Business is like a two-sided coin: You have to have a great product (side one) and you have to have effective marketing to go with it (side two). This article takes a closer look at both.
SIDE ONE: QUALITY PRODUCTS
Although top quality should be a given, the truth is, I have seen a lot of engraving and personalized products through the years and frankly, a lot of it wasn’t up to snuff. If you want to stay in business, you must offer quality products. Be it a $3 trophy or a $300 clock, quality speaks for itself.
For those who think price is the pivotal concern of customers, let me assure you, it isn’t. Someone told me early on that “the quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten” and he was right. If you don’t believe me, just look at some of the most successful businesses in our industry and note that all of them are marketers and none of them are what you’d call the lowest price sellers. If you follow the cue of these eminently successful businesses, you too will come to the conclusion that offering quality products builds your reputation; offering quality products at a fair price builds your business.
A variety of blanks are available for personalizing with sublimation. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics Plus.
If anything counts in business, it is taking pride in what you turn out and most personalization professionals take enormous pride in their work and their products. Still, I have seen a great many jobs that I would have been ashamed to give to a customer and I’m sure you have too. Make sure you are never one of those who provides second-rate products or workmanship.
There are thousands of products available to us in today’s market. Trophies, pens, plaques, silver, key fobs, drinkware and much more. One of the first things I learned when I entered this business was not to sell anything I hadn’t touched myself. Pictures in catalogs can be misleading. In my mind, there is nothing better than attending one or more of the various trade shows held across the United States where you can touch and feel the various products available—especially new products. If you can’t attend a trade show, order a sample before committing yourself to a product. Even after 28 years in the business, I still get burned once in a while.
My last disappointment occurred when I saw some cool looking Christmas ornaments that held sublimated disks in them. I ordered a box of each of the various components but when they came in, the parts didn’t fit well, and the overall appearance was, well, “junky.” They went directly to the trash can. I couldn’t put my name on something that didn’t fit together any better than those did. Sometimes it just happens.
Most products in our industry, however, are of excellent quality as manufacturers have learned through the years that their reputations are also on the line. And, of course, we also have the capability of making our own products out of the many substrates available to us, including various types of wood, acrylic, plastic, cork, leather and more.
The challenge of selecting (or creating from scratch) products for personalization is finding or making products that are just plain “cool.” I know it is an overused and totally subjective adjective, but it is the only one I can think of to describe products that most shops don’t offer. It takes time and effort to discover these products, but it is what makes each shop stand out and it is often what determines the personality of the business. Yes, every shop has its own personality. Some are “sports centered” while others are “high class” and yet others are “all business” or even “industrial” in nature. A “high class” shop might specialize in a lot of glass and crystal while a “sports shop” leans toward trophies and medallions. One is not better than another, just different.
In recent years, a great example has emerged that didn’t come from within the ranks of the typical personalization shop but has had a tremendous impact and that is Etsy. A quick tour of the thousands of products available on the Etsy website reveals the tremendous creativity of people to come up with new and interesting products. Most of these don’t come from a catalog but are created in the minds of men and women who may never have seen the inside of a traditional engraving shop. I am especially impressed with the many wedding favors, cake toppers and related items available from these people.
Here in EJ and in our Awards & Personalization Connection e-newsletter, we have been highlighting a lot of this creativity through our new “Cool Jobs” feature. Perhaps you remember reading about the creative talents of these laser engravers who made cool projects like personalized cigars, fractal puzzles, an electromechanical rolling ball clock, a card catcher modeled after a castle, a 3D wall sign and more. (Be sure to check out the “Cool Jobs” feature in this issue.)
Having a variety of unique products sets you apart from other shops. Even if you use the Etsy products as inspiration for your own, it will be refreshing to know customers will be hard-pressed to find products as unique as what you offer.
Another place to find a collection of unique products is Epilog Laser’s (Golden, CO) website. In the section called the “Sample Club,” you can find a fantastic gallery of products you can make—and they even include step-by-step instructions. You’ll find a large, and growing, assortment of unique and cool projects, such as personalized end tables, laser cut games and puzzles, custom tap handles, wooden hangers and more.
Other laser manufacturer sites also have projects you can incorporate into your product line. Trotec Laser Inc., Plymouth, MI, for instance, has a number of cool products in their DIY section, including Halloween lanterns, wine boxes, felt slippers and a model airplane construction kit. Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ, also showcases a number of samples on their website that you can search by material and laser process (cutting, engraving, marking).
What really makes our industry’s products truly unique, however, is what we do to them—“the added value” to coin an old cliché. It is the engraving, sublimation, UV printing, etc., that turns a bobble or a bulk sheet of material into a family heirloom, and if the workmanship isn’t first class, it ruins the product—no matter how nice it was beforehand.
Henry Ford is credited to have said, “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking” and that’s what the successful engraving entreprenuers do. Even on the dippy little jobs, they take their time and do it right the first time. Remember, every job, large or small, is equally important to the person receiving it as an award or gift.
I once toured a cork factory in Virginia. They made gaskets for the automobile industry. At the entrance to their plant, they had posted a huge sign that read something like this:
An American company placed an order from a Japanese factory for 100,000 gaskets with no more than 1% defective. The company sent the order with this note: “Your order is enclosed. We do not understand why you want 1% defective but they are packaged separately for your convenience.” Sure enough, the only defective gaskets were in that package.
That is the kind of quality we should all strive for both in our products and our personalization services. Absolute perfection is, of course, impossible, but it should be our goal, and when we do make a mistake, our goal should be to fix it, not argue about it. That, too, reflects our level of quality.
SIDE TWO: GREAT MARKETING
It’s wonderful to have great products and offer great engraving, sublimation, etc., but all that is worth little if it isn’t packaged with good marketing.
Depending on the product and your situation, marketing can be a minefield of expensive mistakes and fruitless energy. Marketing is rarely easy or simple and it alone is the reason many great products die on the vine. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you are like me, you don’t have the financial resources to invest a great deal in marketing. Many marketing methods are out of reach no matter how good the product. Radio and TV are usually far too expensive, although I have done some trade deals with radio stations that have worked out well. Print ads for newspapers and magazines are also too expensive in most cases. In my city, a 2" x 4" ad can run over $300 for a single hit in the local newspaper.
Of course, there are many other ways to advertise your products and your business, including email, social media, word of mouth, websites, etc. These can be both effective and affordable.
If you like Facebook, you can do some very effective advertising without it looking like you are advertising at all. Take a picture of someone using your product and post it on Facebook along with a caption about what they are doing or where the person is and casually mention they are enjoying using whatever the product is. For example: “My wife is having a ball visiting the Smoky Mountains and note she has one of my sublimated handbags.”
Every product requires its own type of marketing. Cookie cutter marketing may work but it isn’t likely to be as effective for some products as others. Who do you think will buy the product you want to market? How can you reach THAT market?
Just as an example, consider how you might market rubber stamps as compared to trophies. They are two totally different markets, yet both are produced in the same place.
I have often talked about the three elements of a successful product as being:
- What are you going to make?
- To whom are you going to sell it?
- How are you going to sell it?
These questions must be answered before a new product, or any product for that matter, is brought to bear. If you can’t answer all three questions, you probably shouldn’t bother.
One method I’ve used is to market a new product by giving some away. Take a school related product as an example. If I give a product, a backpack for example, to several of the more popular kids, what do you think will happen? Others will want what they have, right? Well, I hope so. In any event, I’m not out much if it doesn’t work but more often than not, it does.
If I want to market to businesses, I would approach it in a different way. Perhaps by sending a letter or brochure to the purchasing agent of various companies along with an order blank to spark an immediate response. If it is something that might spark a large order, I might even send an actual sample, personalized if possible.
Yet another approach is to attend a networking session of the local Chamber of Commerce. There, I can mingle with prospective buyers and although it isn’t a place to sell, I can meet and greet people and talk about the new product I just launched or the many services I offer.
If you have a list of email addresses of customers or prospective customers, an email blast can be sent out introducing a product, new or not. This works especially well if you want to target your marketing to a specific event or time of year, such as holiday ornaments during the holiday season or personalized picture frames and jewelry for Mother’s Day.
Then there is the showroom. If you have one, this can be one of your most effective marketing tools when used correctly. You know the basics of showroom etiquette: Well lighted, clean, no clutter, friendly staff. Showrooms, however, are a lot of work. Just keeping them clean and well organized is a full-time job and keeping them current with fresh products and attractive displays takes a lot of time and money.
Here is something I learned about keeping a showroom fresh. A repeat customer who was in every week or two often commented on how we kept our showroom so interesting by constantly changing the products on display. I heard this several times from different customers until it dawned on me that we had not added any new products for several months, yet the customers always saw new things when they came in. What was going on? The truth is, we didn’t add new products, we just kept moving things around. What was happening was, when the customer came in they always focused their attention on the same, most dominate display in the showroom. So long as we kept changing that one display by rotating it with other displays, they thought it had all changed.
There are some tricks to good marketing in a showroom. Perhaps the most important is displaying products in themes. If you want to show a sublimated cup for firefighters, show it in a cluster of products that have to do with firefighting. If the product has flowers on it, place it among other products with flowers or even with some real flowers to bring the point home.
An even lower tech method of marketing in a showroom is for the salesperson to show a new product personally. For example, when a client comes up to pay for their order, the clerk can whip out the new product and say, “Did you see our newest product? We are really excited about it.” This approach is simple and direct. How long has it been since you were approached by a salesperson who was genuinely excited about their product? It really works!
Finally, and perhaps the most important of all, is to make it easy for the customer to buy your products. That may sound silly but sometimes it isn’t easy to buy what you have to sell. Many websites are so cluttered, it is difficult to figure out what to do to place an order. I once attended a training session lead by an expert in selling online. His advice was to “keep it simple, stupid.” Sounds like good advice to me.
Even in your showroom with a salesperson standing close by, it can be difficult to communicate what it is you’re selling. People don’t understand that personalized products can run the gamut from just adding a name to adding pictures, themes, verses and text. This is especially true with sublimation products. If you have a sample in your showroom that has firefighters on it, many customers will never make the connection that they can put anything they want on the product, not just a firefighter.
One way to help with this identity dilemma is to use monitors in your showroom or short videos on your website that shows the same product produced in many different ways. While there is no way you could display all the different themes that can be sublimated onto a product, the video can at least show several, and thus, get the point across that these products are fully customizable. It can also emphasize that there is no minimum order as many customers assume that full-color or even laser engraved products must be made in bulk to be affordable.
One way to accomplish this easily is to take a picture of every product you produce and load them onto a digital photo frame. These use an SD card or flash drive to load images and can be easily updated as new images become available. They are also useful when using catalog images which are often available for the asking. JDS Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, SD, for example, offers all their catalog images for free.
Another trendy product right now is edge-lit acrylic. This piece was created by Chris Jones of Jones Creativity.
If you don’t have a physical showroom, you still need a way to show your products and although showing an actual product is always best, it isn’t always possible because of the thousands of products available. This can be dealt with by carrying an iPad or other tablet with images loaded in a way that they are easy to find and show to prospective buyers. Of course, these also provide access to the Internet and the thousands of products available on supplier websites.
Don’t forget to market yourself. You and your employees are the face of your company. I remember a sign salesman who came into my shop years ago to buy a name badge. He didn’t want to wear a “silly badge” but his boss told him he had to so there he was, much to his chagrin, ordering a name badge. After he left the shop, he went to lunch. There, while paying his bill, the owner of the restaurant noticed his badge and asked him about a sign for the front of his business. The sale topped $10,000 and the salesman is still wearing a name badge today.
Some of my best customers have come from casual meetings. Wearing a name badge, logoed shirt, hat or other indicator invites people to approach you about their specific needs. Having your name displayed makes it even easier for people to approach you. Many businesses give their employees shirts and hats, and encourage them to wear them all the time, not just when working. Why? It is a form of marketing the business and it comes at a very low investment.
To sum things up, a successful business needs two things at its core: One, quality products to sell and two, affordable, effective marketing that puts products and prospective buyers together. It is an educational process of informing potential clients and of living up to the promise every customer deserves—a product they can be proud of for years to come.
Many an engraving company’s motto begins with, “It is our goal to provide quality products…” It must be at the core of every successful business, no matter the size, age or location.