Profile - 4imprint - A Global Impression (1,432 words)
4imprint marries direct response with promotional marketing
By Lisa A. Yorgey
Companies grow their businesses by expanding into international markets for one of two reasons—either to boost sales or increase profits. Which reason governs their approach. For example, a mature business experiencing flat profits and sales may enter into a licensing agreement with a company outside its domestic market to raise profits. A company with little or no room for expansion or growth in its domestic market can boost sales with a solo venture operated from either the United States or an overseas operation. Or, a company looking to increase its long-term sales can can acquire or merge with a local company in its target market. This was the strategy chosen by 4imprint, a multi-channel distributor of promotional products.
An International Journey
4imprint began its journey toward global marketing in 1986 when company founder Dick Nelson decided to sell premiums via direct mail rather than by the traditional method of selling face to face. He started with a small brochure, and began looking for capital to fund his fledgling business, Nelson Marketing. At the same time, the business products division of cataloger Miles Kimball was looking to grow its market share with an acquisition. Miles Kimball acquired Nelson Marketing in 1988; however, it was resold to Nelson a few years later when Miles Kimball refocused its attention and resources on the consumer side of its business.
Nelson was again in search of capital to fuel his company. Bemrose, a British supplier of promotion products with a large European sales field, bought Nelson Marketing in 1996, and the strictly direct marketing company instantly became a global distributor of promotional products.
"Only five percent of promotion items in the industry are sold via direct marketing channels," says Greg Iott, 4imprint's vice president, business development, who explains that "4imprint needed distributor channels to reach the remaining 95 percent of the promotion products market."
The newly formed company merged its four distribution channels—direct marketing, corporate program, premiums and partner services—and adopted the name, 4imprint as its global banner in 2000.
A Marketing Marriage
The first catalog launched in the United Kingdom by the new joint company was mailed in the spring of 1997. It was borne of the labor of two teams located on different sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. staff of Nelson Marketing brought its experience of selling promotional products via direct marketing, while Bemrose's field sales reps provided in-depth knowledge of the promotional products markets, including which products would sell. The newly formed company used its distributor's existing vendor contacts to support the launch, and lists were selected with the help of Direct Media's European office for the 500,000 book mailing.
At the time of the launch, copy for the U.K. catalog was written by its U.S. staff based in Oshkosh, WI, and reviewed by the U.K. staff at its global headquarters in Manchester, U.K., to make sure it was appropriate and accurate. The same process was followed for its e-commerce sites.
Aside from anglicized spelling and pricing in pounds sterling, the most significant difference between the U.S. and U.K. versions of the catalog was its merchandise mix. More executive gifts and high-end merchandise, such as clocks and calculators were included for personalization in the U.K. version of the catalog as opposed to its U.S. counterpart. As Iott explains, at the time logo apparel and corporate causal wear were not as popular among Britons. Baseball hats were not as big a seller as they were in the United States, he says.
List selection also proved somewhat difficult. "The list market is not as robust in the United Kingdom as it is in the United States," observes Iott, who is quick to point out that it has improved in the past few years and that it also is a different list environment because it is a smaller market. To supplement its catalog mailings and bulk up its prospecting efforts, the company placed space advertising in industry-related publications and tested a few postcard mailings.
Prior to the U.K. operation assuming responsibility for the British catalog, all prepress catalog work was done in-house in the United States. Files were transferred to a U.K.-based printer for printing and mailing in the domestic postal stream. Today, all creative for the British version of the catalog, including copy, merchandising and pagination, is handled by the U.K. staff.
The Supplier Side
When selecting merchandise, 4imprint heavily relies on its trade division, Products Source Select, that has extensive knowledge of what products sell in the marketplace. This information, in combination with 4imprint staff's own observations as to what products are selling at the retail level, is used to select products for the catalog. Thumb through the pages of the 4imprint's prospecting catalog and you'll find numerous pens, baseball hats, mugs, stress balls and umbrellas that can be imprinted with messages and corporate logos. And while the pen remains its most popular product, according to 4Imprint's U.K.-based marketing executive Cheryl Jackson, one of the hot new items is a small deck chair for a mobile phone.
4imprint acts as a middle man of sorts, says Jackson, in the fulfillment process. It takes the order and sends it to the appropriate supplier who then fulfills the order and dispatches the product directly to the consumer. Most items are available within 10 days; however, special orders, such as an umbrella, may take a couple of weeks, Jackson adds.
Approximately 90 percent of the merchandise 4imprint sells is purchased for an event, such as give-aways at a trade show, which makes customer service and timely turnaround essential, says Iott. "We have to be able to get it [the order] right, and get it there on time, not a day later. No one wants to receive products the day after a trade show" he explains. For example, McDonald's needed 750,000 mini-footballs delivered for its World Cup promotion.
As a rule, 4imprint doesn't house product stock, unless the order is placed with its corporate program, a collection of pre-selected products branded with a specific customer's corporate logo. There are no minimum order requirements and a customer's employees may order a single item from its pre-printed stock.
A Channel Potpourri
Four quarterly mailings are dropped in the U.K. market, totaling 1.2 million catalogs a year. Most of these catalogs are prospecting efforts, and are mailed to companies with more than 50 employees.
4imprint's print catalog and e-commerce site are fully integrated and tied into a single product database, which makes it easy for customers to order. It has found "the catalog is the primary driver to the Web, accounting for 85 percent of all visitor traffic," Iott notes.
As a global selling channel, the Internet is an extension of the 4imprint catalog, explains Iott, which made it easy to add to its existing infrastructure, and Internet sales account for 20 percent of the company's total business. 4imprint also uses a mix of promotions, space advertising and e-mail marketing to prospect. When remnant space is available, it places ads in publications such as the weekly U.K. marketing magazine, Marketing Week.
The Platinum Club brings e-mail marketing into the mix. Promoted via a link on its Web site, the Club captures the e-mail addresses of its Web site visitors. This information is then used to send Club members a monthly newsletter featuring promotional marketing-related content as well as several discounted product offers. Registrants also are entered into a monthly drawing for $1,000 worth of imprinted promotional products.
The cataloger also generates prospecting leads for both its field sales team in the United Kingdom and direct marketing efforts with a business reply card (BRC) blown into the catalog. The blow-in offers respondents an editorial freemium in exchange for providing information such as company size, purchasing power and when it plans to purchase promotional markets. In addition to supplying the freemium, 4imprint follow-ups with another offer, such as a solo mail package with a sample pen.
The purpose of the lead generation piece is two-fold and illustrates how 4imprint strikes a balance between the traditional sale of promotional items by a sales representative and selling via a direct marketing channel, such as a catalog. Leads are provided for follow up by field sales representatives, but they also are mailed to again without having to rent the name and convert an inquirer to a buyer.
It is this marriage of distributor and direct marketing channels that has given 4imprint greater access to the worldwide promotional product market and allowed it to become the world's fourth-largest distributor of logo'd promotional products.