Promotional merchandise: Pens, badges and a touch of strategy

Charities are beginning to put more thought into linking their messages with promotional product giveaways, as Joe Lepper reports.

It is impossible to think of Remembrance Day this week without thinking of the iconic symbol of the poppy. From its origins as a simple fundraising idea taken from the poem In Flanders Fields, the Poppy Appeal has now grown into a multi-million pound fundraising operation organised by the Royal British Legion.

The appeal is in its 83rd year and aims to distribute 35 million poppies this year. Last year, the charity broke its own record by raising an impressive £21.7m.

While the vast sum raised by the appeal shows that traditional promotional merchandising ideas involving badges are far from redundant, it is far too simplistic to suggest that simply ordering a batch of pens and badges will guarantee success.

Nick Sykes, press and media officer at the British Promotional Merchandising Association (BPMA) says that a key change now is that charities are far more strategic about what they buy and how they use the products.

He says: "If you have a limited budget, you want to use this wisely. Clients are increasingly coming to realise that it is better to target the product in the correct way, use the products as part of a campaign and use direct mailing lists more."

But he adds that charities won't necessarily use promotional merchandise less - just that it will be used more carefully and will have to show quantifiable returns.

He also points to a recent report by the BPMA and the London Business School, Promotional Merchandise Identified and Quantified, which estimated that promotional merchandising budgets are set to increase next year.

The BPMA's association manager, Anne Hancock, adds: "Clients are looking to spend more on targeted below-the-line activities such as direct marketing and promotional merchandising as it is more quantifiable than above-the-line work, such as advertising, and that's why the budgets will increase."

Kick It Out, which tackles racism in football, is one charity that has aimed its products at its key audience of football fans and those involved in the game. It has looked at what fans, particularly young men, want to buy, and so has concentrated on T-shirts, badges and key-rings.

The T-shirts come in two forms: one for players with a specific design and used for media opportunities during the annual National Anti Racism Week of Action campaign; and one that the general public can buy at £5 a time. Each T-shirt costs £3 to make, but by cashing in on the star appeal of the sport, the special players' T-shirts are also available all year round for the higher price of £10.

During this year's campaign, which took place last month, 11,000 T-shirts were distributed, half of which were sold while the other half were given away.

According to Kick It Out European media relations officer Leon Mann, simply ordering branded mouse mats and pens is "a waste of our money".

He adds: "We think it's better to concentrate on things like the T-shirts, which will get used and seen. Every football manager wore a badge during the week when they appeared on TV and footballers wore the T-shirts. It was a massive amount of exposure."

While the likes of Kick It Out tailors their promotional merchandise, in part to sell to the public, others say this can be too expensive and prefer to spend their promotional merchandise budgets on gifts for staff and volunteers, and for targeting specific events such as conferences.

Stephen Elsden, marketing manager at disability charity Leonard Cheshire, which spends 10 per cent of its marketing budget on promotional merchandise, says: "We used to sell promotional items - the last was an apron endorsed by Jamie Oliver. But it was proving too expensive, so we decided to concentrate on targeting events like conferences and products for staff. We don't have uniforms, but our workers wanted something to associate themselves with the charity, so we have things like fleeces and T-shirts, which are very popular with staff."

Tony Elischer, managing director of Think Consulting Solutions, says that charities too often rush into buying promotional goods without any strategy about what they are trying to achieve.

"Sending out a pen - what's the use of that? It has to mean something.

Amnesty did it right when they gave away a pen to show how it can be a weapon of torture," he says. "This is where good strategic thinking comes in. Work out what your message is and whether the product will enhance it."

The NSPCC and its Full Stop campaign is a good example of linking a product with a message. Integral to the campaign, which was launched in 1999, is the small green 'full stop' badge. This hammers home and reinforces the charity's key message that 'Cruelty to children must stop, full stop'.

NSPCC deputy director of communications Keith Bradbrook says: "People want to wear it because of what it stands for, not just because it is associated with our brand. It doesn't even have our name on it."

Asthma UK is another charity that has understood the need to think carefully about linking a product with a message. Four years ago, it launched charity-branded children's bubble tubs, linking the product with its messages on breathing.

Senior communications officer Kirsty Jackson said: "We also had pin badges for children of characters like Percy and Penny Puffer Fish. These were very popular and gave out an important message about using inhalers."

When it comes to gimmicks, such as Asthma UK's fish characters, the ideas largely come from charities but there is a raft of new products, especially electronic gadgetry, that promotional merchandise firms are seeking to push to charities.

The BPMA says an increasingly popular item is the USB pen drive, which can be branded and is genuinely useful. Additionally, these small memory sticks can be loaded up with corporate images, videos and information.

Another new one is the branded wind-up mobile phone charger.

Ash Ali, new media marketing manager of promotional merchandising firm Tarsus Group, says: "These technological gimmicks are the things that are generating a lot of interest now."

A raft of firms have been set up to supply USB pen drives in the past two years but few yet have charities as clients. Will Ripley, director of Express Pendrives, which recently took an order for 40 pen drives from Oxfam, says that the market is relatively new, but expects more charities to follow.

While conceding their unit cost of around £8 means these gadgets aren't cheap, they can be very effective if bought in small numbers and used strategically. "It can be a really useful giveaway to those donors who give a lot to a charity," he says. And he adds that as they can be loaded with data such as a campaign video, it makes them a highly targeted gift.

While the majority of this new breed of promotional item are made abroad, with Taiwan particularly prevalent in the USB pen-drive market, the bulk of charity badges, balloons and pens are still made in the UK.

The Royal British Legion has cut out the supply chain altogether and, since 1922, has made the paper and plastic badges at its own Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey, with work outsourced to community groups in the area.

Even though this week's Poppy Appeal serves as a useful reminder that a traditional approach to promotional merchandising can be successful, the Royal British Legion has also understood that it needs to be innovative and more strategic in its use of promotional merchandising if it is to maintain its success and attract new, younger donors.

As a result, the poppies are part of a marketing mix that includes T-shirts and key rings for its Legion in the Community project, and an ambitious cause-related marketing drive that has seen the charity team up with brewer Thwaites and wine firm Bottle Green to produce wine and beer bearing the poppy emblem.

This year, the legion also kept interest surrounding D-Day alive with the production of flags, which the public were urged to sign and send back along with a donation before they were planted on the Normandy beaches as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations.

The charity's director of fundraising, Russell Thompson, says: "It is part of our overall strategy - we have to come up with new ideas to keep young people interested and keep Remembrance Day alive."

This is a sentiment that Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, firmly endorses: "The benefit of promotional merchandise is, of course, that you can often reach donors that you might not otherwise receive donations from. Whether it be a T-shirt, a pen or a poppy, merchandise must aim to engage the purchaser with the cause, not just the product."


Launched in the UK by Breakthrough Breast Cancer eight years ago, the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer brand is one of the sector's promotional merchandising success stories.

Key to the campaign is the sale of the brand's T-shirts with a target emblem, which are updated each year and have helped the campaign raise £5m since 1996. These are made by Liam David, with £6 of the £10-£15 retail price being ploughed into breast cancer research.

This year is the campaign's most successful yet, with the campaign, including T-shirt sales, netting the charity £1.4m. It also continues to attract valuable awareness-raising coverage with the latest design, using photography and advertising featuring model Elle Macpherson.

Previous launches have featured models including Helena Christensen, Jodie Kidd and Yasmin Le Bon.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer's use of promotional merchandising on the theme of fashion doesn't stop with the target-emblem T-shirts. It also focuses on the pink ribbon symbol used by a host of charities on the issue of breast cancer. This was featured in a further extension to the brand this year with a lingerie collection produced by Marks & Spencer.

Charity media relations officer Kate Hannah says one key to the success of this year's campaign has been an extension of the clothing available.

As well as the Marks & Spencer lingerie range, this also included limited edition clothing designed by Paul Smith.

With many years left in this promotional merchandising campaign, it is with good reason that the charity says it is now its, "flagship fundraising" initiative.

Other popular, but unusual promotional merchandise items are:

- USB pen drive memory sticks

- Wind-up mobile phone chargers.

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