Meeting Demand in the Ad Specialties Market

by Jen Clark, Plastics Decorating
COURTESY/Innovative Digital Systems

High-end promotional products are used to impress customers and prospects, and personalization can add an impressive touch.

The promotional advertising/marketing arm of the plastics decorating industry has grown significantly as businesses and marketers alike try to create brand awareness for customers and prospects. The use of items such as pens, water bottles, golf balls, wristbands, T-shirts and more decorated with company names and/or logos – known as advertising specialties – provides an easy, affordable means to attain top-of-mind awareness with the public in hopes of increasing sales and brand exposure.

Ad specialties offer high ROI

Depending on the piece (pens, water bottles, etc.), personalization can offer business owners a high return on investment (ROI), according to research from the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI). These items then can be used as handouts at tradeshows or other special events, left on counters or reception areas for visitors, used as part of a direct-mail campaign or during sales calls. What’s more, ad specialties can turn negatives into positives, strengthen relationships, increase recognition or reward achievement. They are a tangible and semi-permanent way to remind customers about the work you’ve done, as well as attracting new customers.

Last September, ASI released results for its latest global research, which found promotional products deliver commanding advertiser recall among 85 percent of customers surveyed. This recall exceeds other advertising and marketing alternatives, giving promotional products a higher ROI than other forms of media. ASI’s 2014 Global Advertising Specialties Impressions Study is a cost analysis of promotional products vs. other advertising media. It found high-impact, cost-effective logoed items can allow even small companies to achieve as high an ROI as major corporations.

“We conduct business in an increasingly global economy, which is why ASI committed time and resources to a study with strong international reach and results,” said Timothy M. Andrews, president and chief executive officer of ASI. “Whether we polled consumers in Canada, Mexico or Australia, we found end-buyers who consistently remember the advertisers on logoed items and who feel good about the brands on promo products they use day in and day out.”

ASI noted that at about half of a penny, promo products have a lower cost-per-impression (CPI) in the US than prime-time TV, national magazine and newspaper ads, and a similar CPI to spot radio and Internet advertising. Study results also show promo products consistently are popular and persistent, with most people owning about 10 items they generally keep for seven months.

Writing instruments were the most commonly cited item, with over half (56 percent) of recipients in the US reporting getting at least one in the prior year, followed by shirts (48 percent) and bags (34 percent).

Trends in high-end and silicone

The ad specialties market has grown far beyond writing utensils, however. “More high-end promotional products are being used, and we are seeing more electronic items being utilized,” said Dallah Reese, owner of Impact Specialty Products, Hillsboro, Oregon. “Things like Fitbit bands, smartphone chargers, cellphone cases/covers and USB hubs are definitely trendy items. Drinkware still is in demand, but I’m not talking about the stadium cups everyone thinks of. People are giving out nicer products, spending more money and choosing more wisely with the items they are giving out.”

Reese said people of a certain age consider ad specialties “trash” or “trinkets.” “I hate those terms,” she said. “We are not a trash and trinkets industry. These are nice, well thought out, branded items that serve a purpose. The game has been upped on quality, design and materials, so decoration has to step up its game as well.”

With the use of higher-end promotional products to impress customers and prospects, personalization can add an impressive touch. “The contract decorating side of our business is seeing a large increase of short-run orders for personalized promotional products,” said Darlene Putz, vice president of Innovative Digital Systems, LLC, Indian Trail, North Carolina. “For example, we used to have projects coming in that had quantities of 500 with a single design. Now, we see the same quantity, but with multiple designs for personalization.”

Newer materials also grab attention in the ad specialties market. Benjamin Adner, president of Inkcups Now Corporation, Danvers, Massachusetts, said his company has seen a major increase in demand for inks and machines that print on silicone. “People like the look and feel of items that can be used for protection, such as houseware items like oven mitts, iPhone cases or speakers,” he said. “For an item to truly be silicone, though, it has to withstand 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Most standard pad and screen printing inks will not adhere to silicone, but we have specialty inks that work for those tough applications.”

Reese said the silicone trend has spurred new decorating opportunities, explaining, “Even the glassware printers are getting into silicone products. It has a totally different ink system and curing system, so innovation is in the ink formulations for silicone inks. There are more color choices and different kinds of inks, such as metallics and glitter. As newer, innovative materials are coming out, we need to figure out how to print on them.”

Digital printing solves lead-time problems

Officials with Innovative Digital Systems also have seen trends in the types of decoration used for ad specialty products, and digital is fast becoming an advantage in some situations.

“With our contract decorating facility, we are doing a lot of prototyping, which then can turn into larger orders,” Putz said. “In digital printing, it is a prototype because it is a one-off, but it is exactly what the final item is going to look like. It speeds up the approval process tremendously. Digital printing allows the flow from order entry to production floor to run seamlessly.”

Reese said digital printing definitely is making headway in the industry. “Full color dimensional printing on products is happening,” she explained. “You used to only have a certain product line that could be printed digitally. It was limited because there was a certain coating that needed to be used so items could be printed digitally. That’s not the case anymore. You can print on a plethora of items with that method. It is growing every day.”

In addition, digital printing makes it more effective – both in terms of equipment set-ups and cost – to use multiple ink colors on promotional items, Adner said. “Another trend we see is the use of multicolor graphics,” he said. “Our customers, the suppliers, are being pressed for lead times, and the trend toward digital printing solves a lot of their problems with getting products out quickly with very little time wasted with prepress and job setup.”

While most people think of items being printed in multiple colors on an inkjet machine, Adner said Inkcups Now customers are finding it is more cost-effective to print shorter run 1- or 2-color on these machines than traditional pad or screen printing machines. “With the use of high-speed industrial inkjet machines, the speed is competitive with pad and screen printing,” he said. “In addition, there is no ink wasted, no plates or screens to be made and you only print what is needed.”

Adner thinks laser marking/engraving, pad printing, screen printing and hot stamping still are all very viable methods for decoration of promotional products. “They all have their sweet spots,” he said. “For example, pad printing is perfect for higher-volume 1-color items. You can go fast, and it is a very inexpensive print with very good quality and opacity. The same is true for screen printing. I’ve seen a decrease in hot stamping in this market because they don’t need the bright silver and gold for promotional products. For items like cosmetics, however, hot stamping is great.”

When discussing newer technologies, Reese said 3D printing is something new that Impact Specialty Products offers. “We are seeing a lot more of that,” she said. “Clients are doing spec samples. People, at this point in time in the promotional products industry, are trying to figure out 3D printing… how to make money. It’s not something that you’ll be doing high volumes with.”

Manufacturers meeting market demand

Adner noted two major trends that he’s noticed in promotional product decoration: laser plate making for pad printing clichés and the move to digital inkjet printing. “We’ve developed a low-cost laser plate making system for pad printing machine so even small companies can enjoy the benefits of laser plate making,” he said. “We believe that’s an amazing innovation because laser plate making dramatically simplifies the process and reduces the time to make the plates.”

Within the digital realm, Adner said there now is a range of ink products available. “There are very good flexible inks on the market,” he said. “You can do a lot more with a digital machine.” Inkcups Now offers the XJet, an industrial UV LED inkjet printer designed for both short-run and long-run industrial printing. It was designed to meet the needs of the industrial printing and promotional product marketplace and fills a void between smaller inkjet printers and extremely expensive high-speed inline machines. “Our XJet has become the standard for promotional product manufacturers in the marketplace,” Adner said.

And the market is expanding. “There are new digital technologies being developed for cylinders and drinkware,” he said. “I see continued growth for this segment of the industry, but right now speeds are a little slow for promotional products. If you want a multi-color image on drinkware, your options are screen printing, which has a long setup time, or transfers, which have to be outsourced with a three- to four-day lead time. Being able to do it with an inkjet printer in-house solves both of those problems.”

Innovative Digital is one of the companies ready for the growth in the drinkware market. Putz explained, “We have introduced digital printing equipment that can print 360-degrees around cylindrical objects. The Revolution 360º is a UV-LED curable inkjet printer that is engineered to print directly on cylindrical straight wall objects, such as water bottles. Its advantages are short turnaround times and customized one-off print capability. We also have a digital printer that prints in-mold labels and heat transfers – the DTP Combi UV-LED inkjet printer.”

Whether decorated with more traditional methods such as pad printing and screen printing or personalized with digital printing, the ad specialty market provides opportunities for contract decorators and equipment manufacturers alike. Its permanence has much to do with the emotional attachment that can come from holding an item that encapsulates a memory.

“I personally have a mug that I’ve had for over 20 years – since 1997,” said Reese, “and I remember the day I got it. An appliance place was giving them out as an incentive for buying something, and it’s my favorite mug. I never would have saved it if it was the standard white mug, but this is a cobalt blue, sand etched 12oz. mug. If ever gets broken, I know I’d be upset.”

And, that’s exactly the type of loyalty and attachment businesses are hoping to create.

Thank you to The Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI) for providing its white paper, “Global Advertising Specialties Impressions Study,” for this article. ASI is a media, marketing and education organization serving the promotional products industry, with a network of over 25,000 distributors and suppliers throughout North America. For more information, visit