• Bill Petrie

The Ballad of the Brandvocate

And using the power of promotional products to launch your brand

We had no clue that such a simple concept would be one of the most memorable, engaging, entertaining, and compelling ways to introduce a new company. The objective was straightforward: to support the launch of the brandivate brand, we would send a select group of people a box of thoughtful branded merchandise and ask them to share on social media. To say that we were overwhelmed by the support and creativity that resulted from a box of promotional products would be the understatement of 2020.

So how did it all come together?

Again, the idea was simple and spawned from our desire to get the brandivate name out there in a creative way while leveraging the power of promotional products. We had three weeks, a limited budget, and a ton of hope that we could pull it off.

The first thing we needed to accomplish was to identify our brandvocates: the people in our networks whom we not only respected, but thought would play along with our little experiment. Our goal was to limit the number to 25, but with the addition of family members, it ended up being closer to 33. Once we identified our “tribe,” we contacted everyone to ask if they were comfortable being a brandvocate and what that would entail. We explained we would be sending them a box of brandivate promotional products with specific instructions and asked if they would share on social media. Once they said yes, the real work began: sourcing the five daily promotional products on a budget.

The obvious product we knew we needed was a t-shirt with a fantastic look and feel. Thankfully, the sister of my business partner (Kelsey Cunningham) works at S&S Activewear was able to get us an excellent price on one of the softest tri-blend shirts on the market. Kelsey took the lead by creating an elegantly simple and classy design that we both thought would resonate. Simple elegance isn’t easy to pull off, and Kelsey did precisely that. However, the t-shirts and decoration ate just over half of our budget for the products, so it was time to get creative.

We also wanted to include some more “traditional” branded merchandise, and we looked no further than Kenny Ved and Goldstar for some beautiful – and on-brand – writing instruments. Perhaps they weren’t the focal point of the branded merchandise box, but they did go a long way into creating a full experience as people will use that pen for months and years to come.

Next, we wanted to create an air of exclusivity, so we reached out to our friend Josh Robbins at Vault Promotions who suggested a “brandvocate card.” We loved the idea and ran with it coming up with the idea that we would not only number the cards via random drawing but have a bit of fun on the back letting bearers know they had a good chance receive a free drink – not to exceed $9.50 – if they show us their cards withing 50 feet of a bar.

As we spoke with Josh, he offered some other products that would be cost-effective to procure and decorate: coasters, can coolers, and whiskey stones. I then spent a measurable portion of several days at Vault decorating the can coolers and whiskey stones…unless you didn’t like the imprint, then Josh did those. In all seriousness, Kelsey and I are beyond fortunate to have a friend in Josh, who was willing to go the extra mile to help make our launch the success it was.

Last, we designed a placard to insert into the box, giving instructions to each brandvocate so they knew which product to use on which day using the hashtag #brandivateswag. We also used this opportunity to thank not only the brandvocates, but also our product partners who helped with pricing to pull this off. Again, we were on a tight budget here. We carefully packed everything up to ensure that most of the brandvocates would receive their box before the Monday of “brandvocate week.”

Then, we waited over the weekend, and we honestly had no idea what to expect:

  • Would the brandvocates like the swag we picked out?

  • Would the brandvocates play along on social media?

  • Would this be a colossal waste of money – something in short supply as we start this business?

The answers would come quickly on Monday and provide us some key learnings on how to launch a business brand:

Create Exclusivity: By sending our brandvocates metal “membership” cards with their personal number, we inadvertently built a tribe. By 9:30 AM, our brandvocates started sharing their brandvocate cards to not only boast the fact they can get a free drink, but also to compare their brandvocate numbers! Everyone wanted to know how we came up with the rankings, and, sadly, the truth isn’t as much fun as the conspiracy theories that abounded: we put all the names on a virtual wheel and spun it. See, it’s not as much fun as everyone thinking that we sat in a dark, smoky, whiskey-soaked room arguing over the relative merits of Brett Schaffer over David Shultz and vice versa.

Choose Your Tribe Wisely: As you may recall, we had a limited budget, which meant it was financially impossible for us to include everyone. We chose people who we thought would not only support our launch but do so publicly. It was vitally important that “brandvocate week” be much more than merely sharing decorated merchandise; we wanted it to be a week-long celebration of both our company and the industry we serve.

Pick the Right Promo: While the T-Shirt and pens are logical choices, the rest are likely not. While we didn’t realize it at the time, the metal membership cards were a stroke of genius. The coasters were high-quality and cost-effective – and it’s a product that people will use daily (but hopefully not as flying discs). The can coolers had such a fantastic imprint area, and we took advantage of every millimeter. Finally, the whiskey stones not only look great with the brandivate icon but are also on-brand as we share the brandivate beverage of the week every Friday at 3:30 PM on our Facebook page and Instagram account. It was essential for us to not simply send a box of disjointed promotional products, but to create an experience while telling our story – and I believe we did just that.

Provide Suggestions While Encouraging Creativity: While we did give our brandvocates instructions on sharing the products on specific days, we intentionally left the “how” they shared open to interpretation. Some brandvocates used their pens to draw pictures and write notes, one used the coasters as “shitty frisbees,” and one brave soul filmed a frame-for-frame remake of the famous Phobe Cates scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to show his can cooler love. People shared their bloopers, field-tested their brandivate promo, forced their kids to make TikTok videos for them, and one even wrote and performed an original song/video for the end of the week. The bottom line is that the creativity of our brandvocates was almost immeasurable, and that kept the week fun and entertaining.

Engage and Express Gratitude: This has been a most exhausting week on social media but in a good way. It seemed as if every time we took a 20-minute break from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we would pick up our phones to find ten new notifications. While it was overwhelming to respond to all the messages and posts at times, it was critical that we not only engaged but also did so in thoughtful ways. It was clear that our brandvocates put an inordinate amount of work into doing what we asked, so it was only right to engage and express our sincere thanks. To cap off the experience, our brandvocates will be receiving thank you notes in the next week or so with an additional little product surprise because each of them went above and beyond for us this week.

While our campaign was thoughtful, purposeful, and intentional, we could never have scripted the response: the friendly competition, videos going viral, and the amount of FOMO from others. As one respected peer put it, “you just gave a master class on how to launch a brand – and do so on a budget.” While I don’t think either of us feels we did that, we are incredibly proud of what we have started and humbled by the participation of our brandvocates.

Next time someone tells you that promotional products don’t matter, sing them “The Ballad of the Brandvocate.” This week we sent a small group of industry veterans – most of whom will tell you they are at least slightly jaded by the industry – a box of promotional products and the response was more than anyone could or would have predicted.


That, my friends, is the power of our medium.

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