Northern Exposure

Highlights From The ASI Power Summit Canada 2015

ASI Power Summit Canada 2015The third annual ASI Power Summit Canada provided attendees with forecasts for the Canadian market, case studies from promotional buyers, and insights from a potential competitor. Here are highlights from the conference.

Amid a bucolic setting in Whistler, British Columbia, the third-annual ASI Power Summit Canada began with a tone of international optimism from one of the largest companies in the world. Michael Lee, the director of global marketing for, stressed his firm’s desire to partner with North American B2B companies, rather than challenge them for market share. Lee, the keynote speaker at June’s ASI Power Summit Canada, told conference attendees that Alibaba is focused on building trust, facilitating sourcing and expanding business opportunities abroad.

“Part of our plan in North America is to grow awareness,” he said. “One of our focuses is to make trading more effective and efficient so U.S. and Canadian companies can sell into the Chinese market.”

Lee outlined’s trade assurance program, which uses big data to help buyers determine which manufacturers are reputable. The program runs reports offering more sophisticated measures than just a credit history to rank top manufacturers. “This is a 360-degree view that allows us to endorse manufacturers,” Lee said. “Buyers can know if a manufacturer has been sued, for example, and whether a manufacturer works with a big brand that already vetted them.”

On the issue of patent and copyright infringement, Lee said that Alibaba has a process in place to help identify offenders, though he conceded cases are often challenging and the system “is not perfect.” Lee also acknowledged that Alibaba’s sites are platforms and won’t necessarily intervene or accept full responsibility when defective products are shipped. “We don’t touch those products, but we can help facilitate some resolution,” he said.

Lee identified two trends Alibaba is seeing on its sites. The first is that orders are tending to be smaller and more frequent. The second is that more international companies are engaging in business dealings. “We’re seeing an increasing number of global companies on our platforms – it’s up to about 30% that are not from China,” Lee said.

In his session, Lee also admitted that Alibaba may pursue acquisitions of ad specialty companies in the near and long term if the situation was right. He implied, though, that no purchases were imminent.

Hansen Touts Economic Recovery
Colin Hansen, the former finance minister of British Columbia, told attendees that Canada is well-positioned for economic growth and offers significant business opportunities in manufacturing, technology and transportation.

“Canada weathered the economic downturn better than most countries around the world and the recovery is on pretty solid ground,” said Hansen. “What’s important now is that Canadian businesses start telling our story and talk about what the nation has to offer.”

Although he acknowledged some regions of Canada have been hard hit, Hansen sees oil prices bouncing back, helping Canadian firms. He disputes the notion that in recent months oil prices “collapsed,” instead viewing the dip as more cyclical. “It was just in June of 2014 that oil was above $100 a barrel,” he said. “Prices are already coming back and will get back to $90 a barrel.”

On relations between the U.S. and Canada, Hansen said he believed the countries’ ties were currently “very good.” He said he was generally supportive of the new fast-track trade bill that passed in the U.S. Senate in June, arguing that free trade is a “win-win” for everyone. He expressed optimism that the U.S. would elect a president in 2016 that would continue “to break down trade barriers and have strong international outreach.”

In discussing the ad specialty industry, Hansen thinks Canada can become a larger player in the promotional products market – not just through sales, but trade. “If you were bringing in product from Asia, Canada actually has the closest ports, the lowest transportation costs and a talented labor force,” he said. “So I believe Canada can play a much bigger role in the promotional products sector as a base from which to do operations aimed at the Americas.”

Hansen closed his session by saying firms have to stop simply pushing products and focus on strong service as a growth strategy. “Online platforms,” Hansen said, “will eat your lunch if you’re just selling products.”

Cultivating Creativity In Branding
Prabha Tanna, the senior manager of Brand Governance for Fortune 500 company Bank of Montreal (BMO), walked the Power Summit Canada audience through the steps she takes in creating promotions for BMO’s clients and employees that bolster the venerated brand.

“Because BMO’s slogan is ‘We’re here to help,’ we feel strongly that the promo products we use in supporting our brand are functional and showcase our logo in the best way possible,” Tanna said.

Pointing to pens, magnets and T-shirts as some of the company’s go-to items, Tanna conversely identified items that she’d never OK the BMO logo being used on: “Any sort of mat – because I don’t want the logo walked on – and, even though I personally like them, nothing edible like cupcakes decorated with the logo. I don’t want the brand being eaten.”

Steve Pons, vice president of sales for Top 40 distributor Accolade Promotion Group, which was recently acquired by Staples Promotional Products, works with Tanna and BMO to craft promo-driven campaigns. “When I’m looking at products to show Prabha and her team, I always keep authenticity in mind,” Pons said. “Will the products show BMO in the best way possible and convey its core messages of helping and valuing customers and employees?”

Routinely named as one of Canada’s Best Places to Work companies, Tanna noted that BMO has a robust diversity program and stringent product safety guidelines in place. “And of course, we’re always partial to products that are made in Canada,” she said.

Canucks Create Memories With Ugly Sweaters
Some companies use promotional products for brand awareness. But for the Vancouver Canucks National Hockey League (NHL) team, they’re even more valuable.

“Fans don’t see us as someone who makes a product,” Mark Raham, creative director for the popular sports team, told audience members. “They see us as an entity that creates memories. So they want us to give them a product at a special event that they can bring home and display, and tell people, ‘I was there.’”

Hockey fans always have wanted ad specialty items that are “about the experience,” Raham said, and millennials are even more that way. “When people think of a typical sports audience, they’re picturing older white males, but that isn’t the case with today’s fans,” he said. Canucks fans average about 20 to 30 years old, and there are almost as many women at the games as men. “These fans don’t want to collect a bunch of stuff. They want pieces that commemorate a special moment in their lives,” he says, “such as the retirement of a favorite player or a big playoff win.”

And sometimes, the Canucks marketing team has to do some quick thinking when those special moments happen. One example: A few years ago, the Canuck players turned up at a holiday charity event purposely wearing hideous holiday sweaters. Fans loved it, and photos of the players in their outrageous outfits (picture Rudolph with a blinking nose) went viral. Raham and his team saw an opportunity, and immediately ordered scarves and other apparel featuring the players in their outfits. “People went bananas,” he said, “and now these things have become collector’s items.”

Take Risks & Hire Right
Kevin Sandhu, the CEO and co-founder of firm Grouplend, encouraged Power Summit attendees to take educated risks, focus on customer analytics and make a push for young employees. “It’s tough to attract younger talent, but I think you do it by pitching them on being tied to something important,” he said. “Yes, economics and salary matter, but brands need to sell people on the impact they can have.”

Sandhu also stressed that smart companies place a premium on their customers’ needs. In the case of Grouplend – which offers three-year personal loans of up to $30,000 at personalized rates that start at 6.3% APR – the firm provides quick answers through algorithms that determine credit worthiness. “We started our company to give people an alternative to traditional banks, which can be frustrating,” Sandhu said. “We felt like there was an opportunity there. We’re an exclusively online company, so we have to go deep into data – not just collecting it, but making it actionable. In the same way, companies today need to find out all they can about their customers to service them better.”

Sandhu – known as a disruptor in the Canadian market – also argued that some risk-taking is important to really make a difference in business today. Sandhu himself gave up a lucrative finance career to start Grouplend. He followed his passion and suggests all entrepreneurs do the same. “We’ve gotten traction two or three times greater than what we thought we’d have at this point,” he said. “Taking a risk – especially when you see an opportunity – is good.”

Cognitive Diversity Can Elevate Your Business
In a highly-rated session, Renee Bazile-Jones – director of client services for the Canadian Centre of Diversity & Inclusion – explained how having different, competing opinions in the workplace can lead to revenue growth for companies. “We’ve seen it happen with companies we work with again and again – when they hire people who look and think differently than the majority, they avoid ‘group think’ and create an atmosphere for robust discussion, creation and implementation of new ideas,” Bazile-Jones said.

Noting that Canadian demographics are shifting much like the U.S.’s, Bazile-Jones said that only 20% of Canada’s workforce could be defined as “white males.” Instead, “for the first time, we have at least four generations in the workplace and many cultural heritages – tapping into this is smart business for companies and can help them grow,” she pointed out, adding that one company that actively focused on promoting and cultivating its cultural and cognitive diversity recently saw a 20% bump in sales.

“Look at women,” Bazile-Jones said. “There are still many unfounded stereotypes that women don’t make good leaders because they’re too emotional. But women bring such specific talents to the table – a strong ability to empathize, for example – that they’re often wonderful leaders.” And one trend of note from Bazile-Jones: “Our studies show that when women hit their 40s, that’s when – if they’re not totally happy, fulfilled and engaged in their jobs – they’ll jump ship to follow their own passions. So, you can expect to see a lot of new female entrepreneurs in the marketplace.”