Guidelines and Tips for Holiday Business Gifts

business giftsThe holiday season is approaching! Although the holidays are supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” many adults find the holidays stressful, with gift-giving topping the list.

As a small business owner, you have the extra burden of selecting gifts for your customers, employees, and service providers. Making these decisions can induce headaches, so we’ve compiled some guidelines and tips to ease the pain of selecting holiday business gifts.

Guidelines for Holiday Business Gift Giving

Choosing gifts for clients, employees, and service providers can be challenging. Balancing budget and time constraints with thoughtfulness and appropriateness isn’t easy. These guidelines will keep you on the right path.

  • Avoid gifts that are too personal or can be misconstrued—such as lingerie, perfume, or jewelry.
  • Avoid giving gifts if you’re involved in a bidding process—whether someone wants to do business with your company or vice versa.
  • Avoid giving cheap promotional items with your company’s logo on them. These “gifts” are seen as advertising and are insulting to receive. It is better to give no gift than a cheap, thoughtless gift. If you use a company logo on business gifts, make sure it is tastefully done and doesn’t look like an ad.
  • Be aware that many companies have policies on the amount and types of gifts that employees can accept. Expensive gifts may be prohibited or put the gift recipient in an uncomfortable position. If you have doubts, consult with the HR department for guidance. Most companies permit employees to accept token gifts, usually valued at $25 or less.
  • Be sensitive to religious beliefs. Not everyone celebrates Christmas! Although December is a traditional time for gift giving, make sure the sentiment and gifts are appropriate for everyone. Many businesses focus on the new year to keep things more general. For example, thank customers for their business during the past year and your hope for a continued relationship in the new year.

Determining A Gift Budget

Your company’s finances will determine the gift budget. If your bottom line isn’t healthy, don’t feel obligated to give gifts—that isn’t good business! A thoughtful, hand-written card expressing your thanks is acceptable and has more value than a generic box of candy.

Most companies start with a set budget amount to spend on gifts. In this case, the amount spent per gift will be determined by how many gifts need to be purchased.

For example, suppose your gift budget is $1,000, and you’ve decided to spend $500 on employee gifts, $400 on customers gifts, and $100 on service providers. You would now create a list of everyone in each category who will be receiving a gift. Be sure to write it down. Don’t rely on your memory alone! You then divide the budgeted number by the number of recipients in each category to get a price range for gifts.

Things to remember when determining your gift budget:

  • When determining the cost of the gift, remember to include the costs of customization, tax, wrapping, tags, cards, shipping, and delivery. It adds up quickly!
  • You can deduct no more than $25 of the cost of business gifts you gave directly or indirectly to each person during your tax year.
  • A “one size fits all” budget may not always work. You may want to adjust gift amounts depending on the relationship. However, use caution with this approach, especially when giving gifts to employees. For more detailed guidance, see the tips sections below.

Tips for Client Gifts

Most companies give gifts to their clients once a year during the holidays to thank them for their business and maintain the relationship. Although there are no fixed guidelines for dollar amounts, many small businesses use this formula:

  • $100+ gift amount for clients that gave $15,000+ in business
  • $50 to $100 gift amount for clients who gave between $10,000 and $15,000 in business
  • $25 to $100 gift amount for clients who gave less than $10,000 in business.

Other factors include how long you’ve been in business with the client and how many times they have referred your company.

When choosing a gift for your most important clients, use information you’ve gathered during the relationship to select a personalized gift. Do they play golf? Perhaps a golf-related gift is appropriate. Did they mention being a fan of a local sports team? Maybe tickets to an upcoming game would be a good choice.

The key is thoughtfulness combined with appropriateness. You don’t want to give a gift that is too expensive, but you don’t want to skimp either. Appropriate gift ideas for clients include:

  • Food or fruit baskets
  • Flowers or plants
  • Scarves or ties
  • Tickets to events or performances
  • Briefcase or leather portfolio.

The thought and personalization accompanying a gift are as important as the gift itself. Be sure to include a handwritten card or gift tag with the gift. In-person delivery is another way to show your commitment to the relationship.

If your business is a retail business with many customers, consider a “gift substitute,” which can include things such as:

  • An open house with food and drinks
  • A discount coupon for future purchases
  • A “friends and family” discounted shopping day
  • A greeting card with a gift-like item, such as a calendar.

Be creative and have fun with it! The gift substitute is meant to thank your customers for their business in a meaningful and thoughtful way.

Tips for Employee Gifts

Most employees expect a token of appreciation near the holidays. For employee gifts, the key is to give the same gift or similar gifts of the same value to avoid perceptions of favoritism or unfairness. Employees will talk amongst themselves!

One solution is to give bonuses, which most employees prefer to a gift. Bonus amounts can vary depending on the employee. Also, bonus amounts are confidential because they are considered to be compensation.

If you don’t have the budget for employee bonuses, give a gift that appeals to everyone, such as a gift certificate to a nearby lunch spot or a gift basket filled with goodies. Just be sure the value is the same for everyone!

A personalized card expressing thanks and appreciation should be included with any gifts. Take a moment to recognize hard work and dedication to the company—employees will appreciate it!

Tips for Service Provider Gifts

Service providers include the people who provide services to your company on a regular basis—postal workers, UPS or FedEx drivers, janitorial services, virtual assistants, consultants. Be sure to make a list to ensure that you don’t forget anyone.

The gift amount will depend on your relationship and what type of services they provide. For example, a gift for a consultant will be more generous and personalized than the gift for your UPS driver.

Most delivery drivers cannot accept cash or gifts outside specific ranges.

  • USPS Mail Carrier: can accept non-cash gifts valued at up to $20
  • UPS Driver: can accept non-cash gifts valued up to $25
  • FedEx Drivers: can accept non-cash gifts valued at up to $75

If you’re giving to a group rather than an individual (such as a cleaning crew), give a gift that can be shared, such as a basket filled with goodies.

Again, a handwritten card expressing your appreciation should be included, with or without a gift. Even if the physical gift is small and unassuming (such as a small bag of coffee or box of chocolates), include a personal note with it.


Hopefully, this article will help reduce your stress as you navigate the tricky task of giving business gifts. Remember, the most critical part is to express your thanks and appreciation in a thoughtful note. The gift itself will depend on your budget and relationship with the recipient. However, the heartfelt sharing of your thanks and appreciation is free and always of value.

How to Use Storytelling to Market A Business

storytelling to market a businessOne of the latest trends in marketing isn’t so new after all—as Forbes writer Steve Olenski points out. It’s storytelling—and it’s as ancient as humankind itself.


The world’s great religions, after all, used story to get their point across, as did ancient philosophers—like Socrates. So did cave people, as drawings uncovered by archaeologists reveal.


Done well, story is one of the most powerful ways to convey a message. A business can put storytelling to good use as it creates its brand identity, tells its brand story, and tells customers how its products and services can help them solve tough challenges.


In other words, just what the world’s wise men and women have been doing for time immemorial. Here are some ways you can leverage the power of storytelling to market your business.


Define The Brand


A brand has what Olenski calls a “personality.” That which makes it unique. That which attracts others to it. The company culture as others see it.


Use stories to weave your company’s personality into your advertising and marketing strategy. Look to some of the most successful brands on the globe to see how they’ve woven story into their marketing.


  • Progressive Insurance is a quirky, yet customer-centric company that has catapulted from its tiny Mayfield, Ohio office to become a force to be reckoned with throughout the U.S. Through clever ads starring their spokesperson, “Flo,” they create humorous scenarios that show them helping their clients recover after near-disasters.


  • The Celgene Corporation, makers of Otezla®, an oral psoriasis medication, create commercials that feature people who—before they took the medication—feared to go swimming, wear sleeveless clothing, and do other activities that required them to expose the affected areas of their skin. With few words, the story is powerful. A mother taking her daughter to the swimming pool for the first time. A woman trying on a beautiful dress.


  • My Pillow, a startup manufacturer based in Minnesota, creates ads that not only tell the story of how its founder, Mike Lindell, developed his product to help him beat his own insomnia, but also how his pillows help others get better sleep.


These are, of course, only examples—but show how powerful storytelling can be when a company uses it to stamp its brand with its unique personality. Spend a couple of evenings watching TV for the ads, and you’ll find plenty of inspiration to create your own.


Create Stories that Put The Brand, Products in the Hero Role


You may not think of your company as a superhero, but to the customers that it helps solve their most pressing problems, it is. Look at all the ways the company helps its customers and craft a marketing strategy that tells these customers’ stories.


  • Liberty Mutual Insurance, a company who offers accident forgiveness to people for their first auto crash, features ads that tell their customers’ stories—from a teenage boy who assured his parents that their rates wouldn’t go up from his fender-bender to the husband who brags to his wife that their insurance company was more forgiving than she was. Liberty is your hero—is the consistent message that emerges from every piece of content the company puts out.


  • Coca-Cola has done the impossible—making a soft drink into a hero—with ads dating back to the iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” to today’s ground-breaking ad. In it, a woman sees a thirsty woman at the end of her Ramadan fast, buys two Cokes, and as the sun sets, they enjoy the energy-boosting, thirst-quenching power that can build cultural bridges. And diffuse temper tantrums. Their 1979 ad featuring Pittsburgh Steeler star “Mean Joe” Greene shows the athlete about to blow a gasket after a bad game. A little boy offers him a Coke. Tantrum diffused, Super Bowl-bound athlete refocused—all because of a Coke.


Let your brand be the hero—and watch the dollars pour in.


Use Emotion-Driven Stories to Drive the Point Home


A company can, of course, create marketing materials that describe their products flawlessly, point out all the benefits, yet miss the mark entirely. That’s because their ads are yawnfests.


Pull the audience’s emotions into the ad, and the same company can discover marketing magic.


Instead of listing ingredients and telling how, for example, a certain brand of makeup can cover skin blemishes, tell a story everyone can relate to—something that tugs at the heartstrings.


A teenage girl. It’s prom night. A pimple erupts.


Which of us over the age of 16 couldn’t relate to that? We’re hooked.


The girl, of course, applies XYZ brand foundation, the pimples disappear, and it’s love at first sight when her crush meets her at the door. Emotion. A powerful force that sells.


Here are some real-life examples:


  • UPMC has one of the most powerful ads on the market today. A line of people, standing in the rain, waiting for liver transplants—in other words, waiting for a donor to die.


  • Another person comes along, takes the hand of one person in line—leading him away from the waiting line. Soon, another comes along. Cut to surgeons performing an operation. The narrator explains that there’s a new procedure—living donors. UPMC, of course, is one of the few hospitals in the country who specialize in this procedure. The story, of course, ends with the donor and recipient, holding hands after the surgery in which part of the donor’s liver is transplanted into the recipient’s body. Kleenex-worthy.


  • Shriners Hospital, too, is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the heartstrings. Who wouldn’t melt at tiny Alec Cabacungan, a charming, squeaky-voiced teen with brittle bone disease? Looking much younger than his age, Alec read “The Night Before Christmas, changing up the words a bit to fit the narrative as the camera panned around the hospital, showing all the kids donors’ gifts helped. His squeaky voice, plus his million-dollar smile, helped tug on the heartstrings over the holidays, bringing in donations galore to the charity hospital as he told story after story of the hospital’s success.


Stories. As old as the hills, yet more effective than almost any other marketing strategy. Tell your company’s story—and watch your customers grow.

Branding Basics for a New Business

branding basics for a new businessWhen a business starts out, its owners may focus so much on the manufacturing, sales, and legal aspects of its work that it doesn’t set itself apart from its competition by a distinctive brand. Many owners feel as if the merchandise and services themselves will set the business apart.


Rarely so. If customers cannot find the product because it cannot remember the business’s name, its logo, or other distinctive characteristics, they may become frustrated and buy another company’s product.


Before the first products hit the shelf, before the prototype design becomes reality, a business needs to have a vision for what it stands for. What its products and services will do for its customers is half the equation; the rest is the image it wants to convey to its target customers—its promise to deliver.


As the startup experts at Entrepreneur put it, “It [your brand] tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from your competitors’.”


A Brand Must Reflect the Heart of the Business


A brand should reflect who the business is. Its values—its reason for being in business in the first place. It should even reflect the types of customers that it wants to attract.


For instance, is your company an innovative, tech-forward business that wants to help like-minded businesses incorporate the latest technological breakthroughs? Or, is the company a conservative, traditional one that wants to stay in business for a lifetime and beyond, due to its dependable, attentive customer service. Is it trying to corner the market in discounted merchandise or services—or is it trying to attract a more elite clientele?


Here’s a checklist of tasks to help you pin down your brand identity:


  • Define your business’s mission.
  • Write down the features and benefits of your services or products.
  • Ask some of your customers and prospective customers what they think about your products and services.
  • Write down the values do you want people to associate with your business.


The answers to the questions stated above—and what you write down on the checklist–can help you formulate your brand image. Do in-depth research as you explore what should go into your brand. Don’t assume. Ask prospective customers what they think—not what they think you want them to say.


At that point, you can nail down the company’s brand image.


Choose a Logo that Conveys the Brand’s Image


The next step, then, is to choose a logo that conveys the company’s brand image. The right logo can make or break a brand. The adage, “A picture speaks a thousand words” goes double when it’s a logo.


Look at some of the logos for famous brands before the brainstorming process ever begins. Why are they so successful at conveying their company’s brand image? When you do that, you can start to put into words what you want in a logo.


Don’t worry if you don’t have a graphic designer on staff like the big corporations do. If you plan to have promotional material—packaging, wearable gear, or even business cards—the company to whom you outsource that work usually has an on-staff designer that will work with you to convey your brand image while staying under budget.


Design a Brand Strategy to Promote the Brand


Once you have the logo hammered out, work on a brand strategy. Brand strategy is all about positioning the company’s products and services, so the right people can find them. Targeted marketing, perhaps, is a better word.


Unlike untargeted marketing, a brand strategy chooses beforehand how the company will introduce its products, advertise them, and the places and ways in which it will do so.


Stay true to the brand voice—the company image. Think about where and how the company’s target customers would most often find new products and services. Think about how they would like to receive the information.


For example, a discount firm wouldn’t find many prospective new customers by advertising in Vogue—but on an online coupon forum like Groupon—it might find pure gold.


The message, too, matters. Language and imagery that conveys high quality, pricey surroundings, and luxury accommodations would be perfect to advertise a high-end bottle of wine. For a casual beermaker, fans cheering at a rollicking football game would be a better setting for its ads.


The more targeted and consistent the branding, the stronger the image the company’s brand etches in its customers’ minds. As the brand grows in reputation, the higher price its products and services can command, provided the quality matches the brand’s promise.


Influencers can Give the Brand a Needed Bump


Later on in the process, your company may want to enlist the help of influencers. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, these persons or companies don’t have to be celebrities or otherwise well-known apart from their niche.


For example, if you’re a saddle-maker who targets the equestrian market, you’ll get a bigger bump out of a Jessica Springsteen endorsement than one from her famous musician father, Bruce. Influencers only need to be change-makers within their circles. Famous relatives not required.


Once It’s in Place, Saturate Your Business with It


Once you have your identity, your logo, and your message, make sure that every aspect of your business communicates your brand. Integrate your brand into how your employees answer the phone, your email headers and signatures, your business cards—even what you and your employees wear at work and out in public.


Create a memorable tagline that encompasses all your brand stands for. Use it on all your advertising. If you can’t come up with one on your own, jot down some ideas and get a copywriter to pull those thoughts together into a catchy line.


Stay Seen and Stay Consistent


On the web, ensure that your brand gets seen by all the right people by optimizing your website, social media, and all your online advertising for search. Local targeting helps, particularly if your business is primarily limited to your region. In online advertising, narrow down your target audience to only those demographics that lend themselves to your products or services.


Finally, stay consistent. Once you’ve settled on a brand image, stick with it. Don’t expect overnight success. Once people become familiar with it, your brand will act as a signpost to guide people into buying your goods and services.

How to Enjoy Promoting A Business When on a Budget

promoting a business when on a budgetAs The Balance‘s Susan Ward puts it, “business promotion is to running a successful business as practicing scales is to playing the piano well…” A tedious activity, in other words, but fundamental to success. In fact, Ward recommends that business owners devote one hour per day to promotional activities.


It doesn’t have to be tedious, though. Business owners—even those on a budget–can find effective marketing activities that are actually pleasant—even fun! Here are some ideas to get you started:


1. Get the Word Out—Don’t Depend on Others to Toot Your Horn


While there’s profound truth behind the old Maori proverb touting humility, “The kumara (sweet potato) never talks about how sweet it is,” people will never know about the benefits a product can bring them unless they experience them firsthand.


  • Free samples: That means it’s up to the business owner and employees to show potential customers how they will benefit from the product. For the sweet potato—or other consumable products, for that matter—free samples might be a great way to go. If those free samples come with a card listing the nutritional and taste benefits, customers can see for themselves. One doesn’t have to brag to get the word out. Just show others the benefits through free samples, free introductory sessions or lessons, or other freebies that can demonstrate products and services’ superiority.


  • Reviews: Ask satisfied customers to write reviews about your product. When you frame it as helping others discover the benefits, it puts them in the power position—one in which they can grant help.


  • Informative articles: Instead of making yourself or your business the hero, try making the products and services you offer the hero. That way, the company won’t seem like a braggart, yet can provide useful information that can help potential customers solve their most challenging problems by using your product or service.


  • Web content focused on benefits: When social media and the company website sound like a cheesy late-night TV advertisement about how great the company is, people turn it off. Instead, brag about what the company can do for its customers. Focus on the benefits, and people will flock to buy the company’s offerings.


Always Be Branding


It’s important for a business—especially a new one—to build and maintain a certain image for itself. This process, called branding, must permeate all the business’s activities—especially in marketing and advertising.


  • Logos and contact information: Use logos and contact information in all communication: It doesn’t cost much to design a logo that communicates the essence of your business. Use that logo—together with the business’s address, website, and contact information on each piece of communication the business sends out. Images are powerful. Just ask Nike.


  • Targeted brand-focused promotions: When a business is on a budget, it needs to use its marketing budget wisely. No matter how tempting, advertise only on platforms that complement the brand. For example, if the business offers gourmet food, it shouldn’t advertise on platforms geared toward fast food consumers. Athletic wear stores would do well by advertising in high school athletic programs and charity runs, while real estate companies would benefit from advertising on home improvement platforms.


  • Use promotional gear that reflects the brand: Though T-shirts are popular, budget-friendly promotional wear for athletic and more casual businesses, a polo shirt with a tailored logo might be a better bet for more serious, high-end firms, such as business law companies, diamond sellers, and exclusive resorts. Finely designed pens with writing in chiseled gold letters work well for boutique design companies, while children’s party businesses would do better with colorful plastic pens emblazoned with smiley faces in bold white.


Use Social Media to Spread the Word


Again, use these avenues to give customers a heads-up on upcoming promotions, sales, and other opportunities to grab a great deal. Show, don’t tell. A couple munching down on your signature filet mignon for two over a glass of wine is worth a thousand words bragging about how wonderful your steaks are.


  • Use videos to inform and entertain: If the product or service your business offers has complicated directions or is difficult to use, provide videos that break down the directions step by step. If a business offers music, dance, or sports lessons, post videos of the teachers’ and students’ performances.


  • Photos sell merchandise: Use Instagram to display your products in their best light. Make sure the photos are of fine quality, and chances are, others will share the photos with their contacts, helping to spread the word.


  • Seize the moment: Turn challenges into triumphs with timely posts. If the power goes off in most of the town, but your business still has power, post that on social media. If a company sells bottled water, send out teams into the town offering free bottles of water to help residents cope with the basic necessities until the power goes back on. If a longtime favorite business’s owner retires, leaving a gap in services, see if your business can offer the same service or product—and then spread the word through social media.


Press Releases Grab Local Attention


Although a press release must strictly avoid blatant self-promotion, it can help draw attention to a business through timely news. If the business just received an award—or has an event coming up that can benefit the public, it’s a great idea to create a press release to let local news outlets know.


Use standard press release formats: Use proper formatting to create the press release; otherwise, many journalists will ignore it. There are plenty of online examples of the proper format—so don’t neglect this important step.


Make it newsworthy: Try to tie in the press release with current events or local need. If the press release only tells about a new product for sale and doesn’t tell why it will benefit people, it won’t see the light of day. Seasonal offerings, too, can be newsworthy and also promote a business, as long as it ties in with public interest.


With these low-cost promotional strategies, even a small business just starting up can compete with established businesses in their niche.

How to Market a Summer Business Come Wintertime

marketing a summer business in the winterIt’s summer now—and business is booming. Whether it’s surfboards, swimming lessons, gas grills, or other summer-oriented merchandise and services, summer is the peak season for the business. Unless the staff plans a mass vacation to parts south over the winter, it’s time to plan what to do to keep the business humming even when the snow’s flying. Here are some ideas:


Think Outside the Box to Find Services and Products That Work in Winter


For instance, a company that provides swimming lessons should think about finding an indoor venue to keep instruction going all year long. Hotels with indoor pools may have some off-peak times—and for a little rent money, may rent out the pool for swimming lessons for the locals, as they do for lap swims.


A company that sells surfboards or water skis may try selling snowboards and snow skis, particularly if there are a lot of people in their city who go off to the mountains for winter weekend jaunts.


As for the gas grill manufacturer, find ways to encourage people to grill year-round. Toasty marshmallows for the holiday carolers—perfectly grilled steaks for Valentine’s Day—use imagination to create a market for the product that can enjoy it in the winter as well. Rebrand the product as a winter favorite as well, and watch sales soar.


Keep Interest High in the Main Product with Newsletters and a Blog


Even as the company looks for ways to create products and services that sell in the winter, it can keep its customers excited about its summer products with exciting newsletter articles and informative blog posts. Swimsuit sellers can do blog posts on the coming season’s styles. In fact, hold a fashion show to get customers excited about the coming warm season. Have a drawing—in which the prize is a mid-winter getaway to somewhere warm.


Swimming instructors can write blog posts that teach students how to keep their swimming muscles in shape over the winter. Exercises that serious swimmers can do out of the water can help them prepare both physically and mentally about the coming season.


Do Plenty of Pre-Season Promotion


Don’t let the winter holiday seasonal businesses beat the summer businesses to the punch. With winter holiday promotional advertising starting earlier and earlier every year, summer businesses can take a cue from these savvy business owners. The minute the ball drops on the New Year should be the time summer businesses begin gearing up for the coming warm weather.


Whether it’s promotional hoodies or YouTube videos displaying warm beaches, sultry bikinis, and glowing tans to promote a self-tanning product or a beach-ready exercise program, use the power of promotion to get customers thinking summer.


Use Social Media to Build Emotion and Anticipation


Encourage your company’s followers to share their experiences over the past summer. Ask them what they are looking forward to in the next summer. Get people on the company’s email and regular mailing lists—so when summer comes, they’ll come your way. If the company is able, offer summer-themed contests with appropriate prizes—whatever it takes to get people thinking warm.


With these tips, a summer-focused company can create buzz—even business—for itself all year long.