David Cowell of Promo2u tells us about how the focus on selling sustainable promotional products.
First of all, how are you and your family doing?
David Cowell: Personally, we are doing well. My wife and I are fit and healthy, as can be after all that baking and being around the fridge so much during the lockdown. My son managed to increase his savings during the pandemic as both he and his girlfriend worked throughout. They managed to get their deposit and secure their first house together, so our firstborn has left the nest. I am not sure I am delighted as it’s a sign I am getting older, but obviously delighted for them. My daughter also flourished in her career, finding an opportunity in all the madness to pursue a role in marketing for a major bridal wear company. I am very proud of her for making this happen, and it just goes to show that when things are up in the air, there are often more opportunities than when all is running well. Over two years from the pandemic in a seemingly troubled world, we are just starting to see things turn around in our promotional marketing business. Right now, we pray for peace in the world and focus on the positives.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Promo2u.
David Cowell: I have worked in printing since leaving school at 16. With little focus on education (coming from a working-class family), I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I was lucky to fall into a role dealing with people as a customer contact, which I loved. I trained in all aspects of print, completing an apprenticeship and then moving into management from the early age of 20. I have only ever worked for three companies in my life before deciding I could set up my own back in the year 2000. Initially, I was helping a German print management agency have a presence in the UK while managing their clients’ work with UK manufacturers. We helped with all aspects of marketing print; sometimes, I needed to purchase promotional items, but it seemed like every time I needed 500 stress balls, I needed the stress balls to get me through the process of buying them. Also, nobody seemed to know what they were made of and if they were safe for kids, allergies, etc. The market was fragmented, and there was no clear way for me to work directly with the manufacturers. Having seen this as a gap in the market, at the end of 2007, I launched Promo2u, focusing on selling sustainable promotional products sourced directly from manufacturers for business owners and marketing professionals in and around London.
How does Promo2u market its product/services online?
David Cowell: We have recently appointed an agency to help us with our digital marketing. One of the toughest lessons to learn in a small business is that you cannot be good at everything yourself. Identifying your strengths and weaknesses early is the advice I would give my younger self, and seek out and trust others to do what they are good at, freeing you to do what you do best too.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how did you get through it?
David Cowell: During the pandemic, we were able to really focus on the business and get the planning done, which like a lot of small businesses, simply did not have the time to do. We lost over two-thirds of the business as events were closed. In fact, we are only just seeing a return to the normal levels of enquiries over two years later. Fortunately for us, we secured the bounce-back loan, and together with the other support we received, we were able to invest in the company at the beginning of this year, employing three new team members and progressing as never before. During the lockdown, we re-built our website and put in place productivity-enhancing API feeds to our supply partners. This ensures our website remains up to date, which has proven very valuable indeed as prices have been changing month on month due to high inflation levels. We were also able to source more products offering sustainable versions of most items in our market. This helps our customers find products that are in keeping with their social values and CSR policies.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to manage your online marketing?
David Cowell: Concerning online marketing, we found many tools to help us initially measure. The first was Google Data Studio, a free and powerful tool with many uses that we use to collate a report on the relevant KPIs in our SEO and Social Media. We also found a free tool to help us convert the business plan into a working list of tasks and assign them to individuals. I would say if you are struggling with that, have a look at Trello. It has increased our teams’ productivity and enabled me as the business owner to share my vision like never before. We also liked the free stuff from Semrush, as this helped us research what would be the quick wins in implementing our digital marketing. Another tool we put in place using funding from the government was a CRM called Capsule. Again a game-changer for us in the way we operate, it delivered value immediately. The management skill I used to help manage our online marketing was outsourcing. Recognizing we lacked the skill set and bringing in an expert is the best thing we have done for sure; we are finally getting it done.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
David Cowell: We have many competitors, what is most interesting in our market is that there are over 2000 companies just selling promotional products in the UK, the size of the sector is over £1 Billion and about half of those sales sit with a handful of companies who dominate the market meaning there is real opportunity to grow our market share. So how do we compete? I can tell you it’s easy; we niche. Our business was founded punching above its weight because we knew how good we were. By 2012 we were one of the few UK companies that supplied the Olympics with printed promotional goods. We know our market, we know what works in a promo, we know how to get it done fast and, most importantly, in a creative and pleasing way, ensuring your products are kept for longer and have less impact on the environment. Self-belief mixed with knowledge and investing in training from the British Promotional Merchandise Association to validate our claims has helped us stay ahead of the game. We also try to think differently. We identified during lockdown that being based in London gives us more international reach, so we focused on that. We now regularly receive enquiries from the USA for orders to be delivered in the UK and the EU. I call it our “hands across the ocean” approach. Having acquired new skills learning how to operate effectively since the changes brought about by Brexit, I believe this additional revenue stream has enabled our business to flourish post-pandemic, so do not be frightened to niche. We launched the business in 2008 on sustainable promotional products when the world was not buying them and have been increasing our sustainable range ever since. The rest of our industry has now caught on, so we focus on the circular economy. We do not plan to stay in the game but to change the rules and lead the game. Most of our range now is either made in the UK or has other credentials that help the environment. We aim to deliver a report assisting our customers on their journey to net-zero carbon, offering a service to recycle our products at the end of their life, starting with one product, our name badges.
Your final thoughts?
David Cowell: Being a leader means taking risks and sometimes doing things differently. Sure there is a cost, but I believe there is a greater cost in not doing it. Use innovation to encourage more innovation, do not be frightened to niche in your marketing, and share your vision with your team at all levels. Nobody builds a business without having its team on board. This strategy has helped us carve out more visibility in a very competitive and saturated market. I hope it helps some of you do the same.