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High Demand for Branded Cannabis Items at US Promotional Gifts Expo

With cannabis newly legalised in many US states, there was a rush to supply dispensaries with branded giveaways at the Promotional Products Association International Expo, while many less controversial innovations were also on show.

Photo: Nabi: Smartphoned virtual reality from Seoul-based Mocom.
Nabi: Smartphoned virtual reality from Seoul-based Mocom.
Photo: Nabi: Smartphoned virtual reality from Seoul-based Mocom.
Nabi: Smartphoned virtual reality from Seoul-based Mocom.

Prosecco gummy bears were this year's impossible-to-resist-item at the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) Expo. The Las Vegas-held expo has long been the largest annual event for North America's promotional products industry and, once again, featured a range of innovative items all destined to be preeminent brand ambassadors for global corporations or one-person start-ups, as well as some less conventional items for the newly-legalised cannabis industry.

Overall, US spending on promotional products has enjoyed moderate growth of about 2% over the past five years, according to IBISWorld, a Los Angeles-based market-research group. Such cautionary expansion is very much in line with the twin dynamics that currently pre-occupy many US business operators.

On the one hand, there is the very real need to carefully navigate the country's shifting economic realities, including its volatile stock market and the ever-present threat of punitive import / export tariffs. Inevitably, this has impacted on marketing budgets, with few companies willing to be over-committed while cash flow remains uncertain.

At the same time, promotional products represent a comparatively rare – and comparatively low cost – opportunity for brands to make their presence felt among a new generation of ad-adverse consumers, many of whom are willing to pay a premium subscription to services such as Netflix and Pandora, which are guaranteed to be free of commercial messages. Despite such scruples, though, many such consumers have still proved willing to sport a logoed tee-shirt or to welcome a branded gadget.

Commenting on the current state of the industry, Paul Bellantone, the President of the PPAI, said: "My biggest concern is the geopolitical consequences of uncertainty. I think our businesses and our members can survive in up markets and I think they can survive in down markets. It's hard for any business, though, to survive in uncertain markets. More than tariffs – because tariffs may become a certainty – it's uncertainty that scares us.

"Despite that, I am confident that the industry has what it takes to evolve. I recently attended a seminar where a number of mature brands were discussing how they deal with disruption. Overall, the consensus was that you have to be rooted in who you are, but have confidence and courage, if you want to evolve. I want to see this industry adopt that philosophy. We shouldn't be scared when it comes to changing and moving forward."

Seemingly taking him at his word, on the showfloor moving forward did not seem to be a problem. Indeed, there was no shortage of companies proffering innovative options for brands to deliver their key messages.

New and Noteworthy

While it's still too early to tell if virtual reality-enabled mobile devices will ever truly take off, Nabi, a foldable 3D/VR viewer, which can be clipped onto just about any smartphone, was a real crowd pleaser at this year's event. Developed by South Korea-based Mocom, it offers a fun branding opportunity in the notably crowded personal-electronics space.

Keen to outline the product's versatility, Sales Manager Tracy Smith said: "We have already seen companies using it for training, entertainment and for virtual real-estate tours. Essentially, it's a fun and convenient way to enjoy a virtual-reality experience."

An experience of a less virtual kind, meanwhile, was on offer over on the stand of Numo, a Texas-based pro products manufacturer, with attendees queuing to make their own notebooks from a selection of the company's various covers and different paper stocks. Explaining the thinking behind this self-assembly stationery opportunity, Sales Manager Pepper Butt said: "Instead of sending out samples, we wanted people to get to know our products better by getting to properly interact with them."

This year, the company was particularly looking to showcase its new range of customisable ripstop bags that can be folded into a pocket, as well as its new canvas tote – the Dumpling – which it describes as "very cute and already on style overseas". Instead of introducing new colours, though, for 2019 the company is focusing on canvas bags in such bold dual tones as powder blue and peach.

Such innovations aside, the event still had space for a perennial promotional favourite – drinkware. A new twist on this, though, came courtesy of Xpres, a North Carolina-based specialist in merchandisable mugs and branded beakers, which has recently introduced full-colour sublimation to its array of printing options, allowing it to considerably expand the range of shades and hues that clients can choose to use.

Photo: Customisable bags courtesy of Numo.
Customisable bags courtesy of Numo.
Photo: Customisable bags courtesy of Numo.
Customisable bags courtesy of Numo.
Photo: Gummy gifting from Sugarfina.
Gummy gifting from Sugarfina.
Photo: Gummy gifting from Sugarfina.
Gummy gifting from Sugarfina.

Explaining the significance of this addition to the company's repertoire, National Account Manager Roni Wickstrom said: "Stainless-steel, double-wall type of items have been very successful for us so we're trying to expand the range of colours we offer in that line-up. We're also seeing robust demand for stainless-steel water bottles with vacuum-sealed lids and small travel wine cups."

Doing Good

As well as branded beverage containers, ethical accessories is another promotional sector that has come to the fore in recent years. In line with that, sustainable products and those with environmentally sound backstories continue to do well, especially if they are bolstered by solid design and a hint of quirky innovation.

Ticking all these boxes was the range of solar lanterns on offer from Chicago-based LuminAID. Originally designed to assist in earthquake relief in Haiti, they are basically waterproof luminous cubes that can provide light for up to 24 hours and can also be used to charge small electronic devices.

Outlining the evolution of the product, Marketing Strategist Michael Parker said: "Our lanterns transitioned well into the promotional gifts space because they stand out from the crowd as something new and innovative. Many companies also like the opportunity to sponsor the lights that are distributed by our charitable partners."

For the Chicago-based Calverley Group, the feel-good factor delivered by its Memobottle range of Australia-sourced flat water bottles is down to the freedom they offer from the use of environmentally damaging single-use plastic containers.

Detailing their allure, Company Representative Will Ripley said: "Our clients don't want to just gift another moleskin. They want something that entices curiosity and discovery. They want strangers asking about the bottles that bear their brand and then, subsequently, forming positive associations."

Guilty Pleasures

With the US cannabis industry now booming, following the decriminalisation of the drug in many states, this year saw a notable rise in the number of branding products geared to the needs of dispensaries. Florida-based Cannabis Promotions, for example, was doing brisk business with its range of exit bags – double-sealed plastic bags used for packaging cannabis – as well as smell-proof jars, grinders and shipping containers.

Outlining the scale and scope of this new market, Sales Manager Monique Arsenault said: "There's so much demand that we're having to come up with a new product almost every day. Many dispensaries are just opening and don't yet have any branded items. As a result, we have a hard time just keeping up."

Newly legit or not, many of the mainstream visitors were happy to indulge in a less controversial guilty pleasure – custom-made gummy bears. With the flavours on offer ranging from fruit to prosecco and pink chocolate rosé, they were, by far, the most sampled items on the showfloor. Available from several vendors, they all offered clients the chance to specify bespoke flavours and order custom branded packaging.

Taking it a step further, Los Angeles-based Sugarfina was touting its latest innovation at the event – Green Juice Bears, a 7-Day Gummy Bear Detox – its own take on the popular juice cleanse diet. Explaining how this particular option came about, Senior Corporate Sales Manager Nichole Hosseinzadeh said: "Basically, it started as an April Fool's joke, but then it really took off. It comes in seven bottles, just like the actual cleanse, but they're all full of candy…"

Photo: PPAI 2019: Untrammelled innovation, but only moderate marketing spend.
PPAI 2019: Untrammelled innovation, but only moderate marketing spend.
Photo: PPAI 2019: Untrammelled innovation, but only moderate marketing spend.
PPAI 2019: Untrammelled innovation, but only moderate marketing spend.

The 2019 Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) Expo took place from 14-17 January at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. The event attracted 13,000 attendees from 30 countries.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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