Universities and colleges use branded merchandise across so many avenues—from gift and spirit stores to student recruiting, alumni groups, on-campus events, athletic events, advocacy efforts and more. As prolific as promotional products are around campuses, many of these higher-education marketers are not at all familiar with our industry’s supply chain.

To make it even more confusing, the collegiate structure makes it difficult to determine who owns the process since it encompasses everything from spirit shops, bookstores, alumni events, sports clubs, sports teams, advocacy events, departmental promotions, etc. However, one thing is certain; there are definitely many opportunities for educating these education marketers in terms of brand safety and responsible sourcing of their logoed goods.


Held November 4-7, 2018, the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education hosted 1,200+ attendees, most of whom were senior management—presidents, vice presidents, CMOs and marketing directors from both the education establishments as well as the marketing agencies they use. Being in education, they were eager to learn.

Moreover, we learned as much from them as they did from us. This market is very concerned about social responsibilities and the treatment of workers, so the Fair Labor Association (FLA) is held in high regard. So while the promotional products industry is generally very focused on product safety, there is a disconnect about how important social responsibility is to these buyers.

Additionally, these buyers are widely uninformed when it comes to brand safety knowledge with promotional products. “While they understand brand safety from the digital media standpoint, these buyers have not considered it for promotional products,” says Tim Brown, QCA’s executive director of operations, who attended the event. “Many did not respect branded merchandise enough to care until I shared the points of the PPAI’s Get In Touch Campaign and then they began to understand how valuable and impactful the advertising medium is.”

“Once people wrapped their heads around the topic, they wanted to know the simplest way to ensure compliance,” he continues. “We shared questions to ask their current distributors, let them know about our Distributor Advocacy Council (DAC), and talked about the value not only of QCA but other third-party accreditations and certifications such as FLAISOB-Corps and WRAP.”

Overall, QCA’s message of brand safety resonated with attendees who were already enamored by the volume of promotional products filling the exhibit hall. “Within seconds of inquiring about what QCA does, they understood the importance of an independent accreditation body in the promotional products space,” Tim notes.

Unfortunately, there were some very negative overall impressions of the industry. However, things improved once they learned about QCA’s efforts in holding the industry accountable. “Their opinions changed so much that some even shared other audiences and organizations that they believed would benefit from the knowledge we provide and offered to make introductions,” Tim says.

“Part of the conversation included the advantages of branded merchandise over other media to get these buyers past the idea of ‘giveaways’ and get them into understanding the value of promotional products within the marketing mix,” he continues. “Topics such as tangibility, cost per impression, why the design of the product must be built into the messaging up front and why they should expect more from their promotional marketing vendors resonated, and I could see the seeds taking root.”


While each college and university is unique, there are similarities when looking at this market as a whole. Therefore, if you want to grow your business by expanding into this market or you’re currently selling to this market and want to do it better, keep these top three things in mind:

  • These buyers should be asking where products come from and what assurances the distributor can offer related protecting their brand reputation. If they’re not asking these questions, take the lead and proactively answer them. Moving the conversation beyond “how much” and “in what quantity” to “how the chosen products will promote the cause and limit risk” will be more effective while separating yourself from the competition.
  • The most often-asked question we experienced was “how often does QCA re-accredit suppliers and what do we do to hold them continuously accountable.” If you are working with QCA Accredited Suppliers, then you know accreditation is granted for a twenty-four month period, after which suppliers must re-accredit to maintain their status in good standing. If you’re not working with QCA Accredited Suppliers, then you’ll have to contact your suppliers for current documentation. Either way, you should know that these buyers are very concerned with social accountability and environmental stewardship, and they’ll want documentation to prove ethical sourcing for their products.
  • Because human rights and looking out for their communities is extremely important to these buyers, this makes managing promotional products a much bigger deal than they realize: the more touch-points, the more that could go wrong. Thus, these buyers need to become better informed about brand management and risk-based responsible sourcing. This is where an expert promotional consultant can showcase their value to land the business.

Author: Lisa Horn – The Publicity Gal

A 24-year promotional products industry veteran, Lisa began her career as a distributor before spending nearly ten years on the staff of Promotional Products Business (PPB) magazine, with seven years as editor. She is a proud graduate of Oklahoma State University (Go Pokes!) and holds a B.S. in Business Administration with a major in marketing.

Lisa combined her marketing background and time spent as a promotional products distributor with her passion for writing and magazine experience to create a one-of-a-kind, journalistic approach to content creation that brings out the authentic story.

Lisa’s writing has been honored for three consecutive years with the PPAI Technology Award (2015-2017) for excellence in blog content for her work on the Corporate Specialties Blog.

She also served as a judge for the PPAI Technology Awards (2011-2012) PPAI Supplier Achievement Awards (2008-2010, 2012), PPAI Image Awards (2012) and PPAI Pyramid Awards (2008 and 2010).

In the writing community, she has judged the ASBPE Annual Azbee Awards of Excellence (2007 and 2012) as well as the AWC Clarion Awards (1999 and 2010) competitions (evaluating magazine feature article categories in both).

QCA is the promotional product industry’s only independent, non-profit organization dedicated to verifying the processes that help industry companies provide safe and compliant products. To learn more about how you can affiliate with QCA visit www.qcalliance.org/getting-started/.