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Brands Are Not Just an Award—They Are a Media Platform

Over the past few years, the incentive, rewards and recognition business has continued to shift to a greater focus on program design; better alignment of communications, learning and rewards; and more return-on-investment measurement. There is an equally important area that can benefit from more science: the use of brands in gift and reward selection, customization and personalization.

Every consumer product, gift card or travel brand tells a story. When properly used in business, event or imprinted-product gifting, not to mention rewards and recognition, carefully curated brands help reinforce key values, foster positive emotions and establish a closer bond with recipients. Just as the professionals in promotions, sweepstakes and affinity marketing programs have known for years, the brands selected to highlight as a gift or award go beyond the product itself: Brands are a form of media.

Viewing brands as media has a significant impact on the traditional product focus of the award or gift selection process. Brand media goes one step further than product selection by understanding the power of the brand to connect with recipients and reinforce an organization's stories.

When applied to gifting, the concept of brand media means not only selecting products that make sense for that audience and your company's story, culture or event, but also selecting brands that create the best resonance between your organization and the recipient. For instance, a gifting program at an event for experienced craftspeople probably would offer a brand such as Johnson DeWalt or Milwaukee, rather than an equally known but more mass-market brand such as Black and Decker. Another audience wouldn't even appreciate the distinction between those brands. In terms of loyalty, incentive and recognition programs, using brands as media means considering not just the appropriate product offerings but also the brands that make sense for the organization's own brand and its audience, so that the catalog itself reinforces the values and culture of the organization.

So what does the concept of brand media mean for the corporate end-user and the incentive, recognition and promotional agencies that serve them?

Be like sweepstakes and affinity marketing planners. Select brands based on the story you want to tell about your own brand and the audience you serve. This pertains as much to travel planning as any other award. A millennial, high-tech audience won't get a charge out of the same travel brand or destination as a group of owners of wholesale distribution companies.

Curate catalogs by brand. If your catalog offers tens of thousands of products, why not just send people cash? What makes catalogs truly memorable is the same merchandising skills that make a retail catalog work: an understanding of the customer. Incentive, recognition and loyalty programs can ensure that people have a satisfying level of choice while selecting and presenting brands that reinforce key values or culture.

Personalize and customize the experience. Look for ways to surprise and delight, to demonstrate a true understanding of the recipient, and to make the moment as memorable as possible through customization and imprinting. This can include creating "kits" that might include different types of brands, merchandise, gift cards or travel combined in a unique way. The gift doesn't have to be a carrot; it can be a surprise for exceptional actions that support the brand that will have more resonance than if perceived as part of an overall compensation program.

Brand media selection. Selecting brands might seem simple and instinctive until one considers all the different choices available and what each brand stands for. There are about 1,500 consumer merchandise, gift card, virtual and travel brands, and each tells a story that works for different people and organizations.

Brand media specialists. There are a growing number of master fulfillment companies, promotional products firms, incentive representatives and other agencies that focus specifically on the use of brands in business, event and imprinted product gifting, as well as rewards and recognition, with the expertise to carefully select the right brands for the audience, budget and desired return on investment. Look for a specialist who not only asks the right questions about your objectives, the desired actions and outcomes in your program, audience characteristics and potential return on investment, but about the "persona" of your audience and of your brand. Experienced brand media specialists can help organizations select the right brands for any organizational application.

Selecting the right brand media in a gift, incentive or recognition program is as important as selecting the right media in an advertising campaign. Mastering the concept of brand media is a fresh way to add a new emotional dimension to relationship-building in all areas of business.

Bruce Bolger is founder of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance, which runs the Brand Media Coalition to promote the professional use of brands as part of properly designed and implemented organizational engagement efforts. It publishes the first Brand Media Guide featuring the stories, personalities and demographics of brands active in the corporate marketplace.

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