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Bad Santa!

corporate giftsby Amara Rockar

Good corporate gifts can help to strengthen business relationships. Bad gifts can just as easily break them. Here are some of the best and worst of corporate giving.

Picture it: A lowly office peon picks up his present as the company holiday party winds down. He received no annual bonus – though he would’ve settled for a parking voucher for the party. When he opens the corporate gifts, he finds that he is now the proud owner of … a bobblehead doll made in the likeness of the company CEO. The employee slowly realizes that he’s holding a bobblehead miniature version of the man who made $65 million the year before.

The possibility that the doll will later be used in some major office voodoo seems highly likely.

This “wisely anonymous” story recorded in the annals of Slashdot, a Web site for hackers and computer geeks, illustrates that a difference in interpretation can doom even the most well-intentioned present. While the purpose of corporate gifts may be to reward a good employee, thank a loyal customer or win over a new one, they sometimes fall short of their goals. Read on to find some of the worst – and best – examples of corporate giving.

Gifting Faux Pas
In all likelihood, whoever came up with a CEO bobblehead doll idea probably thought of it as a lighthearted gag that would brighten up the employees’ holiday season. Indeed, bobbleheads can be popular, and highly entertaining, items – given in the right context. Other times, it’s harder to understand what the gifter could’ve possibly been thinking when assembling the present. The following horror story from Cynthia McKay of Castle Rock, CO, is a perfect storm of bad taste and poor judgment. It may very well be one of the best corporate gift blunders.

As CEO of Le Gourmet Gift Basket Inc., McKay was featured on the cover of a national women’s magazine. Shortly after the issue hit the stands, she received a package from a certain vendor who hoped to gain her business. The gift consisted of some facial creams carried by the company as well as a nice note from the vendor mentioning that she had seen the magazine cover. However, what floored McKay and sealed this vendor’s fate was the inclusion of a certificate for a free plastic surgery consultation. “Apparently the vendor’s brother-in-law is a surgeon in Denver,” explains McKay. “Needless to say, she is not a preferred vendor.”

In some cases, a bad gifter may just be completely clueless. Before joining the Public Relations Advertising Company, Karol McGuire ran the marketing department at a private college. The college president was a “self-made man” who still hadn’t quite met the learning curve in tact. Around Christmas one year, he proudly went around and gave each of the “girls” in the department a bottle of knockoff perfume. According to McGuire, he also forgot to take off the $8 price tag. She did, however, keep her “Chanel No. 5″ for years as a monument to bad taste.

It may seem like common sense to make sure a potential gift functions properly first, but with unusual gifts defects may go unnoticed. Robin Rothman, owner of r3 Communications, was treated to an electronic meat thermometer by a computer software magazine. It came along with a catchy tagline to the effect of “It’s getting hot at [our] magazine!”

“The thermometer did get my attention,” admits Rothman. Although a bit odd, the gift did seem sort of practical, as people tend to do a lot of cooking during the holiday season. The problem wasn’t that the strange present didn’t work, not exactly. In fact, it worked a bit too well: There was no way to turn the device off. Rothman says she would have to take the thermometer apart and remove the batteries after each use. “Right now, it’s sitting in a bag in a closet – without the batteries,” Rothman laughs.

Terrifying Foods
One of the more ubiquitous corporate gifts is the food basket in its many incarnations. Besides the usual – but always pleasant – fruit baskets, companies have expanded into gourmet coffee baskets, wine or even organic food baskets. And like any other present, food gifts can go terribly wrong.

A client of XLNT Consulting in the Netherlands once gave out assorted-food gift boxes shortly before Christmas. Tom Breur, a principal consultant at XLNT, had already left the office for the holiday, but an assistant was kind enough to store it for him. Not realizing the gift contained cheese, the assistant did not place the box in a refrigerator. When Breur returned after the New Year, the gift’s fine non-pasteurized French fromage was completely covered in mold. He estimates that, if given another week, “the box would have walked out the door all by itself.” Be sure to keep in mind that many people leave for vacation early, and send your perishable food items well ahead of the targeted holiday. It’s best to avoid your food gift turning into an unpleasant post-holiday surprise.

While you may want your gift to be a knockout, make sure it doesn’t TKO your client. Before joining B*tween Productions, Bobbie Carlton worked in the public relations department of a software firm. A longtime vendor decided to start sending its clients an annual holiday gift box full of assorted nuts. Without realizing what was inside, Carlton began opening the gift’s packaging and never finished – at that point it was already too late. The highly allergic Carlton had already exposed herself to the allergen dust and oil that permeated the entire packaging. Her hands and eyes swelled up so badly that she had to dose herself with liquid Benadryl to avoid a trip to the hospital. “Every year after that, I gave their gift box to an intern – unopened,” says Carlton.

Carlton’s close call took place in the 1990s when awareness of food allergies was relatively low and labeling uncommon. However, in the years since, the prevalence of food allergies has increased greatly. It’s best to double-check before sending anything. When possible, have an assistant call ahead and inquire about any serious food allergies. If not, at least make sure that all potentially allergenic contents are clearly labeled when picking out an item.

Personalization Makes It Perfect
Knowing a person’s dietary restrictions can make all the difference between an appreciated corporate food gift and one that goes to waste. Andrea Nierenberg, president of The Nierenberg Group, a communications consulting firm, was a vegetarian at the time when she received a package of Omaha Steaks from a business associate. As the gifter knew her well enough to have known better, it was clear that the steaks had been sent out blindly en masse. By giving everyone a steak, the associate probably figured he’d save some time, while also appearing considerate. As a result, he ended up losing face in front of one of the very people he was attempting to thank. “If you’re not going to give something personal, then why give anything at all?” wonders Nierenberg.

Indeed, a little personalization can go a long way. T. Scott Gross, author of Positively Outrageous Service, learned this lesson while traveling for an early-morning speaking engagement. Flight delays combined with car rental difficulties meant that he checked into the hotel long after its restaurant had closed. Exhausted, Gross figured he’d have to make do with the packets of airplane peanuts in his briefcase.

That is, until he found a sight for his sore eyes on the other side of the hotel room door. A brown basket containing a large Cheez-It® box, a chilled pack of bottled water and a dish of Santa Rosa plums had been carefully set out for him. Apparently, the meeting planner had called Gross’ office and asked for his favorite treats. “It was so personal – it was for me,” recalls Gross. “Most corporate gifts are a nice thought but they’re not thoughtful.”

Of course, store gift certificates allow your colleagues to choose their own “thoughtful” present. Unfortunately, gift cards can have the impersonal touch of cash, since they essentially function like debit cards. For the truly stumped, there are still some ways to have giftees select their own gift without losing the personalized feel.

Take the experience of Lisa Mihalik and her coworkers, for instance. Last December, they received beautiful red gift boxes from their boss at the Environmental Information Association. Inside their boxes, they each found an elegant brochure from a company that offers a variety of experiential gifts. The gift allowed them all to select one of 16 different experiences, ranging from a private yoga lesson to swimming with sharks or learning how to drive a race car.

Surprising everyone including herself, Mihalik choose the skydiving option. “We got to do things that we wouldn’t normally do,” says Mihalik. “It showed that he took the extra effort to find something that would be memorable for all of us.”

Reprinted with permission of Successful Promotions, copyright 2006

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