You sit down at a business luncheon and turn to the person next to you to engage in polite small talk. Suddenly, the conversation turns to occupations, and your lunch mate asks, “What do you do?” 

Most, if not all, promotional products professionals have botched this moment. 

Some respond with clever taglines to explain what they do. Some rattle off words about attaining strategic marketing objectives with products. Some are more creative and reply “we surprise and delight customers,” but, these responses are so vague, they only lead to confusion and your lunch companion looks at you puzzled, lost in your rambling. 

To rescue the conversation, you realize you must answer that question in a way that demystifies your guest, so you resort to that dreaded phrase uttered by promotional products professionals for decades: “You know—we do hats, mugs and pens with your logo on them.” 

Your lunch mate nods, frowns internally, and the conversation swiftly moves to more interesting topics. 

What if you could engage your prospects and customers in a way that ignites their imagination and brings dignity to your life and work? What if you could intrigue, inform and encapsulate all the magic that our product truly creates?

Whether you are sitting next to someone at a business luncheon, writing a blog post for your brand or redesigning your website, you might be missing the secret to inspiring and enchanting your audience. And the secret, like most things, is so simple that it won’t strike you, initially, as profound, but if taken to heart, could ignite your entire marketing strategy and even breathe pride back into this profession you love.

The subtle shift is one of perspective.

In the promotional products industry, products reign supreme. Products are what we sell. Products are what we bill our customers for. Products are what we learn about, worry about and obsess over. Our world revolves around products. 

But our clients’ world revolves around purpose, the initiatives they have been tasked with, whether that’s increasing leads at a trade show, motivating their employees or thanking their customers. They use products as merely a means to an end

We, unfortunately, market products as the end-all and the be-all. Our websites are full of products, our email marketing is loaded with products, and our language, prospect pitches, and marketing conversations revolve around products.

The reason? 

We are an industry of professionals who market products as the end-purpose when products are simply one part of the story. 

Distributors have been trained (subconsciously) by suppliers to lead with products when selling to clients. For years, we have used supplier fliers, marketing resources and messages—all of which they provide for good reason and at considerable expense—to market to our audience. In my opinion, suppliers have always been better marketers than distributors simply because most distributors consider their marketing unimportant. Suppliers are forced to provide resources because of the vacuum left by this lack of interest. That is a huge strategic error because suppliers and distributors are in two entirely different businesses: suppliers sell products; distributors sell purpose. 

When a buyer calls a distributor, they typically begin the conversation with a need that sounds something like this, “We have a sales conference coming up, and we want to reward our top performers.” 

That’s a purpose-driven inquiry. 

Of course, they are seeking a product, but the product is simply a vehicle through which a purpose can be fulfilled; the product is the fulcrum through which an objective is achieved.

Every product sold in our industry serves a purpose. Even when the client just needs “something to give away” and is nonchalant about its intent, the product still serves a purpose. Many a marketing coordinator has called a distributor to order a product for an event and been ambivalent about the outcome, but don’t let this corporate lethargy fool you: every product still serves a purpose. And worse: when a product doesn’t fulfill its purpose, it furthers the “trinkets and trash” myth that we all detest.

So, what’s the subtle shift that will ignite our marketing message? The shift has to do with the viewpoint from which we share our marketing messages; it’s about the way we tell our stories.

“Stories are the currency of human contact,” writes Robert McKee, a Hollywood screenwriting consultant. Storytelling is, at its simplest, merely a mental shortcut, a bridge. It’s a way to comprehend something complex in a digestible, easy-to-process form.

The shift that must take place in our marketing stories is one of perspective. A shift in perspective is what turns our product-centered marketing stories into customer-centric stories. “Make the customer the hero of your story,” writes Ann Handley, a digital marketer and speaker. It’s the customer and their purpose that need to be at the center of our marketing messages, not the products. 

How do we do this? 

We simply shift the point of view. Instead of writing and telling marketing stories with the product as the central character of our story, we tell the story from the perspective of the customer and their purpose. 

In the workshops I lead on storytelling, one of my favorite exercises is one on perspective. I ask the workshop participants to think of a memorable incident that happened on one of their favorite vacations, and then to tell that story from the perspective of someone else who was there. The results are insightful and often hilarious. Some choose to tell the story from the perspective of their dog, a baby, a child, or a passive observer. The shift in perspective doesn’t mean you’re telling a different story; you’re telling the same story but from a different viewpoint. That subtle shift can change the entire audience response to your story.

Stories about the projects that we do for our customers, told from the perspective of the client and their purpose gives our marketing messages rails to run on. Instead of reducing what we do to a product (which is merely one part of the story), we ignite our marketing message by turning the spotlight away from us and our product and onto the client and his or her objectives. 

What this does in the minds of our clients is transformative. Much of what resonates with us and a story is our empathy toward the characters. A story is both personal and universal, ecumenical and intrinsic. A story is at once both a window and a mirror. Immediately, intimately, we personify story, we peer into the plot and simultaneously look within ourselves. When we hear a story, watch a movie or read a book, we are looking both outside ourselves and within, and we engage with a story when we identify most with the people in it.

It is the same with prospects who read or hear your marketing message. They only care about what’s important to them; they don’t care what you’re selling, but they will respond to your marketing message if they identify with the characters in it. To paraphrase the writer Wallace Stegner, “A work of art [a story] is not a gem, but a lens.” Prospects will engage with your marketing message when they can see themselves through the lens
of a story.

I first tried this method at a large marketing conference when I was seated next to the vice president of a mega-corporation. She posed the dreaded question asking, “What do you do?” 

Instead of relying on a canned elevator speech, I told her the story about how several hundred employees would show up at work that day and learn that their company was being rebranded. I shared the story from the perspective of the company’s marketing director and conveyed her initiative and how it was important to deliver the rebranding news in a manner of celebration and to strive to cultivate brand champions for this significant new initiative. The minor character in the story—the promotional product—was the vehicle for this critical message. Each employee received a beautiful mug with a simple note from the CEO tucked inside, inviting them to the online store to select their own apparel featuring the new branding. I knew the story had caught her attention when she continued to pepper me with questions about the project, which ultimately led to her final question, “And you guys did all that?” Mission accomplished.

Instead of diminishing what we do to rehearsed taglines, I had told her a story about a real project with real people. The product didn’t hog the spotlight; it served its supporting role in a much larger drama. The purpose of the product was to reinforce the company’s initiative. She identified with both the people and the challenge in the story, and the message became more memorable than simply talking about products. 

Our industry is complex. Countless products confuse the work that we do. The reason you freeze when someone asks, “What do you do?” is because it’s too big. There are too many products, too many objectives. And if you’re a seasoned sales rep, you’ve worked on so many initiatives by now that your only choice at that moment is to reduce your life’s work to a handful of products, instead of focusing on the transformative power that a product can initiate.

Poet David Whyte wrote, “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” With our marketing, we must consider the products we are so familiar with but see them through the perspective of the customer and their objectives.

Telling a story is both art and discipline, but it is a craft that can be learned. Author Stephen King wrote, “I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as ... storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.” By shifting the perspective of our stories, we enchant our audience with a message that matters to them, and once we do this with regularity, we’ll strengthen our storytelling muscle and begin to craft stories that pulsate with life and meaning. 

Marketer Seth Godin wrote, “The most valuable forms of marketing are consumed voluntarily.” When we craft our marketing messages through the vehicle of a customer story, we not only invite our audience into an experience they can share, but we create that moment novelist Barbara Kingsolver talks about that is only possible with story—we “carve something hugely important into a small enough amulet to fit inside a reader’s [listener's] most sacred psychic pocket.”

We craft a marketing message that endures. 


Bobby Lehew is chief content officer at commonsku, an industry business management platform. He has won multiple PPAI Pyramid awards and was named to OKC Biz magazine’s 40-Under-40 in 2009 and to ASI’s Hot List in 2010.