LIVONIA, MI — It started in the late 19th century as a simple message printed on a burlap bag, used for transporting children’s schoolbooks. That idea spawned an industry that is pushing $15 billion in annual sales, doubling in size since the mid-1980s.

Hvacr contractors are very familiar with its products: hats, pens, magnets, jackets, mugs, calendars, etc. That’s right, it’s the ad specialty industry — imprinted promotional products, if you will. The industry is enjoying explosive growth, thanks to the popularity of products bearing the logos of businesses, sports teams, schools, etc.

Companies just can’t seem to get enough of them because these products are looked at as inexpensive ways to advertise a name or product. And it’s no secret which company contributed the most to the industry’s popularity.

Nike has successfully marketed its famous “swoosh” logo for several years, turning the industry upside down. In the past, companies would typically give away imprinted products in order to get free advertising. Now, people will pay hundreds of dollars to wear an article of clothing with a swoosh on it.

“Back when I started selling wearables you couldn’t sell a t-shirt with an imprint on it,” said Ken Kelsey, owner of Kelsey Advertis-ing Promotions, Inc. “Now an imprint has to be on hats, socks, even boxer shorts before someone will wear them.”

Kelsey has been selling ad specialties for 28 years in this western Detroit suburb, and his company is in the top 15% of the industry for sales. He says that 40% of his sales are now in wearables — and for good reason.

Walking Billboards

“Companies want their employees to wear products with their name on it during non-working hours, to become walking billboards,” he added. “In most cases, if employees like their jobs, they don’t mind wearing their company name on their clothing.”

Although many hvacr contractors already use a variety of imprinted products to market their business, such as calendars, refrigerator magnets, and pens, there is a growing need to “keep up with the Joneses” — to make sure that employees wear company clothing as often as possible.

Kelsey has some suggestions for keeping employees interested in their role as walking billboards.

It’s not uncommon for large companies to have imprinted product catalogs for employees to use if they want to purchase hats, shirts, jackets, etc. Many of these same companies have moved past the paper catalogs to electronic catalogs to show off their wares.

“I can create an online catalog for a specific company or industry,” said Kelsey. “It can be up and running in two to three weeks.”

Users can visit the company’s online catalog, choose a product they want, designate the size and color, and click on the order button. If the user wants to keep a copy of the order, the page can be downloaded to a printer.

With this information, consider the following scenario: A field service technician at a remote location needs to order a couple of new shirts. Instead of calling the central office and going through the procedure of ordering the products, the tech simply visits the company website and orders the shirts online, complete with shipping instructions.

A simple follow-up message confirming the order comes via e-mail, which Kelsey calls the “de facto way of communicating with customers.”

Here’s another scenario: Your sales staff is looking for a new way to market your company. They have two options. They can go to the company website and browse through a number of different items that they can leave with customers during sales presentations, perhaps a travel mug or a deck of playing cards, for example (both imprinted with the company name, of course).

Or the sales staff can visit an online seller of promotional products and choose from a variety of products specifically related to the hvacr industry or the customers they are trying to attract. And there’s never a shortage of products. “There are over a half a million imprinted products available today,” said Kelsey.

With an annual growth rate of over 13%, the imprinted products industry will continue to be a relatively inexpensive, highly visible way to promote goodwill and market a name, product, or service. If hvacr contractors are looking for a competitive edge, here is one industry to look at — if your competitor hasn’t already done so.

For more information on Kelsey Promotions Inc., visit the company’s website at, or contact Kelsey at (e-mail). For a brief history of the promotional products industry and ideas on how your company can use these products to market your business, visit

Publication date: 10/12/2000