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Promos That Rock The Vote

Promotional products are essential for winning elections. Here are some best practices you can use to be victorious in your own marketing efforts.

Kent Cravens was advised never to use gimmicky items when running for election. But, like most good politicians, he learned that sometimes you need to throw what advisers say out the window. Cravens, who has been a New Mexico state senator for eight years, did just that when he ordered 5,000 of “little round fuzzy guys with sticky pad feet.” “Everyone I came into contact with ended up with one in their pocket or I’d peel it off and put it on their name tags,” says Cravens. “Or it would end up on their dashboard. I got a lot mileage out of it. I’m a believer now in things that have shelf life.”

Winning public favor is a tricky business. Just what formula of mass media, promotional products and luck is needed to win has never been decided for certain even by so-called political “scientists.” However, what we do know is promotional products are as an important part of the mix as a good speech writer, campaign contributions and confident smile.

The same can be said for winning over customers. Just what makes them buy your product, sign up for your service or preach about your brand is often an equally mystifying equation.

For politicians and companies alike, awareness is everything. “Collateral is visibility and is vitally important to any candidate,” says Richard N. Dovere, vice president of Hardin Design & Development Inc. “In the same way that brand recognition is a fundamentally important component of any successful sales campaign, pins, stickers, and yard signs not only complement the importance of the grassroots effort, it introduces the voters to the brand. The fundamentals of consumerism take hold and voters start to see more and more people supporting that brand. No one likes to be on a losing team, so they support the candidate who appears to have the most support.”

For larger campaigns like the Presidential race, which appears to be a tight one with Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama trailing the Republican nominee John McCain by a slim margin at press time, generating grassroots support is mandatory.

Ad specialties are one tool that helps build the buzz needed to put candidates over the top. “Promotional products, like an ‘Obama for President’ bumper sticker, are used to inspire grassroots support,” says political strategist Ryan McLaughlin who is with Mac Strategies Group. “Volunteers give them out. It keeps them engaged and involved. It helps generate enthusiasm for volunteers which can make or break a campaign. It’s all about getting your name out there. The hope is that it will help bring more people into your camp. They will receive a product at a parade and say, ‘I really like this candidate, I’m going to get involved.’” The same can be said for grassroots marketing which is increasingly playing a bigger role in marketers’ plans.

Here are some lessons companies can learn about using ad specialties from our elected officials.

Casting Their Vote for the Right Product
Combs, erasers, dog chew toys, maracas and dust brooms are all examples of promotional items that have been used in recent elections. Like with any marketing campaign, creativity counts. This holds true when selecting what items to use for a political campaign, what is said on the products as well as what colors are used.

“I’ve seen everything with regards to collateral materials,” says Larry Farnsworth, vice president of the public relations firm Crosby-Volmer International Communications. “Some of my favorites include campaigns passing out beer cans with their campaign stickers on it and imprinted indoor putting services and cookbooks.”

Targeting is key for candidates as well as companies. “Companies often stay away from more unique products, and I can’t understand why,” says Cravens who is also an owner of AlphaGraphics in Albuquerque. When opting for mass mailers and mass media, “they focus on a spray and pray mentality.”

Making sure that an item is something a consumer will want to keep and use is important, says Joseph Tuman, professor of communications studies at San Francisco State University. “If you give them something utilitarian, it won’t end up in the trash. They are likely to keep it and hopefully it will be a reminder of what you want to do.”

For Tuman’s mom, this item was a pot holder. She kept a pot holder that a Republican candidate handed out even though she was a Democrat. “Borrow from the strategies business use,” he says. “Pick items in the realm of stuff that is kind of useful, but you wouldn’t buy for yourself.”

Tongue-in-cheek promos also work. They show that the candidate has a sense of humor and often prove memorable. California congressman Brad Sherman hands out combs mocking the fact that he is bald. Tuman has seen candidates use logoed brooms and dustpans to symbolize that a new candidate is coming in to clean up the mess. In Madison, WI, one creative campaigner is currently giving out a Republican elephant dog chew toy, says Dovere. “Candidates will give away anything with their name on it to gain visibility.”

Even high school kids have learned about the power of promotions, says Tuman. “I saw one high school election recently where there was an inflatable saxophone that said ‘Vote for Sachs. She’ll always play the right tune.’ They were snapped up in moments and the kids were promptly hitting themselves with them.” Sachs sounds like she’s got a future in politics and marketing.

The Straight (And Simple) Talk Express
Nobody likes long winded politicians so when it comes to messaging experts say simple is best. Carl Gerlach, director of marketing for Gill Studios, a promotional products supplier, says the shorter messages work. “The most successful candidates are the ones that just use their name, what they are running for and the date of the election,” he says. “If you’re trying to communicate an entire message on a yard sale sign or a bumper sticker, it gets lost.”

Brands can learn from this as well. Whether it’s signs or buttons, make sure the message is clear. “We did a button that was in eight point type. You couldn’t read it unless you were in a person’s personal space,” says Dino Bartolomei, vice president of ADCO Litho, a supplier of promotional items. “But, who’s going to listen to me? I’m just the person that makes it.”

George W. Bush was extremely successful at keeping it simple (insert joke here). Many of his materials just featured the letter “W.”

An effective slogan is also essential, says Charles W. Dunn of Regent University’s School of Government. “The ‘New Deal,’ ‘Fair deal,’ ‘New frontier’ and ‘Great society’ were among the best along with ‘I like Ike.’ McCain has used ‘The straight talk express.’ And, Obama’s ‘Change you can believe in’ will go down as one of the greatest of all times if he wins.”

Right up there with Nike’s “Just do it,” McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ it” and Burger King’s “Have it your way.”

Bush’s bumper stickers featured an oval versus the traditional rectangle. “Different shapes can separate you from the pack,” says McLaughlin. Flashing buttons have been used as well, says Bartolomei and he was working on a project to personalize buttons according to the recipient’s name. “It’s still alive, but it’s going to be expensive,” he says.

Of course inexpensive items are always welcomed. Logoed pens and pencils are a staple. “Sales of our red, white and blue patriotic series are always heavier during election year,” says Vicki Elmore of Shepenco/Shelbyville Pencil. “You can hand them out to more people for less money.”

Bumper sticker sales, in general, are falling off because people don’t want a permanent addition to their cars and they’re afraid of getting their paint peeled off, says Barry Marquardt owner of Stouse, a promotional products supplier. Magnets are popular but not too popular because they are more expensive. “You can hand them out, but if you’re going to do a mailer you have to think of the weight,” he says. “A postcard decal is less expensive because it goes through the postal service as a decal so it’s no big deal.”

Gerlach deals in signs, bumper stickers, decals and lapel pins. Across all mediums he stresses that a candidate?s message must be consistent. “Use consistency of color to tie in all of the materials,” he says. “Come up with a logo, many candidates are using logos.”

Not surprisingly, red, white and blue are the most popular colors. Although some will use yellow to set themselves apart and “green to present themselves as environmentally friendly,” says Gerlach.

Because of the four-color process, candidates can be a lot more creative, says Mitch Emoff, executive vice president of Goldner Associates, a distributor of promotional products. “There used to be huge plate charges. Now there are so many items you can do. This works well for reproducing images of a good looking candidate like Barack Obama that has a lot charisma.” If a company has an attractive CEO, Emoff says, its marketers would be wise to use his or her image on promotional items, much like the political candidates do.

This Candidate is everywhere!
When running for election, candidates want and need to stay top of mind. It keeps voters thinking about their positions as well as reminds the competition of the battle that lies ahead. Street signs are one of the most effective and valuable tools for creating an omnipresent feel. “‘Sign wars’ create more of a presence than bumper stickers,” says Farnsworth. “They are a necessary evil. By plastering the roads with signs, you send a message to insiders that you have the money to be competitive and the organization to get them out which are two keys for prospective donors.”

Timing is important when it comes to rolling out the signs, says Dunn. “Yard signs are helpful if they are put up at the right time in the right places. I’ve seen campaigns turn on yard signs.”

Of course, they are not without their disadvantages. “Signs are generally torn down by the opposition shortly after they are put up,” says David W. Patti, president of the Pennsylvania Business Council. “I’m looking for the promotional company that will make a sign that explodes when tampered with.”

For companies and brands, “wild posting” construction sites at cities and other high traffic areas has become an important tool. Whereas, once only local bands, upcoming movies and counterculture events utilized this medium, today everyone from Crest toothpaste to Sony PlayStation Portable embrace it.

Palm cards are also helpful to hand out en mass at events and rallies. However, Patti recommends that candidates do not make the mistake of printing too many. “Most will end up in the trash can inside the door of the polling place. Your poll workers can ‘recycle’ them. Instruct them to tell voters ‘it’s a carbon footprint thing’.”

These are equally effective for sampling programs where cards offer dollars off at local retailers.

All of the items work together to create a larger than life image. “The candidate has to get his name out there for name recognition,” says Marquardt whose company creates bumper stickers, magnets, yard signs and posters. “Think of how many people see a bumper sticker during the day.”

Plus, from a media standpoint they are a must. “It’s still important for the photographers to see plenty of buttons and posters at rallies,” says consultant Scott Harris. “It doesn’t change people’s minds, but it does reinforce a positive image.”

It gives the feeling that “the candidate is everywhere,” says Pace University Political Science Professor Christopher Malone. “Ultimately, ‘touching’ voters is most important. I’ve managed local campaigns and we try and touch voters at least five to seven times.”

When a person running for elected office actually does touch a voter, it can have a profound effect, says Farnsworth. “That’s why politicians take time to shake every person’s hand at a rally and take pictures with anyone who asks. That person then becomes real and not just another commercial.”

This is also true for companies who lean on event marketing. Studies show that the use of non-traditional events, concerts and publicity stunts are on the rise. By creating a brand “experience” for the consumer, they are more likely to feel connected with a brand than if they had simply seen or heard an ad.

Giving away a handout compounds this feeling. In terms of politics, the recipient is then less likely to throw it away since they received it directly from the candidate. “It’s less effective if the candidate is not making an appearance,” says Tuman. “Having a personal memory of when you received it is important.”

Cravens and his little fuzzy guys are proof. He says, “Anything that you can use to add personality or credibility and add a little bit of shelf life is effective.”

Reprinted with permission of Successful Promotions, copyright 2007

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