May 6, 2016
A guest blog from ASI CTO Armughan Rafat:
Imagine the business value in obtaining instant access to 50,000 people who understand exactly what you do day in and day out – like-minded people who can answer questions, provide resources and even help you advance in your chosen field.
That’s the potential of ASI’s latest resource – ESP Chat, an online community a click away in ESP Web®. I’m proud to say ASI is the first in the industry to offer supplier-hosted chat rooms.
ESP Chat represents a terrific opportunity for distributors to get quick answers from suppliers and for suppliers to build stronger business relationships with customers. As an added bonus, it’s also a place for anyone in the promotional products industry to get to know each other.
If you have any questions, chat live with me in ESP Chat on Thursday, May 12, from 12-1 p.m.
In the meantime, I urge you to learn from each other, share your experiences, suggest hot products and alert others to new industry trends. Spread the buzz throughout the community – the world-wide community. Like Facebook, ESP Chat is a powerful social networking tool.
Let’s say you’re a distributor searching for a product in ESP and have a question. Instead of stopping to make a phone call or shoot off an email, click on “Chat with supplier” and go right into the supplier’s chat room.
And suppliers can click here to watch a short video overview of the benefits of hosting. Suppliers savvy enough to host their own chat room will have a leg up on the competition, as numerous studies show most customers prefer chat over email and phone.
What I love most about ESP Chat is its direct integration into ESP. You enter with a single click and can reply, post an ESP product, pic or even an emoji. The first day ESP Chat was available, I scrolled through numerous conversations, watching live as distributors queried suppliers on product availability, color, size and deadline.
But when you want a private chat, simply select that option.
Think about the last time you called a company needing support or answers. How many times have you spent 15 minutes or more on hold only to get cut off? It’s frustrating.
With chat, you shoot off a question and either wait for an immediate response or check back later when you have time.
Maybe it’s because I’m in IT and generally wedded to my computer and device, but I find chatting on the phone more time consuming. With chat, I feel like I’m in my element. Getting quick answers feeds my instant-gratification side.
Right now, we have 24 distributor-only rooms available, plus a general ESP discussion room that’s open to everyone.
Like any online communication tool, there are limitations. Suppliers might not be online when a question is sent, but it’s in their best interest to answer as soon as possible.
Chat is not the communication method of the future – it’s the communication method of now.
April 25, 2016
Thanks to social media, reactions to controversial issues hit fast and furious these days. Most recently, a few of you in the promotional products industry posted about ASI’s Advantages® magazine’s mid-April cover featuring a large marijuana leaf.
Our coverage revolved around Advantages’ annual report on promo product growth in 2015 and the big news that sales in Colorado are increasing at a faster rate than in any other state in the country, fueled in large part by the burgeoning legal marijuana industry.
One reader shared her discomfort over the cover (which prompted her son to ask why she was now selling pot-related promo items) and questioned why we didn’t wrap the cover or somehow disguise the pot leaf.
Here’s my take:
So far, 24 states and D.C. have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana, with more surely to come. Some states have stopped jailing users for carrying small amounts and others let adults 21 and older use it for any reason.
This on-going trend toward legalization has promoted celebrated magazines as diverse as National Geographic, Time, The Nation, Newsweek, Fortune and Philadelphia to feature covers similar to ours. Way back in 1969, even world-famous Life magazine put pot on its cover with the headline, “12 million Americans have now tried it…Should it be legalized?”
It was news then – and it’s news now.
As we do with any business subject, ASI is covering the marijuana industry from all angles, even attending a cannabis trade show in New York last summer to report ways companies are using promotional products. The verdict? Cannabis presents a ripe opportunity for distributors.
I’m proud that our talented reporters and editors delve deep into business issues. And I’m proud of our photographers and designers for illustrating those issues with powerful images. That’s their job.
We’re not endorsing marijuana, just as we don’t endorse (or condemn) any political figures. We will, however, invite them to speak at our trade shows. Over the years, ASI has hosted many A-list keynote speakers, including presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Donald Trump, First Lady Laura Bush and Gen. Colin Powell.
We took some heat for inviting Bush in 2014, but I defended our choice because, like all of our speakers, he was engaging and interesting, and offered unique insights into the world of business, recognizing our audience as great marketers and entrepreneurs.
By the same token, we’re very excited about the Mary Matalin and James Carville keynote Thursday, July 14, at 8:30 a.m., during ASI Show® Chicago. Matalin (a celebrated conservative) and Carville (an unabashed liberal) are one of the best-known political couples in the country and are sure to provide insight into this year’s unprecedented presidential campaign.
ASI isn’t telling industry members to vote one way or another, and we’re not telling them to sell marijuana-related items or call on marijuana dispensaries, just as we don’t urge anyone to, say, call on bars or offer logoed condoms (which are available!).
We’re simply presenting business opportunities and educating our audience – online, in print and at our many live shows and events – providing the same sound advice and sales tips we’ve offered the industry since 1962.
In fact, in 1977 ASI’s Counselor magazine also featured pot on its cover (see pic at right), with the headline “Is Specialty Advertising Ready for This? A Report on the New Consumer.” I imagine that issue prompted a few letters (remember those?) as well.
Then as now, we always listen to our members and accommodate them whenever possible. Once, in response to a request from a distributor, we went so far as to cut out pages of a catalog he disliked, mailing it back to him in edited form.
I am sorry the reader who took issue with our marijuana leaf cover took some online heat for her comments. Maybe she can use the experience as a teaching moment to talk to her son about legalized marijuana, medical marijuana and the many ways our creative, innovative industry seizes opportunities presented by emerging markets.
Will we start censoring our editorial coverage or putting brown paper wrappers on certain covers? No. ASI’s editorial team has won over 150 awards in the last 10 years, including several prestigious Jesse H. Neal awards, considered the Pulitzer Prize of B-to-B journalism.
I’m looking forward to more reporting, more eye-catching graphics and photos, and more awards for excellence.
April 21, 2016
How many of you check online restaurant reviews before making a reservation? If you’re like me, you rely on them because superlatives (or warnings!) seem more genuine when they come from real people. That’s why ASI hit the streets to speak with people from all over the world about their logoed products for our latest video, “People Love Promos.”
As you can tell from the title, our 2-minute video provides positive proof of what so many of us in the promotional products industry have said for years –logoed items are useful, effective and attractive. It’s what we heard over and over when we visited New York’s Times Square, camera in hand, to record testimonials.
The enthusiastic responses captured in the video support numerous findings in ASI’s 2016 Global Advertising Specialties Impressions Study, while providing visual proof that 85% can recall the advertiser that gave them a logoed item, even months later (you can download the study PDF by clicking on the link or visiting www.asicentral.com/research)
I’m sure every time you meet with a tough sell to discuss a campaign using promo products you come armed with impressive stats like the advertiser recall. To bolster your case even more, I suggest you also show them our video.
Let the women, men, millennials, GenXers and baby boomers chatting up their favorite products help close the deal for you.
Click here to see the “People Love Promos” video for yourself. If you enjoy seeing happy people lend credence to the bedrock of our industry – affordable, high-value promotional products – share the link (https://vimeo.com/160951004) in your own circles.
You won’t see any cute cats or embarrassing stunts, but at the end you will see an adorable puppy – wearing a logoed T-shirt.
March 24, 2016
Validation is wonderful. In the case of corporate culture, it’s assurance you’re on the right track, that the work atmosphere you’ve created results in high productivity and happy employees. Here at ASI, our validation is tangible – a recent award for “Best Employer Overall” in an employee-driven competition recognizing outstanding workplace environments.
It wasn’t our first “Best Places to Work” award, and I’m confident it won’t be our last. Our employees have voted ASI a great place to work every year since 2010.
Some years we win for a workplace that’s most appreciated by new college grads. Other years, we’ve been honored as a “Best Place for Working Moms” for perks like our private nursing room, parking spaces close to the entrance for pregnant women and eight weeks of free day care for new parents at our on-site day care.
This year, we competed with companies throughout the greater Philadelphia area, against large hospitals and other media companies. My favorite part wasn’t the nice plaque we got (see photo above, featuring HR employees Jeannette Rhodunda, at right, and Ashley Locker), but quotes from some of the employees who voted for us, shared by the judges:
As anyone competing to hire the best employees knows, finding top talent is an art and a skill. Lucky for us, we have a seasoned expert leading our recruiting: Carol Albright, ASI senior vice president of human resources. Carol’s been with ASI since 1986 so she knows the value of long-standing employees as well as fresh eyes and ideas.
Sales can be competitive. All the changes in technology can make your head spin. Finding ways to communicate those changes to clients takes real finesse. But when I look around our building, at our IT and user experience experts, ace copywriters and video editors, our sales teams and so many others, I see sharp minds and dedicated people working together to help everyone in the promotional products industry be the best they can possibly be.
It helps, too, to offer employees good salaries and competitive benefits, an array of educational programs, an award-winning Wellness Program and diversity initiatives, along with a fitness center, Starbucks, a café featuring healthy options, casual dress every day and community service events.
I’m proud that we’re an award-winning company and especially proud that we get to claim the “Best Place to Work” title thanks to votes from our employees.
And if you want to join our team, we do have openings in IT, sales, marketing and finance. Click here to visit our careers page for more info on ASI, our community (90 minutes to New York City!) and our current opportunities.
March 4, 2016
If you read nothing else this week, I urge you to peruse the stories of the innovators and game changers who made the 2016 Counselor Hot 25 list.
You’ll find entrepreneurs like Bayo Simmonds, the rock-star owner and founder of the apparel company Assertive Creativity (asi/37166), who was born in Brooklyn to a Nigerian father and a mother from St. Thomas. He’s passionate about this industry and determined to succeed.
You’ll also find Dat Dang, president and founder of supplier firm Chao (asi/48102), which brings a truly unique product to the industry: artful, customized pop-up greeting cards. Dat immigrated to the U.S. as a seven-year-old following the Vietnam War, and Chao is now one of Inc.’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies.
Although I could have highlighted any one of the creative business leaders on this year’s Hot 25 list (#CounselorHot25), I’m singling out Bayo and Dat because they represent the future of our industry. They’re young – and they don’t look like everyone else I see on the trade show floor.
Back in 2012, I challenged the audience at the ASI Power Summit to hire one minority sometime in the next year. “Don’t hire someone like me,” I said. “We don’t need more 50-year-old white males!” If every top distributor heeded my call for greater diversification and hired and trained a minority, in five years we’d have 25,000 experienced representatives courting new business.
We may not be there yet, but I was heartened by the people on our 2016 list, which is a mix of industry veterans and newcomers, children of industry legends and heads of overseas companies. Also of note: our list also includes 13 female business leaders. Considering that women overall currently hold a paltry 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies the number on the Hot 25 list is truly impressive.
Will hiring more minorities and women automatically boost your bottom line? Of course not. But as study after study tells us, people tend to trust and buy from people who look like them, culturally and ethnically. So it’s good economic sense for every company in this industry to take an aggressive stance on shaking things up.
It may not make a huge difference this year, but it will as soon as the next generation comes of age. More than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group by 2020 – four short years from now – the U.S. Census Bureau reports.
Who will relate to – and sell to – them? Happily, many people on Counselor’s 2016 Hot 25 list. I’m proud of that, and you should be too.
The results and more info on all our winners are in the March issue of ASI’s award-winning Counselor magazine, and profiles and photos of all winners are available online.
Check out their stories. They’re inspiring – and they also contain a ton of smart business advice, like this nugget from industry veteran Jill Stirnkorb, BIC Graphic’s vice president of inside sales: “Email, social media and all the technology in the world does not replace a good phone call or face-to-face meeting.”
When she started at BIC, Jill was only the third female in the sales force. It’s a big part of the reason why she mentors younger women today. She’s paying it forward. And you should too.
February 2, 2016
ASI’s Mickee Chai was a 20-year-old student living in her native Malaysia when she took her very first plane ride halfway around the world – a trip that changed the course of her life forever. The night before she left her family behind, she went outside and looked up to the night sky.
“And I realized at that moment that the only thing that would be the same after tomorrow was that I’d be looking up at the same moon,” Mickee, VP of our project management office, told a spellbound crowd of nearly 100 employees gathered for a TED-like talk during ASI’s recent Diversity Week. “It was exciting to think that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Like many others then and now, Mickee came to the U.S. to pursue higher education, coincidentally at Indiana University in my home state, making her a fellow Hoosier! It’s also where she met her husband, who’s from Japan, and started a family with two daughters.
I’ve known Mickee for over 10 years and learned more about her in that hour-long talk than I did in a decade, which was exactly the point of Diversity Week, organized by the ASI Diversity Council chaired by HR’s Miranda Doane. In addition to Mickee (pictured with ASI’s Matthew Cohn, left, and event MC Joe Haley), we also heard from our offshore tech team in Pakistan about life in a Muslim country and read telling intranet posts from employees who journeyed here from countries as diverse as Argentina, Bulgaria and France.
Whenever I think I had it tough, I consider what so many immigrants experience – leaving behind the only friends, families and communities they’ve ever known, landing sight unseen in a foreign country, confounded daily by different languages, customs, etiquette and protocols.
Here’s a small sampling of insights from my colleagues:
The same week, in conjunction with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service initiative, the Diversity Council organized volunteer activities at area nonprofits like the Philabundance food distribution center (pictured, at right), Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Libertae, Impact Thrift and Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
Employees worked together in small groups, packing up boxes of food for seniors, re-stocking shelves, painting a kitchen for a group that helps women battling addiction and serving lunch to the hungry. While lending muscle to well-deserving community groups, people from different departments also got to know each other better – another benefit of the diversity initiative.
Most of our employees participated in several of the events, and the reviews were incredibly positive. We learned a lot about each other, and ourselves, and we gave back to the community in the true spirit of Dr. King.
January 6, 2016
I admit, I didn’t know who reality TV star and businessman Marcus Lemonis was when we secured him last year as the keynote speaker at the 2016 ASI Show® Orlando.
But since then, I’ve binge-watched The Profit and become a huge fan. His message to our overflowing audience of 1,000 on the closing day of our three-day trade show: be vulnerable, sharing with people deeply meaningful things they don’t know about you to build true personal and business relationships.
Overall, his speech was about the most open, honest and, yes, vulnerable one I’ve ever heard.
“You don’t hear this stuff on my show, you won’t read about it in interviews I do, but this is who I am,” he told our audience, who were on the edge of their seats. “I was fat as a kid. I was bullied. I had an eating disorder. I was molested by a relative. I’m telling you all this because my number-one asset is vulnerability. It is the key to success.”
Wow. When’s the last time you heard a wildly successful businessman admit his deepest, most innermost thoughts? I tell you, that message – and Marcus’s kindness to so many people who sought his advice and attention – will stick with me forever.
Not only did he run over his presentation by about 20 minutes, Lemonis took a ton of time from a crazy-busy day to speak with just about everyone he met, starting with every single person in very long line at our meet-and-greet after the keynote (which was one of only 4-5 corporate appearances he makes a year).
All morning, the multi-millionaire, who runs the $3 billion Camping World RV empire, collected business cards, gifts and even cellphone numbers from his many fans. And during a tour of the trade show floor, he seemed genuinely interested in everything – including the famous Cohn family hotdogs, which we still serve at every ASI show.
(For more on Marcus, read our story by clicking here).
The keynote was just one of many highlights from Orlando, which drew 715 exhibitors and nearly 6,000 attendees from 49 states and 18 countries – plus, an all-time record of 27 distributor companies holding big meetings at the show.
In the end, the biggest take-away from Orlando – the kick-off to ASI’s entire show season – was summed up nicely by Rita Ugianskis-Fishman, vice president and general manager of ASI Show, who said: “I was delighted that Marcus emphasized the importance of authentic personal relationships to business success. At a time when so many of us are devoted to our devices, it’s more critical than ever to take full advantage of the face-to-face relationships you can really only build at trade shows like Orlando, Dallas and Chicago.
Here’s to more openness, greater connectivity and stronger relationships in 2016 – and on to ASI Show Dallas, February 9-11 at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and ASI Show Chicago, July 12-14 at McCormick Place.