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Inside IMRA

A Guide to an Important Incentive Industry Group

There's a well-known saying among those who've spent a lot of time working in trade groups and alliances: "There's an association for everything." From the International Association of Professional Conversational Hypnotists to the Association for Gravestone Studies, just about every industry—no matter how small and seemingly obscure—seems to have some organization looking out for its best interests and bringing its practitioners together.

Outside of the recognition and rewards industry, the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance (IMRA) might appear to be among those esoteric groups. But incentives aren't some small cottage industry. They're big business, and more than 80 percent of U.S. companies spend around $90 billion each year on them. And for those who work in this large and growing sector, IMRA is an established, valued partner. For more than five decades, the organization has worked to develop and disseminate professional standards in the incentives field, provide education and research to its membership, and generally drive awareness of the various approaches to rewards and recognition.

Beyond that high-level description, though, what does IMRA do? And, as the incentives space evolves, how is the organization evolving with it? For answers to these and more questions, keep reading.

Who Is IMRA, and What Does It Represent?

The organization, headquartered in Minneapolis, is actually a Strategic Industry Group that sits within the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA). According to Chris Harrison, national sales manager at Bay Area-based KleerWest and 2017-18 president of IMRA, its mission is "to advocate the use of brand-name merchandise for use as corporate gifts and in incentive programs."

That focus on the most established brands is particularly important in this context. The organization has a wealth of research demonstrating that employees—and the companies they serve—perform at higher levels when they're working toward any kind of tangible reward. However, their performance is elevated even more when the incentive programs include brand-name merchandise.

"According to the Incentive Research Foundation's 'Top Things Top Performing Companies Do Differently' study, the top-performing companies are not only more likely to use non-cash rewards, but they are also very different in the ways they think about and design their programs," Harrison said. "One of the most identifiable differences is that top-level executives in the top-performing companies have a strong belief in the value of non-cash rewards as a powerful tool in shaping company performance. They are right. We want to reach these people and continue to reinforce this message, and also ensure that they are aware of how we can help them achieve their goals. As we learned in IMRA's Small Business Merchandise Market Study, this applies to companies of all sizes. We especially want to make smaller and medium-size businesses aware of the business benefits of corporate gifting programs and the role of brand-name merchandise."

The membership of IMRA includes hundreds of professionals across the United States from three primary groups: brand-name manufacturers; the sales representatives of those manufacturers; and national marketing companies, or NMCs.

"We provide our customers with direct access to the most recognizable and desirable name-brand products," Harrison explained. "When working with an IMRA professional, you have a direct path to the people that are best able to help you select your corporate gifts or build your incentive programs, and then select the merchandise that will make them the most successful. We all work in unison to better serve the needs of our clients.

"We're more than suppliers," he added. "By remaining true to our mission, we can ensure that the people relying on us receive the guidance they need, be it a new supplier or a customer, to help them achieve the desired business goal for their program."

What's the Value of Working With IMRA?

The most significant advantage of working with IMRA and its members is the knowledge of both specific products and categories and the overall industry that they bring to the table, said Lore Rincon, 2017-18 vice president of IMRA and sales manager of Continental Premium Corp., located in the Chicago metro area.

The most significant advantage of working with IMRA and its members is the knowledge of both specific products and categories and the overall industry that they bring to the table.

"IMRA members know their products, where they do well and how the industry works," she said. "Therefore, companies can leverage that knowledge to ensure they have successful incentive and reward programs. Our members continually work to stay at the forefront of technology and constantly provide exceptional service. IMRA sales representatives are able to put together product suggestions in a timely manner and incorporate multiple brand names. The IMRA sales rep is a valuable resource who provides knowledge of industry products, programs, strategies, success stories and trends at no charge to customers."

Harrison reinforced that view of IMRA members as knowledgeable and professional resources for the people they work with. "When you work with an IMRA member, you are working with an expert consultant," he said. "Our members have years and years of experience working with and building very successful incentive programs. We are trained and educated on the many ways to make your program achieve the desired results.

"In addition to the program design aspect, these folks spend a lot of time with product training, too," he continued. "There is so much more to the recognition aspect of an incentive program than just giving the recipient something. Truly successful recognition programs combine all aspects of the presentation, the delivery and the way the recipient will remember being recognized for a job well done."

What Are IMRA's Programs and Priorities?

Both Rincon and Harrison said that IMRA's most important objectives are education and outreach, particularly to Corporate America, and that won't change in the years to come. The aim here is not only to raise awareness of what IMRA does and how it can help, but also to generally promote the value of incentives programs that include name-brand merchandise.

"Our biggest priorities for the foreseeable future are strengthening our corporate outreach, providing education for the regional associations, and simply to make Corporate America more aware of the ways we can help them build and run successful incentive programs," Harrison explained.

To those ends, the organization has a variety of initiatives going at any given time. One of those is industry events, most notably the annual IMRA Marketing Conference. (This year's conference, taking place April 15 to 17, will be held in Memphis.) But IMRA also participates in and promotes other events that focus on rewards and recognition, some of which are organized by its strategic partners.

In addition, IMRA compiles and shares a significant amount of research to demonstrate the positive relationship between organizational performance and incentive programs that use name-brand merchandise. Often in conjunction with IMA, IMRA also gets the word out via public relations efforts and earned media, Rincon said.

"IMA formed an Industry Experts Bureau, which includes industry veterans from IMRA and all the IMA Strategic Industry Groups," she explained. "They will serve as speakers and authors who share their industry knowledge with the public and media. The IMRA Marketing Committee has been diligently working on putting the word out online, through interviews, articles, etc., in target markets about who IMRA is and how we can help with their incentive programs."

On its website, IMRA provides a wealth of resources for members, including everything from an "Ask the Expert" form to a glossary of key industry terms. Perhaps its most important online offering, though, is a directory that allows visitors to the site to search for sales reps and merchandise suppliers using various criteria, ranging from geographic location to keywords around distinct products and services.

Another way in which IMRA serves its industry is in how it promotes training and professional standards among its membership. One way it does that is through the IMA's Certified Professional of Incentive Management (CPIM) designation. A rigorous program administered through a points system, it involves a combination of assessing professional experience and testing. Also, it must be renewed every three years to remain current.

"Many of our members have earned their CPIM designation," Harrison said. "This is a tested certification that requires time in the classroom combined with real-world experience."

"We will continue to edify the expertise of our IMRA sales representatives, who are the 'boots on the ground' for the brands they represent," Rincon said.

What's Ahead?

Though the fundamental mission of IMRA will remain the same in the years ahead, Rincon and Harrison both acknowledged that the landscape is shifting. There are more tools available to sales representatives, as well as more opportunities and challenges. So at least on a tactical level, IMRA is preparing to adapt to those changes.

One area in particular where Harrison and Rincon see a great deal of potential is the event and experiential category.

"Event experiences will continue to be in demand in 2018," Rincon said. "More IMRA manufacturers and NMCs are participating in event experiences directly or through a partnership. The relationships IMRA members have with each other and other industry suppliers allow us to offer recipients brand-name electronics, watches and bikes in the same event experience, no longer limiting recipients to selecting gifts from only one brand."

Whatever new directions the industry might take in the future, IMRA will do its best to evolve and keep its offerings up-to-date and relevant for the incentive landscape.

"We have some of the pioneers of this field in our organization, and we've all learned and benefited from their success," Harrison said. "The evolution of the onsite event has been amazing, and many of our members are driving these changes. We're seeing more collaborative experiences being designed now, programs that incorporate several types of non-cash awards. These have proven to provide a very memorable and enjoyable experience for the recipients."

Another important trend is the rise of high-tech "multifunction" products that do more than one thing, and are often networked with other devices. Some of these, such as the Amazon Echo line, are wholly new categories that didn't even exist a few years ago. Others are new spins on long-standing merchandise.

"We live in a very connected world these days," Rincon said. "Brands understand that, and more are incorporating or advancing technology in their products. The luggage industry, for example, has started to include USB ports on the outside of carry-on luggage for easy access to portable chargers. Other models have a built-in charger and scale. Of course, this has been met with some pushback by the airlines recently, nonetheless it's tech-related progress in the travel sector."

In addition to bundling more functions into single products, merchandise is often being bundled with other merchandise. "Demand for lifestyle-related products has increased, allowing recipients to choose a functional reward or gift that fits into their daily life," Rincon said. "Many suppliers are creating product bundles to differentiate ourselves from retailers and offer higher perceived value packages. Bundles—such as a laptop, computer bag and wireless mouse, or a bike, water bottle and helmet—have been very well received."

Whatever new directions the industry might take in the future, IMRA will do its best to evolve and keep its offerings up-to-date and relevant for the incentive landscape, Rincon said. "We are continually looking for new strategies to compete with the online retail platform and stay ahead of emerging industry trends," she explained. "IMRA members take pride in offering new, innovative and quality products to our customers, and will continue to do so."

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