Small Business

A Gift for Winning Clients


My startup business will import personalized French cognac to be used as a corporate gift. Wine and champagne have been done to death, but I have an excellent product with no direct competition. I have the suppliers lined up and the Web site prepared. How do I let end-user corporations know about my service? -- G.D., St Meme les Carrieres, France

The premise that you have no direct competition may not be correct, say the experts. "Corporate gifting is a crowded and competitive field," says Tom Barnes of MediaThink, a marketing firm based in Atlanta. "Promotional-product salespeople will tell their customers they can get them anything -- and they can."

The other point experts make is that when nobody else is doing what you want to do, it falls on your shoulders to establish the market -- not an easy task. "I'd be heartened if I saw a bunch of people doing it and thought I could do it better," says Mike Schultz, principal of Framingham, Mass.-based Wellesley Hills Group. "Seeing no one doing it at all would give me pause."

SELL YOURSELF. None of this means that you shouldn't push forward with your business. But you may need to explore issues such as distribution and partnerships, and think about establishing relationships with corporate gift representatives who can sell your product to their corporate clients. "It's tough to go direct to end-users when you are likely competing with a person who has almost everything else -- including a sales relationship with your potential customers," Barnes says.

He recommends that you join the Promotional Products Assn. International, a nonprofit group that represents the consultants and suppliers in the $17 billion industry. "This is a tremendous group of professionals. Their training is outstanding, and you'll get a sense of the market and what you are up against," Barnes says.

In order to secure sales representatives for your product, you'll need to do some skillful relationship-building. Schultz's advice: "Identify them one by one, pick up the phone, and start selling yourself and your fancy, fun spirits." Emphasize the advantages of your product, and don't just push the novelty factor. You'll also need to offer some creative introductory incentives to spark interest.

EYE FOR ATTENTION. Next, consider bundling your cognac with complementary products such as cigars, chocolates, and glassware. And make sure your product is featured in the corporate gift catalogs that are distributed to key decision makers at large firms.

You'll want to develop a media plan for your target audience in order to generate some interest and introduce the idea of personalized cognac. "Public relations, in particular, may be a good bet for you," says Jeff Barnhart, president and CEO of Creative Marketing Alliance, of Princeton Junction, N.J. Adds Schultz: "Any media hits you get will lend credibility to your product -- kind of an unbiased, third-party endorsement. Come up with quirky and interesting angles to get editorial mentions in online and offline publications as something new and fun in the gift category."

Good luck!


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