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The Other One Percent

Filed under: Community

On my way to the airport a couple of weeks ago, I was picked up by a taxi driver who was the happiest guy I’ve met in years.

Born and raised in Ethiopia, three years ago he won one of about 50,000 “green cards” granted annually through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program to nationals of countries we consider to be under-represented in U.S. immigration.  To qualify to submit an application, people must have either a high school diploma, or two years of work experience within the last five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training and be otherwise admissible.

Each year, many millions of people from around the world apply for this visa.  Only about 1% of all qualified applicants “win” the lottery, which is just the first step.  Then there’s another selection process, and only about half of the winners actually end up with visas.

With odds like those, it’s no wonder my taxi driver described his visa as “a gift from God.”

In Ethiopia, most people farm in the face of tremendous obstacles like deforestation and drought. Crop failures and famine persists and life expectancy is only 59, compared with 79 here in the U.S. Despite recent gains, the country’s GDP per capita is only about $1,200, compared with $50,000 here.

The driver is thrilled to be in the United States.  “I have a car I drive nice people around in, I can have my Starbucks with me if I want, I dress up every day in clean, nice clothes, and I can do anything here I want to do,” he told me. “Most countries aren’t free, and people here seem to not realize that and how much better it is here.”

I teared up. In a taxi.

This heartfelt story was told by someone who couldn’t speak English when he landed at JFK.  It made me realize all over again how much we need comprehensive immigration reform that will allow us to continue welcoming such wonderful people to the United States. The truth is, most immigrants work long hours for low pay at menial jobs many citizens sneer at – and they want nothing more than to become legal and work without fear of deportation or exploitation.

Whenever I meet someone so clearly appreciative of the chance they’ve been given to change their life for the better, I think about how much, in turn, they can contribute to our understanding of the world at large and to our culture and success. Who’s to say this taxi driver won’t one day contribute as much as many other immigrants have, from Albert Einstein and John Muir to Madeleine Albright and Irving Berlin.

I am thankful today for the friends and family I have, and for all of the comfort and success I share with my colleagues at ASI and throughout our industry.

I am thankful, too, for this young man, his enthusiasm for life and the life he will someday build as a proud citizen of the United States.


The Era of Innovation

Filed under: Community, Members, Research

Thanks to strong Q3 results, distributor and supplier sales in the promotional products industry have now risen for 15 straight quarters, which is solid proof that companies big and small continue to buy what we’re selling: The enduring power of promotional products.

These days, ideas and innovations are what make the world go ’round. Bloomberg Businessweek says we need look no further than Twitter’s $24.9 billion valuation as evidence we’ve officially entered the “ideas economy.” Lucky for us, ideas and innovations are at the heart of this industry, where new products coupled with inventive branding can hit the market – and seize the imagination – faster than ever before.

If we capitalize on innovation, as Bloomberg suggests, our industry will continue to grow. This year alone, if ASI’s indicators are correct, total sales will surpass $20 billion. I know that anything – a political coup in a far-off land or even a devastating weather event – can cause unexpected economic havoc, but I’m pretty comfortable in our predictions.

What’s your take on 2014? ASI’s Counselor magazine recently asked Power 50 members if their companies would hire additional staff in the next year and 63% said they would. I take that as a strong indication of overall industry health. Is your company hiring? Are your clients spending more? Are you?

As Dan Taylor, president of BamBams (asi/38228), which increased sales by 8.5% this year, told ASI: “I think the value factor of promotional products in the marketing space has contributed to this growth. Companies are working hard to expand, so there is a need for advertising in the marketplace.”

Today, promotional products are used by virtually every business and major brand in America, and for good reason: They work! For proof, you need look no further than ASI’s most recent global advertising specialties impressions study, highlighted by tons of easy-to-share stats on everything from the impressive CPI to strong advertiser recall.

It’s clear we have the right products and the right message at the right time. So ask yourself this: What will you be selling in 2014? Products? Or ideas?

Let me know by posting a comment or emailing me here. I’m also on Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.


Promo Products 101

Filed under: Community, Education, Industry Initiatives, News About ASI

When college students tell you you’ve done something right, you want to share it with the world. That’s how we felt when we heard from Babson College students who recently dipped a toe into the promotional products industry through a unique initiative spear-headed by ASI’s education department.

ASI and Babson College worked together to help instructor-led student groups spend about $3,000 in seed money to buy, imprint and sell promotional products. As part of their immersion into the business world, these budding entrepreneurs were granted access to ASI’s ESP®, where they could source and order products from our suppliers. By using ESP and reputable ASI member companies, students told us they felt confident they were selling quality products.

After the program ended, the college surveyed participating students. Here are a few of their comments:

  • “It was great because it allowed us to have a reputable way to contact a trusted supplier.”
  • “Definitely continue to provide ASI as a resource… ASI helps legitimize the business immediately and gives a group of college kids credibility.”
  • “Without the strong relationship with our supplier that our COO worked on throughout the semester, we would not have been so successful.”
  • “ASI was incredibly valuable in determining a good supplier within the U.S.”

The inaugural program was so successful, during the 2013-2014 school year ASI and Babson will expand it to enable up to 40 student businesses to show and sell their products through an ESP Websites e-commerce company store.

Our long-term hope is that these future business leaders look to their positive experiences with our suppliers and our industry when embarking on their careers. We plan to continue outreach to other colleges and universities to convince other business, marketing, advertising and new media students to join what we all know is an exciting, creative industry, which more people need to discover.

After announcing the program’s results, we received a number of accolades, along with feedback worth sharing.

The owner of an Illinois company that’s sold promotional products since 1975 applauded the program and shared his own story about a paid internship program he offers for marketing and advertising students. He started the program to mentor students and help them gain valuable, real-world business experience – and to help spread the word about our industry.

As he points out, “Wherever they pursue their career, they will have a very strong background in the power of promotional products as well as how to integrate promotional products into a given target market to help build brand awareness, new product intros, etc.”

He added, “The younger generation will become the backbone of our industry in the near future.”

I couldn’t agree more. As I explained to a distributor who is concerned programs like this one could hurt our industry, any worries about possible student competition should be outweighed by the need for greater exposure.

As it stands now, the industry is too invisible to business students who are learning how to make smart marketing decisions once they’re business professionals.  They learn about buying and using TV, radio and internet advertising, direct mail and everything else under the sun, but marketing programs rarely mention the power of promotional products and the incredible return on the investment of marketing dollars.  We need to change that.

In terms of the next generation of leadership in the industry, we need people to understand and be excited about promotional products as a potential career or the industry will wither and die.  As I walk around trade shows and other events, I am very concerned about the aging of our distributor sales population, the invisibility of the profession to anyone who didn’t grow up in the industry or stumble into it by accident, and equally concerned that we have little or no racial diversity.  We are 90% white in a world that isn’t. Exposing our industry to entrepreneurial students from every walk of life has the opportunity to inject new enthusiasm among those who decide to join.

While I appreciate the feedback, my larger concern is about an invisible industry, lacking new youthful entrants and racial diversity. We plan to continue to pursue programs similar to Babson’s at other colleges and universities and hope to have several such programs next year.

We’ll keep everyone apprised moving forward. My hope is that after considering what more exposure, education and diversity can do for our industry in the long run, everyone will become more enthusiastic about our shared future.