The following interview is an excerpt from my book Stick This – Using Promotional Stickers To Build Identity, Create Word Of Mouth and Grow Sales. It is one of several sticker business case studies of businesses and organizations using stickers effectively in their marketing campaigns, or in this case, starting a successful business selling stickers.
Chris Bucci was at a crossroad in his life back in 2003 when one night, staring blankly at a napkin he thought “my heart is here… my heart is in Oregon”. He sketched out the shape of Oregon and drew a heart in the middle – and from that simple thought and sketch a sticker company was born.
I asked Chris a few questions about his business, Heart Sticker – after all his entire line of “heart” stickers is based on the premise that people will want to display a badge (sticker) showing their pride for where they are from and to whom they are connected. People may pay for these branding stickers and display them as part of their own personal expression, but they are still very much “promoting” a place and a way of life.
Jeff: Tell us about the stickers you sell? How did you get started and how do you distribute them. Do you “make a living” just off stickers?
Chris: “I love it here!” is the simplest meaning behind all of our Heart in “State” designs. A heart that is placed in the shape of a state promotes the positive feelings people have for that place. In Oregon, we have seen one simple design unite hundreds of thousands of people and help them demonstrate the love they have for Oregon, their home. At Heart Sticker we aim to help others show their love for their special places, whether it is home or a place they love to visit.
I got started when I could not find a job and I decided to print 1500 stickers to sell person to person on the street in Oregon. These days I sell most of my stickers through stores – I wholesale my stickers to retail stores all over the country. Though many people are shocked when I tell them; yes, I fully support myself and my child off of sticker sales. It is the only thing I do for a living.
Jeff: Why do you think your sticker designs resonate with people in a way that they are willing to shell out a few bucks for them? Why wouldn’t an “I Love Oregon” bumper sticker have worked?
Chris: “I love Oregon” and those types of bumper stickers did exist, along with 100s of other I-“heart”-whatever stickers. And, they didn’t sell well. Our heart stickers are graphical representation that are simple, well designed and represent local Oregon culture with a green heart.
Jeff: It sounds like design is very important? Do you test designs in any way to get feedback on what will resonate?
Chris: Design is HUGE. And, so is the business side if you are selling for profit. Design, costs, target market, profit margin (for you and the reseller) are all combined. I test my designs against a bunch of criteria; size, shape, color, what it’s going on, durability, offensiveness, etc.
I have created and produced hundreds of sticker designs, only dozens of them have succeeded. I have stacks of old, bad sticker – hundreds of them. But, they move me toward better and better products. Sometimes success requires failure. When my initial batch of 5×4″ rectangular, green heart Oregon stickers arrived, it was time to sell to survive. I sold exactly zero. People were not only uninterested, I could not even give them away. Then a friend told me to cut out the extra white vinyl around the state border. It made all the difference. In my opinion the greatest value in sticker design comes from having a custom shape.
Jeff: This is a book about promotional stickers, do you consider your stickers “promotional”.
Chris: All Stickers are promotional – or shall we say, carry a message. Some messages make profitable products and some remain purely promotional, but a message or idea is being communicated either way. Our Heart in Oregon design is licensed to several organizations in the state for promotional purposes.
Jeff: What percentage of the stickers you sell do you think end up being displayed somewhere? I would think that a purchased sticker would have a much higher application rate than a freebie or giveaway. But, perhaps because it has a higher perceived value people don’t want to “use” them or have more trouble deciding where they should be placed?
Chris: 99% of my stickers are “stuck”, though I admit that’s a total guess. But, if someone is buying something, for themselves or a friend, they typically use it.
Jeff: As a company selling sticker, how do you market and promote? Do you use promotional stickers within your marketing plan or do you donate or distribute freebies for exposure?
Chris: I give a lot of sticker away – to shops, to people, to non-profits. It’s what has worked for me but it is weird to give my whole product away in hope of selling the same product. But let’s talk about what the product is – it is a sticker, and by nature it is promoting itself. If you see a sticker on a car everyday as you walk to work, you may see that sticker ten times a week. The impression might be that people are seeing a sticker hundreds of times, when really they are seeing the same ones over and over.
Whether it’s a Heart in Oregon, Heart in Vermont, a Heart in Oklahoma or any other state, these stickers speak to people who have roots in those places. So, out of the thousands of stickers I have given away, I always, give away two – “One to have and one to give, because giving is cooler then getting”. You should see the look of relief or excitement when they can share freely and stoke-out a friend.
Jeff: You mentioned to me in the past that businesses are “giving away stickers, that could be sold”. Why is that? And would you recommend having different versions of stickers so they can not only have a freebie gift but a higher value “product” for the true advocates and fans.
Chris: Stickers are mostly still used for promotion giveaways. I do see shops that are giving stickers away that could be sold. If a 50 cent promo sticker can help sell a $500 snowboard, why the heck not give them away? But, once the customer is in the retail store why give any stickers away? The solution is simple – “buy anything in our store and we’ll give you a sticker”. Or… just buy a sticker. Ron Jon Surf Shop has it down. I was buying a few things and they gave me a free sticker. The funny thing was I was buying only Ron Jon Stickers. So, I asked for a few more so I could stoke-out friends at home. I’m sure Ron Jon’s won’t mind the extra exposure in Oregon and I still gladly paid them for some of the stickers.
Jeff: You must need to evolve and stay up on latest public opinions with design and production methods. What do you recommend as far as working with designers and manufacturers? There are many options currently on line for “custom stickers”, unfortunately most of the options are not what businesses creating quality products or effective marketing tools really need.
Chris: Design for me is a two phase process. I recommend having your in house or local graphic designer create the initial design. This way you can capture the spirit of the design. Then have the sales agency or manufacturer finish or tweak the designs specifically with sticker production in mind. The printer knows the product and what works, what doesn’t, and how to get the best promotional power and value out of the medium. Of, course not all agencies and manufacturers have this extra level of service – most are just selling a commodity. We’ve worked very well, for a long time with Websticker. I have a great in-house creative designer but when it comes to the nuances of going to press and getting the most for our money, my finishing designer, Brian Neilson at Websticker is as important… if not more.
Jeff: Why do you think there are no books about promoting/marketing with stickers, and that in existing marketing books stickers are seldom mentioned?
Chris: Two reasons come to mind. One, political type stickers divide as much as they join folks, making them toxic to half the population. And two, Stickers are just a very underrated medium for delivering messages. When they are tried and tested at similar levels to other advertising mediums it will be a different story.
Jeff: Do you have any further advice or words of wisdom for companies trying to increase word-of-mouth and build identity and sales with stickers? Are there any “secrets” businesses should know?
Chris: Stickers are an art form, not a billboard. Go graphic and avoid text if possible. “More Mystery and Less History”. And, don’t forget to die cut.
The Take Away
- Whether stickers are given away or sold they are still promotional in nature and require planning and testing to be effective.
- The best branding stickers resonate with certain sub-cultures that people are proud to support and proclaim they are a part of. They want and will pay for the “badge”… if the badge fits.
- Stickers that are purchased are much more likely to be displayed and thus are the ultimate “free” marketing.
- Some retailers may be leaving money and sales incentives on the table due to improper planning or a lack of qualifying with their sticker programs.
- Effective sticker design (for promotion or sale) can require a team of professionals that understand the medium, how to design for the medium and how to get the best value out of available production methods.
- Stickers have power and can be used to either bring people together or push people apart. Make sure you are on the side of good… promoting a community or message that is inclusive not exclusive. Spread Love, Not War.