As a kid, Roger Burnett, CAS, was like most of us. He wanted to be a rock star.

Like almost all of us, it didn’t happen.

He couldn’t sing. He couldn’t make a single sound with the cornet, his instrument of choice. What he could do was bring happiness to others with words. He learned over time that he possessed another gift beyond writing.

“The power of collaboration,” says Burnett, founder of Ohio-based distributor Social Good Promotions.

For close to 20 years, Burnett has given back to the promotional products industry, aligning with peers to advance the industry and boost the community around it. At The PPAI Expo in January, Burnett was presented with the 2023 PPAI Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes a member who consistently contributes their skills and expertise toward the betterment of PPAI through volunteer service or leadership within the Association.

“In standing up for our efforts to be seen as a worthy marketing investment, he brings passion, creativity and a strong vision to execute on what needs to be done today, while keeping a healthy eye on the future,” says Danny Rosin, CAS, president and co-owner of North Carolina-based distributor Brand Fuel and this year’s PPAI H. Ted Olson Humanitarian Award recipient. “His efforts have inspired countless others to action, and his willingness to stay ahead of topics gives us all the opportunity to learn from those efforts.”

A Tireless Advocate

Before Burnett started Social Good Promotions in 2019, he’d been a 15-year industry veteran as a distributor and supplier. As the national director of promotional marketing, he helped WorkflowOne reach over $100 million in annual promo sales. He moved to the supplier side as a vice president for iClick and later co-founded supplier Branded Logistics, which brought the OtterBox product line to the promo marketplace.

Throughout those accomplishments, Burnett has always valued the essential requirements for promo to become, and be viewed as, a viable and trustworthy industry: corporate social responsibility.

Burnett launched Social Good Promotions with Kara Keister four years ago with the mission that “no company should willingly partake in an exercise that makes our planet worse off.”

“Branded merchandise has the opportunity to serve numerous purposes for the folks that buy it, but for most, insufficient thought or consideration is given to the way these products should support the intended business objective for which it’s being bought,” he says. “If you’re handing out merch at a trade show, buyers often fail to consider the duty the product they’re handing out should perform during that exchange.”

When afterthought purchases like these are made, he adds, the products most often end up in the garbage.

“A product without narrative or meaning attached to it often leaves a negative impression in the eyes of the recipient, which is why it’s pretty common to see overflowing garbage cans full of the products we sell at the exits of the places where those events are being held,” says Burnett. “By tying product purchases to corporate values, we believe the recipient has a better opportunity to positively identify with the product they’re being given – and the company handing it out – and, consequently, improve the chances that product they’ve received is kept.”

This multi-layered approach isn’t for everyone, he acknowledges, “but our clients report improvements in nearly every measurable identified as reasons to use this strategy, and we hope it means fewer pieces of branded merchandise end up in the waste stream as a result.”

It’s indeed a core value for the company, but Burnett believes it’s an industry-wide obligation. That’s where the collaborations come in.

In 2018 Burnett co-founded PromoCares, which encourages social and environmental responsibility in the promotional products industry and the community. He’s a “founding chef” of PromoKitchen, and all-volunteer organization that provides education and mentorship in the industry. A longtime volunteer, he also previously served as a board member for PPAI’s Regional Association Council (for which he won the 2018 PPAI RAC Volunteer of the Year Award) and was named a PPAI Fellow the same year.

A collaborative project that holds special meaning is Burnett’s work with Hirsch to support veterans by presenting tumblers, coolers and other products from the Patriot line, which dedicates 20% of sales to Homes for Our Troops, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing ADA-compliant homes to post 9/11 combat-wounded soldiers. In addition, Burnett and the Hirsch team identified a Homes for Our Troops build site in Arizona and visited retired Marine Cpl. Yevgeny Shenker and his family, presenting them with a Patriot cooler as a housewarming gift. 

Looking To The Future

Last year was a profitable one for promo, a resounding rebound from the pandemic and a great sign for 2023, especially as initiatives toward CSR and sustainability become a major priority for companies.

The work ahead, says Burnett, is to ensure the industry continues down the right path.

“I believe everyone in our industry fares better when our marketplace is healthy and strong,” he says. “Because our marketplace historically has been seen in a negative light, I think it’s up to all of us to lend our time, talent and treasure toward improving the perception of branded merchandise as a marketing medium in comparison to all the other things our clients can spend their money on, and I’ve made a point to bring as much of what I potentially have to offer to that effort.”

In addition to better business, Burnett says his participation in communities has “made me infinitely better at my job, brought me incredibly rewarding relationships, and legitimately made me a better human being in the process. The more I’ve offered, the more I’ve received.”

Phillips is the deputy editor at PPAI.