8 Feb 2018
Millennial Mugs, Vegan Bags and Premium Products Top the PPAI Bill
Las Vegas-hosted Promotional Products Association International Expo captures an industry in reassuringly fine fettle, with traditional items and digital discoveries all being rolled out to boost the newly-resurgent US business sector.
"Vegan leather is in, ugly conference bags out and pens you still can't do without" – while not quite a perfect précis of proceedings at this year's Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) Expo, it does give you something of a flavour of the event. Overall, the promotional products industry, while still rooted in generations of tradition, is finding itself ever more obliged to embrace new approaches, while reimagining many of its tried and tested channels in order to appeal to the pizazz-fixated Millennial generation.
That's not to say that the sector isn't in the rudest of health. In 2017, the total turnover of the US promotional products industry was US$23 billion, a 3% rise on the previous year, according to a report by IBISWorld, a Los Angeles-based market-research group. In part, the group attributes this upturn to the improved health of the overall US economy. Naturally this has, in turn, boosted consumer spending, a development that has emboldened businesses to the extent that the promotional tap has been turned back on as companies, once again, vie to build their market share by wooing consumers and clients alike.
Another factor, though, is far more prosaic – there are now simply more US businesses, all of them potential clients for the promotional products industry. Start-ups, in particular, frequently turn to the sector as a means of building awareness and nurturing brand values. Looking forward to the next five years, with advertising spend expected to rise, the sector is keen to set out its store and prove that it has retained its relevancy in the digital age.
Understandably determined to burnish the sector's credentials, Paul Bellantone, Chief Executive of the PPAI, the organiser of the show, said: "I believe there's still an underserved business market out there and I'm bullish about our role in tackling that."
That was clearly good news for the thousands of companies arraigned across the PPAI's showfloor, with the show busy right up to the minute the doors shut on the last day. Among the exhibitors, excitement at the fact that budgets seemed to be on the up was tempered by that realisation that so, too, were client expectations.
Acknowledging this particular trend, Joseph Sommer, President of Whitestone Branding, a New York-based supplier of personalised promotional products, said: "Non-name-brand products are now becoming much more elevated in look and appearance. As a result, many suppliers are wising up to the fact that companies are now willing to spend on premium-branded items, as long as they have a high-quality retail feel."
Sommer also welcomed the expansion of the event's brand. pavilion, a zone dedicated to the more well-known brands. Explaining his enthusiasm for this particular development, he said: "It's focusing on just what our clients are asking for – co-branded products. Thankfully, the bigger brands have started to listen, with many of them willing to play ball.
"Just recently, The North Face range became available through SanMar [a Washington-headquartered supplier of imprintable apparel], which was a huge development. At the same time, Bose is now offering cost-effective smaller products, such as Bluetooth speakers and wireless earbuds, which can be easily branded. In terms of Personal Digital Assistants, both Amazon Home and Google Echo are available from a wide range of suppliers, with several offering an in-house branding service."
While the importance of look and feel has long been understood within the industry, many are still catching on to the appeal of social responsibility. Only those that have will be familiar with the environmentally-sound kudos bequeathed by the use of vegan leather – a variety of artificial leather sometimes made from kelp or cork, but mostly from petroleum by-products.
One company that has looked to take a stylish lead here is the Bugatti Group, the Quebec headquartered designer handbag and luxury luggage specialist. Outlining the thinking behind the company's faux leather range, Vice-president Ron Eliakim says: "Our vegan collection, which includes duffle bags, wallets and totes, is targeted at a broad market. Not only does it appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers, but it also goes down well with those looking for more affordable leather-like options."
Another to clamber aboard the sustainable style bandwagon is Numo, a Texas-based accessories manufacturer that now offers two-textured vegan leather bags complete with edge-to-edge digital imprinting. While these new cream-coloured products are something of a departure from the classic rugged leather look traditionally favoured by the company, they are actually a good pairing with Suede'ish, the company's established line of suede-like neoprene bags and accessories.
New for 2018, the company has added 26 new canvas colours, all of which can be used to create customised bags, as well as a range of other household items. As a taster for this, the company's stand allowed visitors to give full rein to their creativity while they transformed canvas pouches with tassels, patches and glow markers.
Staying with the bespoke, but straying back towards more conventional materials, Timbuk2, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of hard-wearing bags, says it is now seeing an upturn in demand for totes and roll-top items, particularly from the Millennium generation. Giving an overview of the changing dynamics within the market, Corporate Sales Manager Alli Klein said: "While, traditionally, we used to scale to the male market, we're now seeing more companies requesting a backpack for men and a tote for women, for example, when specifying employee gifts.
"This is quite a change to the one-size-fits-all approach that has long been the norm. Companies are now definitely putting more thought into just which products will be more attractive to women."
As it's official that Millennials – those currently in the 21-37 age range – are now the largest single consumer demographic, pandering to their preferences is the prime preoccupation of many brands. As a consequence, many categories – including drinkware – now include items produced with their particular peccadillos in mind.
Acknowledging the impact this has on the promotional gifts sector, Tami Wainscott, National Sales Manager for The Allen Company, an Ohio-based producer of bespoke beverage containers, said: "Millennials want multi-functionality and they want mobility. The also expect to be able to use the same high-quality, reliable and convertible products at work as they do at home."
Broadly agreeing with Wainscott, Roni Wickstrome, a Sales Rep with Xpres, a North Carolina-based specialist in customised containers, said: "Modern technology has allowed drinkware to become the new canvas for Millennials, with our new powder coat and matte finishes very much in demand right now."
When not doodling prospective drinkware designs, it seems that Millennials find the same joy in executive toys as did their Baby Boomer and Generation X forebears. Testifying to this, Simon Crum, a Sales Rep with International Merchandise Concepts (IMC), California-based purveyors of a variety of promotional items, said: "This year, this has been our busiest category. People love having an interactive toy on their desks. It not only gives them something to play with while they are on the phone, it also makes for a good conversation piece."
Among IMC's most popular items are a snake that can be folded into a variety of shapes and a wooden Cubebot interactive puzzle. This year, it lined up against strong competition, with several well-known European designers – and even New York's Museum of Modern Art – having entered the sector.
The PPAI Expo 2018 took place from 15-18 January at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. It featured more than 1,200 exhibitors and attracted some 18,000 attendees.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas