That Is, Unless You Can Back It Up With Action

Recently, I was speaking in front of a group of approximately 100 promotional products distributors and posed the following prompt: “Raise your hand if you position yourself as ‘creative’ to differentiate yourself from your competitors.” I would like to tell you that I was surprised when about 85 people raised their hands, but I wasn’t. In an effort to be different from the competition, far too many in our industry reach for the easy claim of creativity.

For those of you leveraging your creativity in an effort to garner the attention of prospects and clients, I have some bad news for you: creativity doesn’t exist merely because you say it does.

Think about the illustration above: 85 percent of the people in the audience are using the same exact word to express how they are different to their target audience. If you’re part of 85 percent of anything, you’re part of the crowd and the exact opposite of different.

Furthermore, like the parameters for being elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, creativity is wildly subjective. What one client might think of as fabulously creative another might perceive as horribly old and tired. In other words, you are raising both the perceptions and expectations of your clients by proclaiming your creativity. Merely saying you are creative doesn’t deliver on that promise.

Here’s an example that has happened to many in our industry: You work tirelessly on finding and developing what you believe is the most creative solution for a client’s marketing challenge only to find out during the presentation that they used the same product last year for a different promotion, and it failed. Or, even worse, your competition presented the same merchandise solution the previous day. Suddenly your proclamation of creativity has done the exact opposite of setting you apart—it’s only reinforced the perception among many clients that you are merely a product person, not an ideas person.

If you want to leverage your creativity with your clients, you have to do a lot more than just announce it—you have to show it.

The first thing you need to do is ask the right questions:

  • What products has the client used in the past?
  • What has worked and what hasn’t worked?
  • Why type of experience does the client want their target audience to have when receiving and opening the merchandise?
  • What action does the client want their audience to take as a result of receiving the product?
  • What does the client’s competition do that makes them insanely jealous?

After you know the answers, you can review case histories, share relevant stories and produce spec samples with a complete packaging and/or delivery system to showcase real creativity. More than just saying you are creative—which is meaningless—you are developing the perception among your clients that you actually are creative.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what you think is creative, it matters what your target audience thinks is creative. If you are going to use ‘creativity’ to set yourself apart from your competition, do so carefully and be prepared to prove it. Like art, creativity is a subjective term with many risks associated with it, unless you can back it up.

Bill Petrie is founder and CEO of brandivate, an executive team outsourcing company focused on the promotional products industry. After working on the distributor side of the industry since 2000, he opened the company in 2014. A frequent speaker at The PPAI Expo and incoming president for the Promotional Products Association of the Mid-South (PPAMS), Petrie is also a PromoKitchen chef. Reach him at