Up North Blog

CORPORATE GIFTING: The low-hanging fruit of Customer Relationship Management

Gift boxes sent to corporate clients can help build your brand, while also building relationships
and team pride among employees.

To gift or not to gift. That is the question.

Or is it?

When considering business gifting, maybe it isn’t a single question of whether or not to do it, but rather multiple questions. What time of year should our company send gifts? How much should I spend? What’s considered an appropriate gift? And perhaps most importantly, who should be on the all-important gift list?

A recent check-in with several Michigan businesses revealed that answers vary based on a variety of factors — including industry type, company size, and gifting philosophy. But every executive queried agreed on one main point: gifting is the key to building a solid and lasting business relationship. 

Let’s take a deeper dive and unwrap the tips for successful corporate gifting.

According to a Coresite Research study, the corporate gifting market is expected to reach $242 billion by the end of 2021 and top $300 billion by 2024, with almost 60 percent of respondents reporting that they plan to gift at the same levels or even more now than they did pre-pandemic. Why the increase? Coresite researchers found that “restricted interactions between colleagues and with prospects/clients have given rise to challenges in establishing or maintaining relationships.” 

And relationship-building is what it’s all about when it comes to gifting — especially during a global pandemic, says Bonnie Alfonso, founder and president of Traverse City, Michigan-based gifting and branding company Alfie Logo Gear. “The main reason to gift is to build a connection with your customers, with your vendors, and with your team members,” she says. And Alfonso should know. She founded her business — originally named Alfie Embroidery — in 1990 and has been successfully nurturing relationships with clients for 30+ years. Initially a supplier focused on providing high-quality, precision embroidered logowear, Alfie has grown into a wildly successful enterprise providing embroidery and screen printing services along with promotional gifts and swag to schools, athletic teams, B2B companies, the service industry, and more. “The only reason we exist is to build connections and generate pride,” Alfonso says.

“The only reason we exists is to build connections and generate pride.”

Bonnie Alfonso, Alfie Logo Gear

Relationship Management

Building connections, however, reaches beyond just client relationships. At Holland, Michigan-based software firm SpinDance, gifting is used to show appreciation to the company’s 40 employees, according to Program Manager Colleen Laskowski. “Showing appreciation to employees, building morale, instilling pride across the team, recognizing exceptional work, and encouraging good relationships across the company,” are the primary reasons for gifting. Another upside? “Adding some fun and surprise to the day-to-day,” she adds.

Breaking up the daily grind with fun surprises has been central to the success of Glen Arbor, Michigan-based Cherry Republic for more than 30 years. Founded in 1989 by Bob Sutherland, Cherry Republic got its humble start out of the trunk of Sutherland’s old red beater, where he sold cherry tree-emblazoned t-shirts and giant homemade cherry-oatmeal ‘Boomchunka’ cookies. The company’s primary mission was to support the Michigan cherry industry, which was struggling in the late ‘80s, and that mission remains intact today. But of equal importance has been Sutherland’s successful vision of creating a fun, whimsical work environment, as evidenced by the company’s stated values of ‘Life, Liberty, Beaches & Pie.’ In addition to providing perks like flexible work schedules, hefty product discounts, and epic team-building experiences, Sutherland often surprises staff with thoughtful quarterly gifts ranging from typical ‘swag’ (t-shirts, mugs, and pens) to premium gifts like high-end branded athletic wear or a solid cherry charcuterie board. “We are a gifting company,” Sutherland says of his specialty foods business that ships tens of thousands of gift boxes internationally each year, “so I understand how important it is to make people feel appreciated. There’s no better feeling than brightening someone’s day with an unexpected gift.” He adds that it’s even more crucial to make those connections during this period of remote working and Zoom calls. “Gifting lets your customers and staff know you’re still thinking of them — whether you see them in person or not.”

“Gifting lets your customers and staff know you’re still thinking of them — whether you see them in person or not.”

Bob Sutherland, Cherry Republic

Consumables vs Branded Gifts

While most companies agree on the benefits of giftings, knowing what to send or how much to spend can be a sticking point. Doug Bishop, retired from Bishop & Heintz in Traverse City, says that his former law firm tended to send out gifts mainly “around the holiday-time” each year, targeting their major clients, as well as clients that weren’t in the area and couldn’t attend their annual Christmas party. A decades-long customer of Cherry Republic, Bishop shares that he preferred sending gift boxes filled with local specialty foods as opposed to branded gifts that can sometimes tend to accumulate. “In my personal opinion, we never thought blanket mailings of little logo’d items were useful,” he shares. And his clients seemed to agree with him. “We heard back from our clients and got thank-you’s 95% of the time for their Cherry Republic gift.”

SpinDance’s Laskowski shares that their company often gives branded gifts throughout the year, but they also “like to mix it up for holiday gifting,” making a concerted effort to use made-in-Michigan products and support local businesses. They also set an annual gifting budget, adjusting it throughout the year depending on profits. “We do not gift to clients very often, but we do incorporate gifting to our employees. It’s part of our culture to show appreciation and team unity.”

At Ann Arbor-based engineering and consulting firm LimnoTech, Marketing Manager Amanda Flynn says that they like to send out their corporate gifts at the start of the new year, rather than in the midst of the busy holiday season. “It is a good time of year to take a minute to reflect back on the past year, to look ahead to the new year, and to thank our clients for the opportunity to work with them,” Flynn explains. She adds that the pandemic prompted the firm to change their gifting game plan a bit in 2020. “With COVID this past year and more people working from home, we did make more modifications than we have in the past. For clients working from home, we sent smaller gift boxes to more people, rather than one bigger box to a single office/firm where staff would likely have shared in the past.”

“For clients working from home, we sent smaller gift boxes to more people.”

Amanda Flynn, LimnoTech

Jim Craig, co-founder of the St. Joseph, Michigan-based marketing firm Conotext, supports the financial services industry. Because his firm work with banks and credit unions, it “limits the size of gifts they can receive,” Craig shares. In terms of what type of gift to send, “we gravitate toward food baskets because they’re sharable. They can share it in the office and not look like they’re playing favorites with their vendors.” His firm has also sent out “simpler gifts” like fancy holiday cards. “I’m a big believer that it’s the thought that counts,” he adds.

Set A Budget. And Mix Things Up.

Neither selecting the perfect gift nor setting a budget has to be overwhelming, advises Alfie Logo Gear’s Alfonso. The trick is to break it down based on what you are trying to accomplish with each gift. She suggests selecting different levels of gifts for different audiences and then doing a “self check” in terms of how much you’re going to spend. “If I were the recipient of this gift would I be excited or a little put out? If I got this gift would I use it myself or donate it?” she asks. “Purchase items you’d be excited to receive.” Alfonso once handed out little travel sewing kits with needles already threaded at an industry trade show. She received a note from a recipient saying, “You saved me! I was at a conference and lost a button and had to sew it back on.”

And in terms of branded vs. consumable gifts, Alfonso says both have their time and place. “It’s not one or the other. It depends on the event or situation, it depends on your audience, and it depends on your timing. Those all come into play.” Alfonso encourages her clients to be creative with their gifting, by combining two different items that compliment each other. “Put some Cherry Republic coffee beans into a branded mug, and then include a note about why you selected this particular gift.” Or go with a clever gift idea. She recalls sending bluetooth speakers to thank a client for a valuable referral along with the message, “Thanks for speaking so highly of us!” Rebranding? Send wireless headphones with the message, “We wanted you to be the first to hear our news!” Finally, make sure the gift you choose aligns with the recipient’s initiatives. “You might not want to send caramel corn to a healthcare company,” Alfonso counsels. “Maybe send dried cherries and nuts along with a branded water bottle that supports an active lifestyle and being healthy and active.” 

Finding Silver Linings

While the COVID pandemic has changed many aspects of the traditional working environment, not all of it has been negative. Forced physical separation has, in many ways, prodded companies to do a better job of expressing their appreciation for staff and clients. The Coresite Research study concluded that “remote working has increased the need for staying connected, in turn increasing the relevance of corporate gifting.” The study points to other positive factors, such as cost savings on overhead expenses like electricity and rent, that have freed up more funds for gifting. 

“I don’t think there could be a better time to establish a corporate gifting program than during these challenging times,” Sutherland says. “People are hungry to connect and be recognized for their efforts.”

And who couldn’t use a few pounds of dark chocolate covered cherries right about now?

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