Brands at the Forefront for this $22B Industry

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Promotional items such as USB drives and other electronics are hot this year, but longtime staples remain popular – even if they sometimes come with a new twist.

These items, given away at trade shows, fairs and other gatherings, represent just some of the ways promotional product suppliers, printers and other firms with a hand in marketing go about their work to help customers and their brands stand out.

Sales for the promotional products industry alone totaled $22 billion in 2015, an increase of 3.4% from 2014, according to a survey released in January by the Advertising Specialty Institute. Last year was the sixth consecutive year of annual growth. Total sales revenue for the sector is up 19% since 2011.

Professionals in the printing and promotional products industries in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys were asked to share how they help their customers stand out in the marketplace.

Helping the Client Decide
“First we help the client decide on the product based on certain criteria,” says Carol Sherman, co-owner and vice president of Sherman Creative Promotions, Boardman. Those criteria include determining who the intended recipient of the promotional item is so it meets their need.

Sometimes that means selecting a product that’s appropriate for any age or both sexes. In the case of something intended for a child, products must also take safety into account. “There’s a lot of things to be taken into consideration,” she says, including the client’s budget.

Items such as USB drives and rechargeable portable power packs for mobile devices are proving popular this year. But lower-tech products like hand fans and microfiber cloths used to clean mobile devices and glasses are gaining popularity as well.

For the most part, familiar products tend to be among the most popular, albeit with some new twists. New techniques allow coffee mugs to be printed with full-color images and embroidered patches can be inserted between the layers of double-walled tumblers. It’s not uncommon for items such as pens to have small lights or styluses added to them.

“If you go to a trade show, everybody takes an ink pen on your table,” Sherman remarks. “It’s still a good, traditional item. It’s just adding a new twist to it, a new feature, that brings it into the current marketing needs of your clients.”

Tailoring Campaigns for Clients
In addition to forms, envelopes and signage, Minuteman Press in Youngstown offers promotional products and apparel such as Frisbees, coffee mugs or hats – “anything that one would put a logo on,” owner Bill Seifert says.

People don’t always come into Minuteman looking to purchase promotional products. On many occasions, they come in to send a fax and notice the display case of available items.

“I try to tailor-make campaigns for my customers. If I have an electrician and they want something that they can use to stand out, maybe I’ll give them a flashlight with their name and logo,” Seifert says. If those customers experience a power outage, for example, when they pick up the flashlight to use they have information for a company that can potentially address their issue, he notes.

Consistency Across Media
The Youngstown Letter Shop in Youngstown tries to helps clients by taking each project and giving it “a lot of personal individual attention to see what we can do to make each stand out,” says Frank Tuscano, marketing manager.

Youngstown Letter offers mostly printing services, from business cards and letterhead to direct-marketing pieces, signs and banners, he reports, but the company has evolved into a direct-marketing firm that also does email and website work.

“We can step into the process wherever you need us,” Tuscano says. Some customers just require printing services while others need a campaign fully designed.

“We try to keep things standard across all media,” he adds.

Keeping Busy in a ‘Saturated’ Market
Solar Arts Graphic Design Inc., a Youngstown-based screen printer, deals mainly in printed apparel, although it also distributes some promotional products.

“We try to keep up with the modern printing techniques,” says Dan Klingensmith, president.

All-polyester sportswear requires special printing requirements, which presented “a bit of a learning curve” at first “but once we got it down, we’re pretty good at it,” Klingensmith says.

Although his company is busy right now, Klingensmith says the local market is “saturated” with screen printers, requiring Solar Arts to look for out-of-town work. While it has one customer in Arizona, most of its customers are based between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Dealing With Market Changes
“Our forte is items that we can manufacture ourselves versus having to import, so we use a lot of acrylics and woods,” says Randy Beck, owner of SCP Group in Sharon, Pa.

The company uses laser etching and flatbed UV printing to apply designs. Using the latter technique permits SCP Group to apply additional layers and “give depth to a piece,” he says.

“What we’re having the most fun with is printing on acrylics and then contour cutting them using a laser,” creating pieces with “all kinds of unique and cool effects,” he says. Among the items the company jurns out are Christmas ornaments, sun catchers and luggage tags. “Done properly, it’s something that people will keep,” he remarks.

On the printing side of the business, SCP focuses on helping clients capture data and use that information to market more effectively. “It significantly increases return on investment,” he says.

Beck notes the market varies month to month. Fewer people are making purchasing decisions, as opposed to a decade ago when there were purchasing agents and “multiple layers in marketing departments, so if the head of the department was out for a week things still kept going,” he says.

“People doing these jobs are wearing so many hats that the purchasing of printed materials and marketing materials gets pushed back” and when they are absent nothing gets done, he continues.

“Because of the nature of the industry, we’re able to accommodate rush work,” he adds.

LED Provides New Alternatives
LED – or light-emitting diode – technology has become more precise and offers higher resolution, says Clare Neff, chief marketing officer at LED3 LLC, Canfield, which offers sales and rentals of LED products.

“The market is going to higher resolution as more people become familiar with LEDs,” Neff says.

When LED bought its first trailer six years ago, the best spacing between pixels available was 10 millimeters. Now LED3 has products with spacing as low as 1.2 millimeters. “It’s almost like looking at a television set at this point,” she says.

Modern LED screens encompass “another whole range of marketing,” digital out-of-home, that provide an alternative way to reach people from newspapers, magazines or television, she says.

At a tailgate, for example, “you can insert your own commercial into where a broadcast commercial will be,” although, she acknowledges, that “takes a little more work.”

Keeping it Simple
Even with all the new twists that might be available, sometimes sticking to the basics is best – “if they’re valid,” says Bob Page, owner of Trinkle Signs, Youngstown, which makes signs and banners. Among its sign clients is Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., for which it makes signs to identify individual neighborhoods in the city.

“People tend to be a little too complicated in signage” and want to put too much on a sign, Page says. “It needs to be basic, simple, easy to read going by at 50 miles per hour.”

Pictured: Dawn and Dean Seifert, owners of Minuteman Press at 3200 Belmont Ave. in Youngstown.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.