lemons Unlimited, talked about the virtue of free marketing in “Social Media Marketing In Minutes A Day,” her session at ASI Long Beach. “We want to generate more leads for the services we offer,” Lemons-Ryhal said.

And it can be done by investing only minutes a day with social media outlets, or, as she likes to call them, “freemiums.” She uses that term because the majority of the networks – Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram – can be integrated into marketing strategies at no cost.

The process begins with a search on for keywords. “We need to start talking in the language that people search for,” she says. In addition to “promotional products,” people might be searching on “promo items,” “promotional gifts,” “cheap promo items,” “promotional business items,” etc. Once appropriate terms are found, those keywords should be used to tag files, PDFs, pictures, etc., making it easier for people to find you and increasing your SEO (Search Engine Optimization). In addition to the keywords, Lemons-Ryhal suggests using the locations that you do business in, the industries you work in, and promotions you have created for tagging purposes.

In addition to keywords Lemons-Ryhal talked about using the right social network for the audience you’re trying to reach. “People do not brand themselves the same way across all the social network sites,” she said. If it’s to consumers, then Facebook is perfect, but if it’s a B2B connection you want, go to LinkedIn. “There is an executive with every Fortune 500 company on LinkedIn,” she says. “People are using it. They are connecting with people they want to do business with.”

And with any platform, make sure you are using the proper keywords to lead people to you. “Secret businesses don’t get found,” Lemons-Ryhal said. “You have to let the world know what you have to offer.”