Premium Incentive Products Magazine - Products and Ideas That Inspire Performance


Premium Incentive Products Magazine - Products and Ideas That Inspire Performance
The Ongoing Evolution of Incentives & Rewards
A Roundtable Discussion With IMRA

There's no doubt that incentive programs are connected with healthy and growing businesses, and we know that because of data provided by the industry's top advocate groups, including the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance (IMRA), which is a strategic industry group (SIG) of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA).

Finding out why these motivational rewards work so well comes from speaking with the folks in the industry who twist the bolts and hammer the nails on the process, tactics and strategies that drive the end results. Who better to talk trends, lessons, evolution and best practices than the people who are on the front lines every day and have been for years?

This Q&A with IMRA board members focuses on drawing out their expertise in helping businesses maneuver in and through the burgeoning marketplace and to set their corporate gifting, loyalty and recognition programs up for success for all involved parties.

Daily, this mix of veterans address topics such as:

  • Small businesses' beliefs about how merchandise incentives like apparel, electronics and food/beverage affects morale and performance.
  • Attempting to get small businesses (between $1 million and $50 million in sales) to buy into the use of reps, who can provide benefits like below-MSRP pricing, customization capabilities and more.
  • Using the right incentive for the demographic or occasion or result sought.
  • Aligning the incentive programs with organizational goals.
  • The importance of strong communications before, during and after incentive programs.
  • When to use cash—if ever—and when to use merchandise, online and gift cards as rewards.
  • When and for what and whom are travel incentives right?
  • The crucial part played by participation feedback during and after a program, as well as performance tracking.

Incentive program executives work in an exciting time, as the current IRF Trends study shows that the number of American businesses using non-cash rewards has risen to 84 percent, from just 26 percent in 1996. Yet there is much opportunity for growth, especially in travel incentives, which less than half of American businesses use. There is also still room to grow for merchandise and gift card usage, as only 60 percent and 70 percent of U.S. companies use these, respectively.

As 2017 progresses, the industry is staying on top of: the use of emotional engagement by strategic choice of rewards and incentives; the fact that almost 90 percent of large businesses say they have technology in place to support their incentives and reward programs; technology trends that include more engagement with social, wearable, predictive and view-altering technologies; consolidation in the incentives and rewards industry, not only on the supplier side but also among incentive houses and meeting service providers; and the emergence of the influence of globalization on all types of reward and recognition programs, not just travel.

The Conversation

PIP: What is influencing corporate gifting these days?

Ted Moravec, IMRA President, and Executive Vice President, Elite Creations: Since the recession we have seen a lot of hard data on the overwhelming use of incentives and corporate gifts to drive business results. The Incentive Federation's 2016 Industry Size Study showed 84 percent of U.S. businesses are spending $90 billion annually on award points, gift cards, trips and travel, and merchandise, and the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance (IRMA) Small Business Study showed that 72 percent of small businesses using merchandise rewards experienced growth in the past year. The recent Incentive Research Foundation 2017 Trends Study showed more program owners reported using every category of merchandise and gift card that the IRF measures.

Corporate gifts and rewards are no longer just for sales incentive or employee service programs. Businesses are focusing on more short-term rewards for longer-term success. By rewarding desired behaviors throughout the year, companies are enhancing engagement and increasing the sustainability of the desired behaviors. For example, the old style of sales program often offered rewards only to a limited number of top sellers, and once those programs were maxed out the remainder of the sales team didn't have the same opportunity to earn a reward. Today's programs are more "campaign-based" so sellers have multiple chances of earning rewards throughout the year. The same principles are being applied to employee engagement and other reward and recognition programs as well.

Scott Whitehead, IMRA Board Member, and National Sales Manager, Special Markets, Bushnell: The marketplace is growing, which means sales managers and other program managers can find it overwhelming to research which merchandise items are popular, particularly across a multi-generation workforce.

Tasha Sharp, IMRA Board Member, and President, Sharp Incentives: The one thing everyone is short on is time. There's no down time. For someone to pick up the phone to contact multiple suppliers because they want a variety of ideas takes time.

PIP: How can reps help time-starved program managers save time and money?

Chris Harrison, IMRA Treasurer, and National Sales Manager, Kleerwest LLC: If you're working with a rep, chances are very good the rep has already worked with a similar type program. In addition to streamlining the purchasing process, they can streamline the merchandise selection process.

Just because a customer has specific merchandise item in mind, that doesn't mean it's the best fit for their intended recipients. We're familiar with what type of product works with which demographic to achieve the desired result. We can steer them away from products we've had trouble with, and we can introduce them to hot new items that are performing well.

Vilia Johnson, IMRA Board Member, and President, Brandsource Incentives: The incentive multi-line rep is the vital link between the supplier and program managers—communicating information and ideas, and facilitating transactions. They understand how the suppliers work and can help you navigate working with brands to find the most profitable and reliable options to meet your specific needs.

Scott Whitehead: Our company, Bushnell, has a parent company that owns 50 brands. If you call asking for information, you could get directed many different ways. If you work through my rep, she's there to be a consultant. She interacts with customers every day and has more insights on what's working best. And, when I have something new, I get it out to my reps so they're always going to have the latest information.

Micah Vander Tuig, IMRA Board Member, and Special Markets Manager, O'Rourke Sales Company: Reps provide expert assistance. We can help businesses get better results because we help them provide programs that are better targeted with more memorable items. We were working with a company that was only familiar with the promotional products side of gifting. Our experience helped us ask the right questions to get them to where they wanted to be. The staff in the factory at this account was 90 percent male ages 35 to 55. We identified merchandise with high appeal to this demographic.

PIP: What makes brands timeless in their appeal/value?

A good brand is consistently going to give you a positive experience. When you use a brand as a reward or an incentive, you receive the benefit of years and years of reinforcement about the unique value of that brand.

Chris Harrison: A good brand is consistently going to give you a positive experience. When you use a brand as a reward or an incentive, you receive the benefit of years and years of reinforcement about the unique value of that brand.

Tasha Sharp: For awards and recognition, we desire brands and status symbols. It's just in our blood. A brand that no one has ever heard of feels less important. The person has probably thought about having a Jura coffee maker, which has an immediate recognition as a quality product.

Micah Vander Tuig: You often hear stories that reinforce the power of brands. Recently, after explaining to a friend what I did for a living and what our industry does, he told me about a TV he had won a few years back from a sales contest through his work. He told me it was the best thing he had won from his company, and he thought about it almost every time he turned on his TV. That is a perfect example of the power of brand name merchandise and its ability to have a long-lasting effect on the user.

PIP: How do reps help address the increasing use of more categories of merchandise as shown in the Incentive Research Foundation 2017 Trends Study?

Scott Whitehead: We can help people navigate that fine line between offering variety and offering too many items. Just like it's overwhelming for the program manager to narrow choices, you don't want the recipient of the corporate gift or loyalty award to feel overwhelmed with too many choices. It waters down the experience. You can offer multiple categories, but you don't need to offer five brand items in each category.

Chris Harrison: There's always something new, something hot. Reps use their knowledge across brands. We try to understand what you're trying to achieve and can take your choices from thousands of items to the 20 items best suited to what your recipients are looking for.

PIP: How do you see merchandise fitting into the incentive mix today vs. years past?

Scott Whitehead: Previously merchandise categories were more traditional. Today, categories are more lifestyle-based. People realize it's nice to have something usable, not just a trophy. If you receive binoculars, a coffee maker or a small kitchen appliance, it's something you use all of the time. It's part of your daily life.

Ted Moravec: The event merchandise market continues to evolve. Pioneers like Maui Jim challenged the school of thought that corporate logo gifts were the best way to reinforce from whom the gift was received. They showed that given the right gift and the personalized approach to receiving it, the exceptional experience itself is more than enough to reinforce the corporate brand and the event.

The concept of a custom fitting event, which originated with sunglasses, has expanded to watches, electronics, bicycles and more. It's all about the ability to select a gift to match personal tastes and style. Premium brands coupled with a premium experience create the lasting impression for the gift recipient.

PIP: What are common misunderstandings about working with merchandise reps you'd like to dispel?

Micah Vander Tuig: People don't understand that reps work free of charge to the customer. Businesses are used to being solicited and hiring an outside marketing firm or adviser. The suppliers and the factories pay the reps' commissions.

IMRA representatives don't offer just products. They offer ideas, marketing strategies and sales solutions. And, they can identify which brands offer the best margins, steering a business to increased profits.

Vilia Johnson: IMRA reps don't offer just products. We offer ideas, marketing strategies and sales solutions. And, we can identify which brands offer the best margins, steering a business to increased profits.

Chris Harrison: You don't have to shop online to save time. Real-time delivery is a way of life for everyone these days. There's no fall-off between leading retailers and leading suppliers and manufacturers. We are able to provide real-time metrics, inventory and instantaneous tracking.

Vilia Johnson: Our expertise goes beyond our backyard. We know what works for other distributors, not just in the local territory, but nationwide. We identify suppliers with drop ship capabilities, bundling and customization.

Tasha Sharp: We collaborate for [the customer's] benefit. If someone needs a competing line that I don't carry, I'll refer them to the person who has it. Not only do we want to help you have a successful program, we want you to have a good purchasing experience.

Chris Harrison: Reps are connected to all of the people who can help you. For example, we had a customer that needed 90 large items to ship by the end of the week. They were absolutely frantic and thought their only solution was to pay almost $2,500 in expedited shipping. The rep was able to reach out to the appropriate party and get it shipped for $400.

Tasha Sharp: You don't have to have a large opening order to be able to customize. Many brands offer free customization, minimum one item.

PIP: How can a program manager find an IMRA rep?

Tasha Sharp: Ask your incentive program development partner if they work with IMRA sales professionals and suppliers.

Micah Vander Tuig: Use the IMRA Directory included in this issue or for a searchable database visit the IMRA website at:

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