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Monthly Archives: November 2010

Promotional Items, Is there a one size fits all product?

Some in the marketing field refer to promotional items as give-away items. Those are the usually small items that you give out for your customers to keep reminding them of you. They are a part of the effort of the marketing communication department to boost visibility and hence boosting sales.

Those products are usually printed material that can vary from plastic bags, paper bags, T-shirts, Polo shirts, Pens, other stationary items, calendars, computer accessories, mugs, cups chain holders, etc..  The benefits they offer can be directly linked to your business, or unrelated to it.

Everyone likes a free gift (well maybe almost everyone). I remember when I was a child and we purchased a new color TV, I was more excited that I got free stickers than the fact of having the TV itself. The stickers were plain simple advertisement for the TV manufacturer that I had put on our apartment door, our fridge and my school text book.

In some cases, your business may not afford offering such items (although you should consider the option by adding the cost of the item to your service charges). This article is mainly geared towards those who chose to use promotional items in their marketing strategy.

There are loads of promotional items in the market that can be customized for you. Which one will you choose? In my opinion and based on experience there is no one size fits all product. Your choice may be depending on your industry, your target market and social conditions of your targeted customers.

In order to choose the promotional item that suits your needs you will have to identify the benefit you expect from it. I usually focus on visibility. My aim is to have my advertisement visible to the maximum amount of people. This is due basically to the type of business I am in. This approach differs when I am targeting a niche segment. I would rather tailor the promotional product to reflect a personal message as I am expecting a long term relationship.

Identifying the benefits does not guarantee the success. Your item of choice may prove to be irrelevant to your potential subscribers. Printed pens for example were always among my choice of successful promotional items. When I was working in a country where illiteracy rate is about 70% among the adult population (My target segment), Pens proved to be a failure when it came to promotional items. Although no one refused the free gift, they were practically never used.

T-shirts however made a better alternative. Many of our customers did not wear them, yet they redistributed them to their employees or relatives, hence ensuring my visibility target. On the other hand, T-shirts are seasonal items that did not last as long as I was expecting pens to do.

Key chains are not an attractive item to someone who does not carry keys. In some countries, the population is so poor they cannot afford buying locks, let alone affording decent housing. Even those who have locks for their doors tend to carry one key and the keychain will simply add weight in their ready to be torn pockets.

Flashlights were a huge success in a country where electricity is rarely available at night. The usage of a special design light that projects the logo of my company rather than the usual light beam made this promotional item even more successful.

USB drives were a very attracting item to offer in one market where I launched the first 3G service. It was highly appreciated by our targeted subscribers who were using the 3G services for their data needs since existing ISP service was too expensive and unreliable compared to ours. This same item choice was a failure in a market where computer penetration is less than 2% due to power issues and price limitations. On another hand, due to the fast paced advancement in technology a USB drive that you offer today may be considered obsolete in the following quarter. .

Investing in promotional items is a choice you make. Define your expectations, study your options, and know your customer, only then you can hope that your choice will be successful and help you achieve your expectations.

Marketing Criticism, Who Is To Blame?

Due to its close relationship with the customer, Marketing has been often criticized. From being misleading, to exaggerating, applying the corporate view only while focusing on the organization’s benefit solely. This criticism may sound true to most, and is definitely worth to be responded to by marketing professionals.

Before discussing any type of criticism, let’s start by the basics. What is marketing? While reviewing the definition on the web, I found mainly those that refer to marketing as the process by which companies determine what products or services may be of interest to customers, and the strategy to use in sales, communications and business development. The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines marketing as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

As the head the business department of my company setting the marketing policy is one of my tasks. I surely do not find anything offensive at the first glance by reading the first definition. Some however may regard this as a proof that marketing exists for the sole purpose of executing a company process that targets customers. The answer to that however is found in the AMA definition, the marketing activity can be initiated by a person and not solely by a company. AMA sets the product as an offering that has value and not as a product or service that may be of interest.

Someone who has an offering (idea, product, belief…) and wants to put it out for the grabs is getting involved in marketing. It is an open invitation to be part of the offering. They can have a simple process or a series of complicated ones, which include communicating, delivering and exchange.  The understanding of this simple definition does not mean that some corporations do not indulge into unethical activities; it simply reminds us that not all those who are involved in marketing are aiming to deceive the public.

Let us take bread as an example. A bakery providing us with fresh bread is likely able to sell more of its fresh bread compared to two days old bread coming from a distant baker if it offers it at the same price. Both are involved in marketing if they want their product sold. They have the product, they defined its price, their products are available at the local grocery stores, and they both informed people of their presence (knowing that the local bakery can focus on its products’ freshness). How can either of those entities be criticized for their involvement in basic marketing?

Let’s take the example a step further. The Distant bakery is really looking into establishing a major market share in the market. Due to its transportation costs it cannot compete on price. It advertises its product as being a natural product that provides a certain amount of energy. By the looks their bread may seem to have this golden color that makes a bread lover drool. However, they decide to ignore mentioning using chemicals to make the bread stay fresh for a longer period of time, or using colorants to give that shiny golden look. All their chemical components may be mentioned on the package but it will be in a chemical terminology that we do not know as simple consumers. The chances are that their sales will go higher by promoting the benefits of their bread.

Are we to blame the marketing for such a manipulative action? Some do, but is it really marketing that caused this or is it the decision makers at that bakery? In this example we could see the manipulative power of marketing when put in greedy hands. The distant bakery did not lie about their products ability to stay fresh; they just mentioned it can without stating how they do it.

From a professional background, I have to state that there is a problem of ethics when it comes to marketing. The origin of the problem is not marketing; it is some individuals involved in the marketing field.

On an individual level, let’s take as an example email scams. How many of you received an email claiming to represent the assistant of a president, the siblings of a diamond dealer, and the son of an ousted official who wants to send you millions of dollars to your account and offering you a generous percentage. Sometimes all what they ask for is your bank account number or a minor amount transfer (compared to the huge amount you will receive) to their account.

Those people are involved in illegal schemes yet they use marketing. Their product is based on their understanding of human psychology and the greed and ignorance of those who fall for it. It is their greed and their manipulative message that is to be criticized, and not their usage of emails as a means to market their product.

On a corporate level, there are too many examples ranging from natural medication to sophisticated electronics. Although some products may be harmful (Some of the “natural weight loss” products for example) while others don’t deliver all what is promised. Marketers in those cases use deception and manipulation. In the case of “natural” products they focus indirectly on the safety of those products without clarifying that some people may be allergic to one or the other, let alone those who use plants that can have a poisonous effect. On another hand many had purchased one electronic item or another promising to deliver so many solutions just to find out that they had to purchase additional accessories before being able to benefit fully from this product.

Neither provider lied about their product, but neither told the full truth either. In either case, I don’t believe that marketing is to be blamed, it is rather the people involved in it and how they are using it. Although developing partial truth about their products they also exploited the weaknesses of other human beings. It is their actions that should be criticized and not the marketing process.

On the other hand, I should point out that marketing is susceptible to such abuse due to its core component: People. Beliefs such as “the end justifies the means” can easily find their way in marketing and it is such beliefs that make marketing vulnerable to criticism. By understanding the role of people in marketing, many criticism issues can be understood and corrected to aim at the individuals rather than the concept itself.  Ethics are as important in marketing as they are in our everyday life. Although we could assume that people live by those ethics, we still have laws to punish those who do not abide by them.

In Islam, trade has its defined ethics. The prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) had said what means that the truthful trader will appear in the Day of Judgment with honest people, the messengers of God, and the martyrs. This shows that being honest while exercising trade is not an easy task, yet it is feasible and it is highly rewarding in the hereafter. In one of the incidents, the Prophet was in the market and put his hand in a bag of wheat to check its quality. He found out that the wheat that was underneath the exposed part was humid due to its exposure to rain. He addressed the trader by asking him why it is as such. The trader was honest enough to answer that it rained on it. The meaning of the prophet’s comment to his answer was “Make it visible so people can see it, the one who cheats us is not one of us” As simple as the statement might be, it sets the ethics in trade making cheating unethical.

Trade made Islam reach Indonesia by following this simple approach. When an Indonesian king asked a Muslim trader why is he being honest in his trade (compared to other traders) the Muslim trader’s answer was that it is due to his religion that forbids him from cheating. The king’s answer to that was that a religion as such deserves to be followed. Over the years Islam got spread in Indonesia because of honest trading.  In a world where greed rules, it is hard to find honest marketers, yet again, it is not the marketing process that is to blame; it is the human behavior that takes it either way.

In future articles i will go through other types of criticism while discussing more advanced marketing applications.

War, An Extreme Marketing Example

As previously introduced, the essentials of Marketing rely in the Marketing mix (the 4Ps). I also stated that none of the marketing principles apply without understanding that it is about People, even if we do not state People as being the first P. The product may be an idea, a thought, or an ideal. One of the extreme applications of marketing is war.

Wars start for many reasons: Political, Religious, Economic, and others. History tells us that some wars started because of the love of a woman. Although new era wars use tactically and strategically the marketing principles, old history wars did not lack the usage of the same principles even though it may have been without knowing the marketing terminology.

We should however differentiate between War as a marketing tool, and usage of marketing tools to support a war. Let’s look at the 4PS and see how this applies in a war situation.  I will take a recent history example: The war of Iraq. In the table below, you will see the differences between War as Marketing tool, and the marketing tools used to support the war.

War Of Iraq

War as a marketing tool

Tools of Marketing used for War

Product Product
Expansion of Control War against Terror
Oil WMDs
Special Interests (Arms manufacturing, Private Security Companies, etc…) Spreading Democracy and freedom
Price Price
Political criticism Thousands of dead soldiers and mercenaries
Loss of Political positions Weak Economy
Sacrificing Subordinates Damage to International Image
Place Place
US and International Iraq
Promotion Promotion
Like minded individuals and organizations Linking Bin Laden to Saddam
Use of Marketing tools for the public (next column) WMDs

As you can see, Marketing can be declared or hidden. The hidden agenda had its own marketing plan. It promised the contributors to guarantee the expansion of US and its allies’ control bringing them even closer to a rising regional power (Iran), while offering a direct presence in an oil rich country (Iraq). It also guarantees massive conventional weapons production and testing, and the application of the armed forces privatization theory (The US Federal Bank is a successful example of privatizing national interests to its stakeholders) .

The price to be paid by the war stakeholders was minimal. Those who will object to war will definitely criticize the ones who started it. The stakeholders may have to sacrifice seats in the states they represent, in the congress, and in the senate. Some of those who are linked to stakeholders may lose their positions even though they are not part of the stakeholders.

The place to sell the product is the US and potential International allies. Stakeholders had to work in those places where they can ensure enough support of those who will buy into the idea.

It does not take much of Promotion to convince like minded people or organizations. However, to promote the war among the majority, the stakeholders knew that they need to come up with a convincing product.

To ensure their success, a full marketing plan was thought of. It did not rely on the 4ps only, it rather focused on human psychology.

The product was the war against terror as a start. The planners used fear and anger to motivate public support. After 911 attacks on the American soil, and the vicious murder of civilians, some people were still in fear while others wanted revenge. The war marketing planners used those emotions to their favor.  By fabricating links between Saddam and Bin Laden, the public who wanted revenge was ready to support a war against Iraq. Marketers knew that they should still fuel the fear to guarantee the support of those fear driven, and the claims of the risk that Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction could fall into terrorist hands was enough to convince the majority among them. As those emotions started to fade after the success of invading Baghdad, a new product has to be put in place to guarantee the extension of war. The marketers quietly withdrew from the claims about the WMDs as they were nowhere to be found, it became all about the spread of democracy, and freedom. Although the majority of current Iraqi leaders are as democratic as Saddam himself, this would not affect the targeted consumers (The American public and the public of our allies).

The price had to be determined. In order for the public to support such a war, they have to believe that the cost is minimal. People are ready to pay their dearest so they can guarantee their safety. On another hand, when we are blinded with revenge, we do not really look into the cost. Taking a decision of war is expensive enough, yet people supported it because it was a price we were ready to pay. As the product changed, the price had to change, the public will not support high costs for a product they already have. This was already known to the marketers. By including mercenaries, and private contractors from the beginning of the war, the planners of the war knew that the cost in American lives will be minimal. They also controlled the release of information about US casualties to make sure the flow of information is slow and would not cause a major shock back home. They also thought of the image of Iraqi casualties in the war. We are human beings, and images of tens of thousands Iraqi civilians dead, severely wounded, and turned homeless would surely affect us and make us think again about our approval of the war.  The weight of the war on economy was a heavy price to pay. Marketers and stakeholders knew that this is not a price the public would want to pay when they know that the outcome of the war was not as they expected. Initially people supported war at any cost. Slowly, the war started crippling the economy. The cost for the public was much higher than the cost on the selected few. Their cost was pre-calculated, they may lose some of their political positions, but the whole economy problem can be blamed on those who will replace them. Another human psychology understanding that was well thought off by the war marketing gurus: People forget! When it comes to everyday necessities, we will not look at the past and who caused the problem, we will be looking at those in office to solve our issues. The third price that we had to pay was the US image as the leading power, the world cop, the defenders of democracy and freedom worldwide. To guarantee the safety, people were ready to pay this price. For those who wanted revenge, the understanding was even easier, how can we be looked at as a super power if we do not retaliate to such an attack on our soil? The pricing strategy model was well thought off and backed with public support.

What about the place? You cannot “sell” your product without having a place.  The chances are that the more convenient the place is the more customers you will get. In a war case, to make people buy into the idea, the place has to be as far from home as we can have it. The statement “We are taking the war to them” is the perfect application of the place convenience. The war is waged in Iraq, thousands of miles away from home.

Promotion is where we summarize all we want to say to the public. It is how we advertize our product to guarantee support. In previous marketing articles I discussed the difference between promotion and communication. Marketing a war is an example where we can see the application of communicating a promotion. Promoting fear was one of the major tools used in the war in Iraq as a whole. Saddam is linked to Bin Laden, Bin Laden attacked us, and Saddam has WMDs that he can give to Bin Laden to attack us again: Lets’ get rid of him! Although news conferences were organized to promote the war, you could see at a certain stage that there was a lack of communication. Not all facts were put clearly to the public, while some information was pure fabrication. Although official after official were communicating their arguments about the necessity of war, at times it was a one way promotion. Intimidation is an example of a one way promotion “You’re either with us or against us” is a perfect example.

Of course, war supporters have their own understanding and arguments about the whole issue, but that does not deny that a marketing effort was put into the war itself. I consider war as an extreme marketing example due to its cost, human lives.

Comments are always welcome.