Aha Moments

Industry innovators share the inspired solutions that increase their bottom lines.

Industry innovators share the inspired solutions that increase their bottom lines.

Aha! Eureka! The light bulb goes on. Since cavemen invented fire, people have been coming up with innovative and practical solutions that have transformed or improved daily life or business. Often these ideas are so simple, but successful, that the rest of us ask, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Whether it's a new product offering, business strategy or marketing solution, innovative promotional product distributors encourage their employees to collaborate and brainstorm creatively. "Every idea is an opportunity, and forward-moving organizations love opportunity," says Terry McGuire, senior vice president of marketing at HALO Branded Solutions' (asi/356000). The key is to learn the difference between a good opportunity and a great opportunity."


HALO's challenge was to find a way to get its account executives (AEs) to make greater use of the company's internal marketing resources. "We had data to support that when our AEs used our marketing tools, they grew their business by at least 15%," McGuire says. "The more our salespeople used our resources, the more their individual sales grew.  We realized there should be both an incentive to use our resources and an additional reward for growing high sales volume."

The light bulb went on. HALO created a new program, HALO Premier/Elite Advantage, aimed at its highest level producers. "It's similar to the airlines' frequent flyer programs, with more benefits based on more activity and higher sales volume," he explains. Sales reps bringing in $500,000 or more of sales are Premier class, and those selling $1 million or more make up the Elite category.

The program represents a potential company investment of almost $700,000 to provide additional marketing tools at little or no cost to its high fliers. "AEs at our top volume levels have asked for some things that were 'extra special' for some time," says McGuire. The new program now formalizes the benefits those top producers receive.

The program was rolled out earlier this year and promoted through email. Then every account executive in the two top groups received a package of samples and products denoting their new status as Premier or Elite members. Each category has its own separate logo, apparel and lapel pin.

"Each month, we provide an extra perk for these club members, letting them know there is one more Premier or Elite advantage," says McGuire. "For example, the perk could be a hotel room upgrade at a sales conference to reinforce the message that these AEs are special status, or we provide additional monthly email or direct-mail campaigns on their behalf," he adds.

There are currently about 85 Premier Advantage club members, and 39 Elite, according to McGuire. He says he's gotten very positive feedback within the organization for the new program. "Our reps who are close to, but not quite at the $500,000 sales mark are saying Premier/Elite is an incentive to work harder for the the additional benefits," he notes.

Also, HALO will continue to offer its free and low-cost tools to all of its salespeople. "It's not a shift of resources from lower sales producers to higher ones – the program is an added investment on HALO's part for the direct benefit of high-volume AEs," says McGuire.


Executive One Solutions (asi/235910) created a winning format when Co-Owner Michele Broviak came up with the idea of presenting "Best of" awards at machine and tool industry trade shows. The concept has proven a great way to introduce the company in a fun and memorable way with the net result of adding new customers.

Broviak's years of operating a dance studio and judging dance competitions prompted her "aha" moment. "As you know, it is always about the win and the awards. After watching an awards show on TV, I said, 'aha, that's it!'" she says.  "We present awards such as Best Corporate Apparel, Best Booth Design and, of course, the coveted Best in Show."

One month prior to the trade show, Executive One informs exhibitors by email that it will be presenting awards at the show. If the company wants to be considered for an award, it would need to respond with its name, booth number and contact information, allowing Executive One to gather contact information on prospects.

During the week-long event, Executive One employees walk the show floor for two days researching companies and their booths, seeking out winners. Typically the company presents 12 awards.

Initially, award recipients weren't quite sure what to make of it, notes Broviak. "However, once we explained who we are and that we've been evaluating attendees and choosing winners, their expression is priceless," she says. "They bring over the owner of the company, staff and others for a group picture with the award, and they proudly display it at their booth for the rest of the show."

"They are so excited to receive a beautiful award from Executive One Solutions, even though we have nothing to do with their trade show industry. We assure them there is no obligation to buy from us. However, we also give them an incentive to purchase from us if they do choose to work with us."

The company follows up with a blog and email blast naming the winners, which generates lots of positive buzz among award recipients as well as companies that did not receive any prizes.

"We don't have a large awards business," Broviak says. "It's just a tool to get us in." She cites a recent order as a sign the awards are having the desired effect.  "We got a call from a company I've been wanting to meet with for years – one of the biggest exhibitors at the trade shows. They needed 1,000 backpacks, at $25 a piece," she says.

"This marketing idea is an investment and a time-consuming undertaking, but trade show clients now represent the majority of our firm's business," she says.


Triad Advertising Companies was looking to enhance its client experience when it took the unusual step of creating its own promotional products company, Red Ball Promotions (asi/346567), according to Joe Emerson, co-founder and partner. Red Ball is one of only a few companies affiliated with a full-service advertising agency, according to the company website (

Emerson and his two partners set up Red Ball to better serve its clients with products that more accurately reflected brand strategy, combined with marketing and sales goals. It also offered Triad another foot in the door with potential clients.
  "We saw a white space that our clients could benefit from," says Emerson. Having an art department in-house meant that Triad and Red Ball could combine both creative and artistic employees to brainstorm on ideas, he says.

Another plus? Typically in the promotional products industry, orders need to be paid in advance. However, since Red Ball is backed by a successful advertising agency, its clients don't need to prepay. "That gave us a big advantage," he says.

Despite Red Ball's place in the Triad group of companies, the parent treats Red Ball as a completely separate entity. "We call Red Ball a vendor of ours," " Emerson says. We tell them Triad is their number-one client and vice versa. This keeps the emotion out of it and allows for a less personal, more professional relationship."

Promotional products have been an easy sell to the existing client base.  "Our clients realize it's a seamless process from start to finish," he says.

Triad welcomes creative input from its employees. The company conducts regular production meetings for brainstorming open to anyone from both entities who wants to attend. "We're big fans of pizza," Emerson says. "If someone has an idea, an interest or technology they're interested in, they can set up a 'lunch and learn' to generate conversation."


Sometimes "aha" moments can be as simple as really knowing your potential customer and educating them about those product qualities that might be or should be important to them.

A few years ago, Sharon Stewart, owner of Embroidereez (asi/187765), bid on a project for a hospital client to supply teddy bears with imprinted shirts for various departments to give out. She submitted her quote, only to be told she was not the low bidder, so Stewart thanked the hospital for the opportunity to place the bid and moved on.
  However, as she thought about the hospital's sensitive patient population and overall concern for safety and health, Stewart wondered if the winning distributor had indicated whether the bears were CPSIA-certified, and if so, had a test report been secured? She also questioned whether the silk screening was safety compliant.

Stewart contacted the client's purchasing department to make them aware of the importance of safety testing, particularly at a hospital. "Surprisingly, no one at the time knew what CPSIA was, and how it could affect children and the hospital as well," she says. The hospital thanked her, and she assumed that was that.

The next day, she got a call from the director of purchasing letting her know that the distributor that won the bid was not able to produce safety testing results, nor did he mention anything about the silk-screening process. "She was so concerned about the safety issues we had discussed that she changed her mind and awarded the bid for the bears with the imprinted shirts to me instead," says Stewart.

After that initial order, Stewart secured numerous orders not only for the bears, but for other products as well. "The purchasing director said she was very pleased that I educated her about this important safety requirement, and that she felt more comfortable getting products from me than from other distributors she'd worked with in the past," she says. "By educating the client about the various safety issues involved, I was able to impress the customer and, in turn, establish a longstanding relationship with the hospital."

Stewart now only uses five-star suppliers that are CPSIA-compliant and regularly shares the story of how she landed this particular hospital account. "I feel recounting the story lets my customers know how important this issue is to me, and should be to them as well," she says.


The addition of an 18,000-square- foot showroom 10 years ago was a smart idea for Millennium Marketing Solutions (asi/379074). "We are a hybrid marketing agency and production facility, and we knew we needed more space," says President Janice Tippett. Because Millennium's original building was purely a production facility, the company always had to rent out local spaces to showcase its products and services.

The showroom was designed to be a client-friendly destination.  Special touches included slate floors, retail lighting, TV monitors to pull up ESP online with ease, a large conference room, reception area and a glass wall looking onto the production facility, as well as a wet bar and a Keurig machine.

Millennium took advantage of its new and improved space by offering a host of events to bring clients in and show them everything the agency could do for them, and to highlight its preferred supplier lines. It hosts two expos a year, one in spring and one in the fall, when the entire building is turned into one big showroom, featuring 10-15 vendors.
  Millennium selects fun themes, such as a treasure hunt, to encourage visiting clients to stop in and learn something at each of the vendor's booths. In November, the company did a fashion show featuring staff and key clients wearing promotional apparel and related accessories.

It also offers regular "Lunch and Learns," focusing on specific single topics. The February meeting centered on maximizing trade show potential, with expert tips on updating booths and displays and saving time and money.

"Our education seminars have been particularly well attended by more appropriate buyers looking for marketing solutions," says Tippett. Each is 45 minutes long, followed by a Q&A.

A caveat: When doing an educational event, don't make it a commercial. "The more you make it purely educational, the more it creates a feeling of trust and authenticity," she says. "Ultimately, that is what brings the business, rather than pitch, pitch, pitch."


"My best 'Aha' moment came three years ago when I decided to mail my holiday cards and gifts at Thanksgiving, instead of mid-December," says Laurie Amigo, brand merchandising specialist, HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000).

She discovered there were many benefits, including being the first to wish clients a happy holiday, not offending anyone regarding Christmas vs. Hanukkah and staying top of mind as her holiday card sat on recipients' desks the longest. It also serves as a gentle reminder that it's not too late to order holiday gifts and cards from Amigo.

The biggest advantage, though, was that some of her clients decide to order the holiday gift she sends them as holiday gifts for their own companies. "This has happened every year, so I carefully choose my holiday gifts to make sure there is plenty of inventory and great pricing," says Amigo. In the last two years, the gifts she sent out generated enough add-on sales to cover her self-promo costs.

Amigo also times her gifts so that the client is sure to receive them before Thanksgiving, even if they take Thanksgiving week off. "By taking care of this in November, it's one less line item on my December checklist," she says.

Jean Erickson is a NJ-based contributor to Advantages.