Feature Article - March/April 2019

United Behind the Power of Merchandise

A Closeup Look at the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance

By Joseph Bush

The Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance (IMRA) recently debuted a new search tool on its website, to help find brands that work with the incentive marketing industry.

The move has been a hit, say IMRA board members, and highlights the alliance's ongoing emphasis on the power of branded merchandise in corporate gifting and incentive programs.

In a survey from a recent Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) report, "Industry Outlook Study 2019: Merchandise, Gift Card, and Event Gifting," the question, "What types of merchandise and gift cards are used within your/your clients' reward and recognition program(s)?" showed logoed brand merchandise topped the list, followed by electronics and clothing/apparel.

In the same survey, respondents chose "merchandise brand" more than other choices when asked, "For your non-cash reward and recognition programs, do you work directly with…?"

The report said 2018 and 2019 are prime time for non-cash rewards:

"Buyers and providers alike are very optimistic regarding the U.S. economy and the effect it will have on the programs they run. Program owners expect more participants to earn rewards next year, and a net 33 percent of corporate program owners expect overall merchandise spending to increase next year as a result. Overall use of merchandise rewards is also expected to increase, particularly among corporate audiences, with a net increase of 33 percent compared to a net 20 percent of suppliers and third-party providers."

Corporate gifting is a major factor as well, the report said, and has had an effect on branded merchandise.

"Branded merchandise with national recognition is the most common gift used by corporate audiences, and these gifts are most often delivered at the registration desk or to the attendee's hotel room. Median spend ranges from $100 to $200 depending on the recipient type, and interestingly, 60 percent of corporate buyers said the cost of gifts is offset by sponsors."

The IMRA website suggests reasons that branded merchandise should play a crucial role in any company's incentive and gifting strategy:

  • Brand names let you leverage products to support your own company or product brand attributes. IMRA members can provide information on brand demographics and other qualities that can be used to strengthen a marketing message.
  • Emotions matter. Because customer and employee appreciation is heightened by experience, why take chances with anything but a well-known brand? "Make sure the gift you give supports your message rather than undermines it." IMRA members can help with research on brands and their standing in the marketplace.

In a discussion with IMRA board members about the past year and 2019 themes, they all touched on brand power, whether the subject was membership or the new website feature.

PIP: What has the past year been like for IMRA?

Lore Rincon, Sales Manager at Continental Premium Corp., and IMRA President: IMRA has continued to strengthen our relationships with the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) and the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI). Through our participation in education programs and improved presence on the show floor, we are increasing exposure for our IMRA members and the value of brand-name merchandise.

Along with growing our relationships on the promotional products side of the industry, we're building bridges that create exposure for IMRA members and incentive merchandise with other industry segments. I have participated with other Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) colleagues from the gift card and travel sectors on panels at conferences such as Flourish, where you might not expect to find merchandise people. The goal was to discuss similarities in our segments and collaboration opportunities.

The exposure from these efforts is drawing in new brands and new customers. I'm excited to see our members reap some of the benefits of our hard work. At Continental Premium Corp., we've noticed a rise in brands approaching us about getting into the incentive merchandise marketplace and specifically about partnering with IMRA sales reps. This growing interest is a result of the increased exposure and marketing efforts of our IMRA members who have been out there actively promoting incentive merchandise.

I am particularly excited about our new brand search tool. We have been promoting it at industry events, and the response has been very positive! People not only took our promo cards, they took pictures of our sample search on the computer, so they could remember the brand search tool.

PIP: Can you tell us more about this search tool?

Scott Whitehead, Director of B2B Sales for Samsonite and IMRA Board Secretary: The IMRA website is critical in many ways. IMRA and the IMA are connecting with more people at industry events, and both IMRA and the IMA have increased their social media marketing. Through this education and promotion, we are sending more customers and more potential new suppliers to the website to see what IMRA has to offer.

Our most recent update, our brand search tool, makes it easy to find your local brand rep. If someone is trying to find Samsonite merchandise in Texas, for example, they may not know our rep, but if they use the brand search tool they can quickly find our rep in their area.

The added value of the connectivity between IMRA and the IMA is that you can also quickly access business improvement resources, such as industry research, white papers and other helpful information about incentive and corporate gifting programs, in which brand-name merchandise plays a strong role.