Everybody knows what promotional products look like, but few know what functions they serve.
From inexpensive trinkets to high-end goods, promotional products can be everything from key chains to Mont Blanc pens. Icon Blue Co-founder, Chairman and CEO Walter Hill not only knows what they do, but he also knows what works best in every marketing and branding situation.
“Customers come to us when they have a new product introduction or they want to reinforce a message about a particular service feature. The question is always, ‘How do we deliver [to] our customer with an impact?’ Our media is one of the most effective ways to deliver a repetitive message. The advertising is printed on the product and given to the customer. That way, our clients get repetitive messages and branding exposed to their customer. Promotional gifts should always be functional, useful and fit within the client’s budget. That’s the essence of promotional merchandise.”
That is no novice opinion. Hill co-founded Icon Blue with Bonnie G. Hill more than 18 years ago. And he’s spent 35 years in the brand marketing trenches developing his philosophy.
“I have a somewhat non-traditional perspective about the use of branded products by our clients. The ideas we offer should be designed to be more of an advertising vehicle than just a simple giveaway. Most companies are not in the business to give products away unless there is a potential for return. We pride ourselves in serving as an idea source for companies to help them deliver the right messages to their customers at a price that represents real value,” he said.
Icon Blue provides a hefty level of service considering its 14-person staff. Founded in 1998, the company has an extensive client list. One of its most prominent clients is American Honda Motor Co., Inc. A client for more than 15 years—a statement unto itself—Honda and Icon Blue began their partnership modestly.
“We did our first project for Honda in 2001 for around $350—and there was a printing error! We were creating high-end writing instruments, and we sent the factory the right logo. They sent us a proof with the right logo, but printed the wrong logo,” Hill explained. “These things happen, but how you handle them defines your service value. With only two days to correct the error, we reprinted the pens and delivered on time.”
However, that was not the most compelling thing about the engagement.
“Honda had been on our prospective client list. But I wasn’t sure how receptive they would be to working with a small, minority business enterprise. That’s when I learned that their belief in diversity was not rhetoric. They really did have a legitimate, sincere diversity interest. Yet, I never met the person in charge of diversity, and I never spoke with anyone that had a diversity title at the outset. But everyone I talked to in the company was receptive to doing business with us. That means it’s deeply ingrained in their culture,” Hill said. “After we established our reputation for dependable, quality service with them, we got other opportunities. In 2003, we bid for a larger contract, for their portfolio business, and we won that as well. Our success was a combination of establishing our reputation and Honda’s deep-rooted sense of fairness and inclusion.”
While delivering a quality product on time and on budget speaks to Icon Blue’s success, Hill credits two people in particular who have been instrumental in the company’s expansion within Honda.
“When Honda senior management first came to America, they recognized they were minorities. They appreciated what it meant to have a supply chain that represented their customer base. Then you have people like Tony Piazza, now retired, and Charles Harmon [senior manager, Administration Division] who took the belief in diversity and inclusion and ran with it. Charles and Tony became real advocates for us. Open-minded and always willing to listen, their support helped us expand to other areas within Honda.”
“For me, a good business relationship transcends the business aspect of what you do. We spend the majority of our lives working. So, it’s much better when it’s a pleasure to do business with someone, and it is an absolute pleasure to do business with Charles and Honda.”
“Here’s an example of how much our relationship transcends just business. In 2011, when the tsunami hit Japan, it caused great hardship for Honda. We felt their pain. So, we voluntarily redesigned a product and developed a new model that saved them more than $600,000 a year. We were eager to find a way to help them, to give something back. That’s exactly what Charles Harmon and Honda inspire in everyone at Icon Blue,” Hill stated.
The feeling is clearly mutual. In addition to working with American Honda Motor Co., Inc., a sales and services entity, Hill and Icon Blue are also pursuing a new business frontier with Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.