Stephanie Preston has dedicated her career to identifying how to craft creative marketing campaigns to drive sales growth. Now the vice president of marketing for HALO Branded Solutions, a distributor in Sterling, Illinois, she has spent nearly 18 years with the company, previously serving as director of marketing and, earlier, as a marketing manager. 

Marketing today involves experiential campaigns designed using the latest tech and AI, which, Preston says, is largely driven by consumers’ growing desire for community and connection, especially post-pandemic. PPB spoke with Preston to learn more about what consumers expect from marketers today, how to go about meeting—and exceeding—these expectations in the current social climate, and how to motivate your team to do so.

PPB: How do you feel experiential branding has changed in recent years, and what do consumers expect from brands today?
Preston: COVID has had a significant impact on the expectations of end users. The feeling of community is more important than ever. Brand experiences that provide this are imperative to creating meaningful and lasting connections. Isolation has created anxiety and stress, and end users are expecting connections that feel joyful and inspired.

PPB: What types of marketing strategies or campaigns are seeing the most success, in your opinion, and what is losing popularity? Do you see this changing?
Preston: The return to in-person events is slowly happening, and hybrid events are likely here to stay. We’ve seen an explosion in kitting opportunities to spark an emotional connection with audiences. A strong digital footprint is more important than ever, and leveraging social media to continue to develop existing relationships and nurture new ones is critical. The days of slapping a logo on a product are gone. Finding the right product and applying great design that amplifies the brand is the new way forward. 

PPB: What would you suggest to other distributors, suppliers and promo professionals who are looking to double-down on or refresh their marketing this year? What should they focus and why?
Preston: Flexibility is key. COVID is here to stay and will continue to create challenges when planning events and brand activations. We have to be prepared for anything. Branded merchandise is proven to connect and engage audiences. Finding new and unique ways to employ branded merchandise in direct mail, in-person and hybrid events should be at the top of the list to create an experience that resonates with audiences.

PPB: Can you share with us a case study of a recent HALO campaign that left you with an impression, and why?
Preston: We partnered with a leader in the cybersecurity space to deliver a personalized gifting experience for their employees by introducing them to the world of virtual reality. During their annual sales kickoff, the team had the opportunity to engage virtually with one another through virtual games, meetings and so much more. Employees worldwide received a custom employee appreciation package containing an Oculus, cozy custom socks, an addictive popper toy and a branded t-shirt. The combination of branded merchandise and virtual reality took this employee experience to the next level.

PPB: As a leader, how do you find ways to motivate, inspire and empower your team to experiment with new ways for clients to reach their end users?
Preston: The status quo is not an option. I push the team to look both within and outside of our industry to learn, gain inspiration and formulate new recommendations for moving the needle. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Knowing that we may not get it right the first time is OK. We learn from our failures and we cannot make an impact without taking risks and embracing new ways of thinking. 


Renda is an associate editor at PPAI.