Perspectives: What The Lockdown Taught Me About The Promo Industry


This issue went to press as our nation reached the two-month mark of being largely shut down, and in that time, we’ve witnessed changes to our daily lives and businesses that we never could have imagined. 

It’s eerie to drive along major roads and not see anyone walking or a single store open for business. It’s odd to have to remain at home, working alone, with each day not significantly different from the last. It’s heartbreaking to see graduations and weddings cancelled and cherished annual events postponed indefinitely. Many businesses won’t make it and others are paring down and reinventing themselves to survive. Perhaps it is most troubling to not know what happens next, or when this will end and the world will reopen. 

Still, it’s been a great time to be alive because as uncertain as these past two months have been, I’ve also witnessed humanity at its best: creative, resilient, compassionate and inspiring.

Creativity was the first thing I noticed emerging from the disbelief of the first few days under lockdown. What we needed most was to find the funny, and all those comical Facebook posts—from social distancing jokes to hilarious face masks—made me smile. 

Creativity also took shape in how industry companies approached the pandemic. Many suppliers retooled their factories and began churning out up to a million face masks per week. Another supplier found a way to use its RF heat-sealing equipment and other techniques, normally used to produce promo items, to manufacture medical face shields and gowns for local health-care facilities. 

Distributors deftly pivoted from developing promotional and branding ideas for clients to sourcing hand sanitizer, face masks and other personal protective equipment that have been in such immediate demand. With most client events cancelled, they found creative and cost-effective ways to get branded event products into end users’ hands.   

Salespeople, on both sides of the industry, also quickly learned to deliver product presentations from their home offices and living rooms, and they rediscovered the value of keeping their companies top of mind by mailing small gifts or branded products to their clients’ homes. They also began reaching out to clients by phone and email just to check in on them—without any sales intent—just with a message of compassion from one human being to another.

What I’ve marveled at most is that people in our industry saw past the distressing current state of affairs to find and fill the many needs that presented themselves. Instead of wringing their hands, they stepped up and found ways to assist others whether it was sewing face masks for those in their community, supporting the local food bank with t-shirt sales, donating tote bags filled with toys and activities for children in need, packing and delivering lunches to hungry kids or creating a fundraiser that brought many local business together toward a common goal. Our industry isn’t shy about asking, “How can we help?” In the process, many may have saved themselves by staying busy, giving their companies purpose and being visible during the darkest days of the lockdown. The work of those who jumped in early with give-back projects undoubtedly inspired their industry colleagues to do the same. 

For this month’s cover story, I talked with 12 distributor principals to find out how their businesses have been affected by the pandemic, what actions they are taking to restart and what they see for the future. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I’d find but, over and over, their responses reaffirmed how resilient our industry is. 

The promotional products industry has been around for well over 100 years. It’s weathered the Spanish flu pandemic, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, 9-11, the Great Recession and many other financial and global crises, but it’s always rebounded stronger and more relevant. It will come back this time, too. 

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Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

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