Episode #50 - How to solve a problem like the promotional products market

Show notes

I wrote a piece for Virgin.com just before Christmas; a sort of 2016 round up piece. And I used it to have a bit of a rant about the UK version of The Apprentice, the very popular TV show that plays out in the run up to Christmas every year.

"As it reaches fever pitch for the interview stage in the final week of the show, the candidates, at last, reveal their business plans," I wrote. "And we are so often given a cold, stark reality check as to the state of business here in the early part of the 21st century."

What annoyed me the most was not the eventual winner Alana and her cake-making business.

It was more her fellow finalist, Courtney who needed Lord Sugar £250,000 money to kick start his novelty gift company. 

"In the place of innovative, creative, smart, circular, low carbon, or social enterprise models, is a collection of drab and dreary, business-as-usual ideas all vying for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment.

"In fact, if you trawl through the list of past winners – from Ricky Martin’s recruitment agency and Mark Wright’s SEO firm, to Joseph Valente’s plumbing business and Leah Totton’s cosmetic clinic – evidence of sustainable business thinking is very thin on the ground."

I put the novelty products business in the same category as promotional items and marketing merchandise – essentially, mass produced stuff that people don’t really need.

When I was a kid, I would visit the NEC in Birmingham every year with my Dad for the national Motor Show exhibition: a chance for all the big car manufacturers to get together to show off the new models that would be dominating the car show rooms and forecourts for the next 12 months.

My Dad loved it. We’d spend hours trawling between the hundreds of different stands. While he’d pour over the latest models, my brother and I would busy ourselves by grabbing as much free merchandise that was being given out on each stand as our free plastic carrier bags would hold. T-shirts, bags, posters, badges, pens – you name it, car companies would give away an endless amount of stuff emblazoned with their logos in the hope that their brands would ingrain themselves on the memories of anybody that had swung by their stand during the three-day event.

This was back in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, it is a practice that still goes on today. At your office, on your desk, there is probably some promotional pens, mugs and business card holders. The purpose of these items is to remind you of the company whose name or logo they bear.

But do you actually use these things? Probably not. On average, we get rid of most promotional products within six months, even the ones that we find interesting at first.

As more and more consumers consider the social and environmental costs associated with manufacturing and disposal of products, the promotional items and novelty goods market is one that is changing quickly.

Recognising that it is a market that is not going away any time soon, our guest business this week is determined to find a way to use the industry as communications tool, to get people excited about sustainability, and to create products that are useful, even after their traditional lifecycle.

Meet Michael Stausholm (below), the founder and CEO of Sprout, a promotional products business with a difference.

For more on Sprout, visit the wesbite: sproutworld.com.

This time you will learn:

  1. how Sprout has grown from a €700,000 business to a €2.5 million one in the space of just two years
  2. how Michael wants to make sustainability easier to understand using pencils
  3. how three young MIT students came up with the idea for Sprout pencils
  4. why the pencil is designed to slow people down (and why that's a good thing)
  5. why 80% of Sprout's revenues come from corporates looking to send messages about sustainability to their customers and staff
  6. about Sprout's other product offerings, like paper
  7. why people are the most important contributor to Sprout's success
  8. why grabbing just 1% of the global pencil market would be good news for the planet
  9. why and how Sprout can call companies like Disney, Ikea and Toyota its loyal customers