Which Came First, The Idea or The Item? (Cliff Quicksell)

Author: Cliff Quicksell, MAS+ (Cliff Quicksell & Associates)

Sounds like the old cliché, ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’

As I speak and consult globally, I am intrigued by some of the verbiage that is used every day in our industry. We freely use the word ‘idea’ to describe things that are sold but are they truly ‘ideas’?

If we look to Webster’s dictionary, you see the definition of the two words vary dramatically.

Idea ~ i.de.a [ahy-dee-uh] – nounany concept existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness or activity. A thought, conception or notion. An impression. A plan of action.

Item (product) ~ i.tem [ahy-tuh-m] – noun – a separate article, (p) a thing produced by labor.

We can see that an idea is a thought or concept, not something that is tangible such as the products we have available. When you go to the furniture store does the salesperson refer to a sofa or a chair as an idea? They may have an idea on where it’s placed or situated in a room, or what fabric type works best in a certain environment but the ‘item’ is never referred to as an’ idea’.

We use the word because that is the jargon our clients and prospects use; "Can you help me? I need some ideas for a tradeshow giveaway,” What are they really asking for?

Unfortunately, our industry is perceived as the trinket and trash industry; in fact, several years ago, there was a study done by PPAI where they asked several thousand end-users (I’m paraphrasing) ‘when you think of promotional products., what words come to mind?’ It was a cute list but not very flattering: trinkets, trash, junk, crap, landfill, do-dads, tchotchkes, hunks-of-hell, spiffs, spoofs and gimmees!  I can’t speak for each of you, but I found that appalling and quite an eye-opener. For me, I look at this industry as much more than just products, actually I believe that the items we have at our disposal are merely tools that we have in our arsenal that we can use to create amazing ideas for our clients. Ideas you do not, cannot and never find in a catalog – because they exist only in your mind. When I speak and talk about this, I liken it to a chef; a chef walks into a store or market and has ALL sorts of items available to her, she thinks, plots and imagines what the dish is going to look like, how it will be presented (packaged) and what ingredients (items) she will need to further pull off her creation. You see, it’s not the items, it’s what you DO with the items that creates the idea.

About a year ago, I was drilling this concept into one of my clients. She was very open to change and after one of our consulting sessions she said to me, "Cliff, I just had an epiphany, all this time I thought I was selling ideas and what I was really selling were items!"

So where am I going with all of this?

This is a golden opportunity! Especially, as the pendulum swings back, clients and prospects will be looking for unique ways to engage with their staff members, clients and prospects to satisfy the ‘new normal’ as it unfolds. I am asked regularly, how do I get in the door, how do I set myself apart, how do I make more profit? Start doing things differently. Start changing your vocabulary and your way of thinking. Retrain your clients and get them to understand that there is MORE to what you do than just supply stuff. What I am saying is, "become remarkable" as Seth Godin says; and as I say, “become a 3%’er!”

Take a moment to peruse the web, look at your competitor’s websites, than look at yours – anything strikingly different or unique? Would you call you?

Is what you offer the same as the thousands that are out there competing with you? Most likely the answer will be yes! How can you differentiate?

Most practitioners in this industry feel that they are relegated to the profit suggestions suppliers say they should make; the A,B,C / P,Q,R coding system that is used in the catalogs in many cases stifles profitability. Keep in mind these ‘codes’ are guidelines.  While you’re on the web, do a Google search for 'Promotional Products and Advertising Specialty Discount Codes'. You will find that someone published the breakdown for the world to see. And now that our buyers are getting younger and more internet savvy it’s easier than ever for the buyer to control that buying process.

Given how things are unfolding, now is the time to look at yourself a bit differently – look at yourself as the architect, not the supply house. Become the chef, not the grocery store. Look at becoming a brilliant surgeon not the person selling the gauze! In our industry there are a ton of gauze sellers, grocery stores and supply houses. Begin the process not of differentiating yourself from the pack. You truly do have an amazing opportunity to make amazing money in this business but you must take change of your destiny. Take the tools (items) you have to work with: products, packaging, print, theme development, distribution, creativity and make magic happen; do this for yourself and watch your bank account swell.

Final Thoughts
- Start to look at what you do differently
- Don’t wait, start being different & create that difference now
- Change your mindset…think like a chef
- Change your vocabulary and help the client change theirs

The next time someone asks for some new ideas ask them what they means. You’ll be surprised by their reaction. Show them what can be done with the tools you have to at your disposal: print, packaging, product, creative theme and copy development. Present them with measurable solutions where you command the profits you deserve.

To answer the question which came first, the item or the idea? The idea came first,…the item was a result of the idea!

As far as the chicken and the egg ~ I’m still baffled!