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A Corporate Gift Guide

Slide Show >>Ask Carol Aastad what the latest trends are in the world of corporate gifts, and she has a ready reply: "Quality," she says. "We're moving into a time when the client is looking for brand names -- they're looking for quality gifts."

Aastad formerly headed the Board of Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), the non-profit group that represents gift-industry consultants and sellers, and she's currently vice-president and general manager of promotional agency Forrester-Smith. Along with her emphasis on "quality" gifts, she and other experts are now pointing to a new, equally important trend in gift-giving -- personalization (see BW Online, 3/15/06, "The Thought Does Count").

Personalization can apply to gifts given to top-level executives, mid-level managers, and regular employees. "People are trying to go higher quality -- but maybe not spend as much money -- and being more personal with things," says Tom Barnes of MediaThink, a marketing firm based in Atlanta. "This is making it harder on promotional-items people, because they do better when they can sell a bunch of stuff."

This means a move away from bulk items such as branded apparel. "Clothing items are never going away," Barnes says, "but I think people are trying to make things more special."

TRICKY HISTORY. Barnes says that gift-giving, especially after the Enron and Tyco scandals, "is wrought with peril and stigma." He says that today, the big spending on gifts is "transnational -- big multinational companies thinking that while there's scrutiny at home, it's different in other countries."

The stigma that's often associated with corporate gift-giving also comes from "stories of excess in the '90s, and the fallout from that," Barnes says.

For this reason and many others, it's often seen as "unfashionable" to be extravagant with gifts today, says Barnes. "The challenge is to be extravagant emotionally?. How much do you know about this person?"

WHAT'S APPROPRIATE? Corporate gift-giving is most effective when a company is familiar with its recipient. "I think it all boils down to how much [the company] has budgeted to give, and whether or not the business is a really good client for them," says Jeff Hurt, PPAI's education and certification manager.

For the gift to convey a message, Hurt continues, the company should consider the purpose of the gift. "Is it a thank you gift for the company overall," he asks, "or do they want to give a gift to every employee, or do they want to keep their name in the client's mind?"

He said that if the gift is for a large client, the gift-giver should consider something that could be of value to them, such as apparel or an office desk item -- and again, it's better if it's personalized.

INSIDE JOKE. There are countless ways to personalize gifts. Barnes praised online company Café Press for making it easy to put "an inside joke" on a gift. With Café Press, Barnes says, you could reference a "company retreat" where some amusing event took place -- and "immortalize it" on something as simple as a coffee cup.

"Technology helps the personalization business," he says. "You can do really cool-looking things in smaller and smaller rungs."

Mike Schultz, the principal of Framingham (Mass.)-based Wellesley Hills Group, says gift personalization isn't about "cheesy gifts." Rather, "as things are moving faster and faster, executives are looking to make a deeper, more personal connection."

IMAGE AND IDENTITY. "They're looking to understand what's going on with the other people, who they are," Schultz says. "And then finding a personalized gift that means something. The cost of the gift has to go with the value of the relationship."

The difficulties associated with finding a good corporate gift aren't new (see BW Online, 2/27/06, "A Gift for Winning Clients"). But Schultz and Barnes both agree that it's important to set yourself apart.

Schultz says, "If [a gift-giver] knows, for example, that the gift is for another executive who loves traveling to New Zealand, they'll get something related to New Zealand, as if to say, 'I went out of my way to get you something.'" In the arena of corporate giving, it may really be true: It's the thought that counts.

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