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To Give (Well) Is to Receive

A Guide to Business Gifting

It's probably safe to say that almost everyone reading this probably can remember at least one gift they received in a business context. Think back: Was it from an employer? Or did it come from a longtime vendor (or someone hoping to become a longtime vendor)? Perhaps it was personally meaningful. Or really clever. Or incredibly useful.

The fact that you can recall getting at least one of these gifts (perhaps several years or even decades after you got it) and who it came from is a testament to the power of business gifting. These gifts regularly have special significance for their recipients and serve as a reminder of your relationship to the organization it came from.

Many companies recognize this, which is why respondents to the Advertising Specialty Institute's (ASI) 2018 Corporate Gift Giving Study reported they would be increasing their spending on gifts for employees, clients and prospects in the run-up to last year's holiday season. According to findings of that nationwide survey, 42% of employers were planning to give holiday gifts of some kind to their staff, a 2% increase from the previous year. For prospects and clients, it was 37%—up 5% from 2017.

Another interesting set of data points from that study was their reported reasons for giving gifts to clients and prospects. The top three motivations they gave were:

  • Expressing appreciation (76%)
  • Helping develop relationships (62%)
  • Generating company goodwill (55%)

These are the right motivations for a business gifting program. According to Kevin Dougherty, director of national brands at New Jersey-based Harco Incentives, companies shouldn't do it if they're looking to get something specific in return. "Business gifting can be tricky, but I believe the most important thing is to make sure the message you are getting out is appreciation," he said. "You don't want it to seem like a bribe."

In this way, business gifting is decidedly distinct among the various types of incentives programs, which are usually undertaken to encourage a certain kind of behavior, such as completing training in a key subject or selling a particular amount of a company's products or services.

Business gifting is a $125-billion-per-year industry. That's larger than the gross domestic product of several U.S. states.

"Business gifting is different," said Corey Wolfe, director of sales at Links Unlimited, a special markets distributor in Cincinnati. "It isn't really about incentivizing a behavior that hasn't happened yet. In most cases, the behavior has already happened."

Given these differences, how should the people who run organizational rewards and recognition programs adjust their approach when running a business gifting initiative? Perhaps the best place to start is knowing what not to do.

3 Things to Avoid in Business Gifting Programs

Business gifting is a $125-billion-per-year industry. That's larger than the gross domestic product of several U.S. states. Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of that money is spent on items that don't mean that much to recipients and are often quickly forgotten. Where do organizations go wrong when it comes to giving gifts?

1. Logo Overload

For starters, if you give people something with your branding plastered all over it, understand that you're walking a fine line between gift and marketing merch. It's not that you shouldn't ever give anything with your company's name and logo on it. But if you decide to go that route, be sparing and subtle in how you do it.

"Don't overdo it with a lot of your own branding," Dougherty said. "It may come across as promotional."

This is truer for clients and prospects, by the way. With these groups, you'll want to have something that reminds them you sent it, whether it's the packaging, accompanying card or product itself. But you might not want to give them clothing or electronics with your giant corporate logo emblazoned on it.

2. Going Cheap

If you want the gift to be treasured by the people receiving it, you might have to spend real money on products and services with strong brand recognition. (Note: This doesn't mean you have to break the bank.) Most of them are going to know if you went for some off-brand knockoff or just picked out some cheap trinket. That could send the wrong message to recipients, who could resent the gift even more than if you'd given them nothing at all.

"Here's something we often run into," Wolfe said. "People will say, 'I can get sunglasses that look like Ray-Ban Aviators for 40% less.' But then we say, 'Well, how are they going to feel about that?' You gave them a non-brand-name product that they could go get at a chain drugstore or gas station when you could have gotten them a pair of sunglasses from one of the most popular brands in the world. What does that say to them about who you are as a business?

"What you're going to want to do with a gifting program is leave an impression on them," he continued. "Let's say I have a $2-million-dollar-a-year, top-five customer and I've got the choice to send them a cheap pen with my company logo on it or an Amazon Dot. How is the customer going to perceive either of those? The perception is obviously that the Amazon Dot has more value. It's a highly sought-after electronics product and one of the hottest things in the market right now."

3. Procrastinating Before the Holidays

You don't want to be like that proverbial relative who always waits until the weekend before Christmas to get started on shopping for presents. When it comes to business gifting around the holiday season, you should start locking down those items and making shipping arrangements ahead of time, especially if your holiday gifts number into the hundreds and higher.

"You need to make sure inventory is available," Wolfe said. "You might call six months in advance and say to your vendor, 'I have this gifting program coming up that's going to run during the holiday season, and I need to secure 20,000 pieces of X.' You can't take the risk in assuming all that's going to be around no matter when you decide to kick off. If you're running that gifting program, you're probably going to have to take on inventory in order to support the program because as we get into the holiday season, items start to get a lot scarcer."

3 Ways to Make Your Gift Memorable

Simply knowing what pitfalls to avoid doesn't make for a great business gift. If you want it to stand out, here are three things you can do.

1. Put Some Thought Into It

If you want the gift to be remembered and treasured by recipients for years to come, you should think about what their passions are and explore options in those areas. This is particularly true when you're dealing with smaller groups of people you know well.

"Whatever it is you are gifting, it should be relevant, useful, thought-provoking and—dare I say?—life-changing," Dougherty said. "You don't want to be inappropriate. You want it to be useful, and ultimately, you want it to be thoughtful. You want the recipients to get the feeling that someone took the time to pick out the gift just for them. The old standbys like food, liquor and floral arrangements all work well, but I feel a long-shelf-life merchandise item will continue to leave a lasting impression of appreciation. Wearables and electronics give the recipient a constant, visible reminder that they were appreciated.

"A business gift is a goodwill gesture. It can open doors to potential business, send a thank-you message to existing partners or let lost relationships know you would like to partner again. You'd be surprised the impact a holiday gifting campaign can have, even on a limited budget. The personal message you send with the gift can assure that you appreciate them, and you want to continue to work with them."

2. Do Something Offbeat and Funny

Another way to get people to notice your gift and think about it repeatedly is by giving them something you think might make them laugh or smile. Maybe it's an out-of-the-ordinary gift or a well-known product presented in a humorous way. Wolfe talked about a gifting program his company recently did as being an example of this.

"We sell to third-party meeting planners," he said. "We went to a conference and met with many of them. After the event, as part of a follow-up, we gave them S'well water bottles inside of a special package that said, 'It was swell meeting you.' Inside the box was the bottle, along with a short note and a little brochure that told them more about Links Unlimited and what we do."

3. Follow Consumer Retail Trends

If you're leaning toward giving merchandise, you'll want to choose from the most in-demand gifts right now for consumers generally, while taking into account the demographics and broad preferences of your recipients. Wolfe said Links Unlimited recently helped an online job listings company execute a gifting program with a great product line that gave its employees some measure of choice.

"The company gave all their employees pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses," he said. "What they did was build a website that allowed those employees to select from 12 different styles. They collected that information and brought it to us. We then kitted the sunglasses with a thank-you note and put it in special packaging, then broke it out by office location and drop-shipped all of those. That was hugely successful for that company."

According to Wolfe, the top category within merchandise is electronics. "Apple, Amazon, Samsung and other big players with products like tablets and TVs and headphones. Those things are going to go first."

His company recently worked on a large program for one of the top accounting firms in the world. They wanted to give a gift to thousands of employees throughout the United States, Mexico and India to show appreciation for getting through tax season, their busiest time of year. How did the firm display its gratitude to such a diverse group? By giving them all Amazon Echo devices, accompanied by a thank-you note.

"When you get into gifting to employees, you're usually giving products at a one-to-one ratio," he explained. "What I mean by that is you're not allowing the employee to have a selection of 800 gifts to choose from. Instead, you're asking yourself, 'What's one thing I can give that makes sense for all my employees across all these different demographics?' A lot of times, electronics are the best option. Almost everybody can use a Bluetooth speaker or a personal AI device or headphones."

Laying the Foundation for a Successful Business Gifting Program

As you begin planning out your business gifting initiatives, you'll want to have a couple of things squared away early on. First, if you don't have one already, you should try to find a provider that offers a wide range of product and packaging options—and one that you can trust to fulfill your product orders to your specifications.

You should try to find a provider that offers a wide range of product and packaging options—and one that you can trust to fulfill your product orders to your specifications.

"Every situation is unique," Wolfe said. "Does the product need to be part of a kit? Does it need to have special packaging? You might have a business gifting program where you're sending all of your employees something with a logo, or something else where the gift or product is acting as a promotional device. You need someone who can not only manage shipment of that product, but also decorate it and include a thank-you note, or whatever customization you might want to do."

Another important issue to figure out early in the process is the financials of the program: How much money do you have to spend? Also, what will the actual costs of the initiative be? Not just the per-unit price, but shipping, taxes, printing and other ancillary expenses.

"What's your budget? That's always a caveat for any program," Wolfe said. "What kinds of products do you want to give them? Do you want to give them name-brand retail products? Do you want to do more promotional types of items? The best way to approach this is to understand what the marketplace has to offer and how you want to deliver that product."

Getting those issues resolved at the outset can help your program be successful. But what does "success" really mean in the context of business gifting? If you aren't incentivizing any particular action, how can you say whether or not a gift performed well?

Well, one way to determine that is the reactions of recipients. Did the gift make them feel important, valued and appreciated?

"You measure the success of business gifting programs based on the response you get from whomever you're giving the gifts to," Wolfe said. "If you're hearing a lot of reactions along the lines of 'Thank you!' or 'Wow, this is awesome!' then you'll know the program was a success."

Another metric for the success of these programs could be whether the people who receive them continue their working relationship with you and your company.

"Obviously, increased sales and productivity would be a great measure to success of a gifting program, but I feel the most important is retention," Dougherty said. "Whether it be employees, clients or consumers, the cost of appreciative gifts is tremendously insignificant in relationship to the cost of replacing these huge assets to your business."

For that reason, you should dedicate significant resources—money, yes, but also time and creativity—to these efforts.

"This is the ultimate target marketing opportunity for you," Dougherty said. "Make the most of it."

Click here to see our 2019 Business Gift Guide.

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