Cloud-based Solution for the Promotional Products Industry: A whole new SKU

By: Yasmin Ranade

February 25, 2014

I recently interviewed RIGHTSLEEVE President and commonsku CEO, Catherine Graham, to learn more about a proprietary cloud-based business management platform, commonsku, used in her business to “power the promotional products industry.”  She spoke about the evolution of her back-end business needs in tandem with the evolution of consumer access to information as the catalyst to developing a game-changing, ordering and reporting solution for her promotional products business.

RIGHTSLEEVE is a Toronto-based promotional products agency helping companies establish emotional connections to their brand through merchandise (swag).

Catherine Graham, RIGHTSLEEVE President and commonsku CEO

Catherine Graham, RIGHTSLEEVE President and commonsku CEO

Q. Tell me about your business, RIGHTSLEEVE.

A.“RIGHTSLEEVE was started by my husband, Mark Graham, in the 1990’s during the early days of e-commerce and web.  When I joined, we were a small business with 5 employees. The back-end systems were a patchwork : coordinating print catalogues, excel orders, transactions and overall business activities were a challenge. There was a lack of affordable technology solutions available for small business at the time. [Large enterprise solutions, like] SAP [was] expensive and out of budget.”

“In the early 2000s, as the business started to grow, we knew we had to implement a business solution. I had spent a brief period at eBay Canada which was my first exposure to the software world.  Surrounding us at the time was the consumer technologyrevolution – Amazon, Facebook, Twitter – all of these things that were changing the face of the consumer web and driving collaboration and the fostering of relationships.  We wanted to transform our internal systems to be reflective of this experience in a business context.  We had been early adopters of the ecommerce and database driven websites and had always had a developer in-house.  So we decided to build a system from within that could accommodate the back-end complexity required to scale the business.”

“commonsku takes the best of business software, CRM, order management, e-commerce, accounting; and combines it with the principles of social networking, user-generated content, profiles, newsfeeds.”

“The result is a powerful mix of business productivity and communication across the promotional supply chain.”

Q. I was intrigued when I read about your passion to provide tech-related solutions for your business and for your clients. Can you tell me about your solution?

A. “The promotional products industry has been around a long time,” said Graham.

“Three years ago, we launched commonsku and opened it up to the supply chain within the promotional industry. commonsku provides transparency by sharing data between the manufacturers of the products and the distributors that sell the products.  Manufacturers are able to see how the distributors are interacting with their line – what products they are quoting or presenting and to what industries.  All of this is done in a sanitized way that protects client confidentiality.  The manufacturer is then able to use this insight to help the distributor sell.  The end result is better ideas and faster turnaround time for the client. .”

“The commonsku platform also features a Facebook-style News Feed stream of information that is shared between distributor to manufacturer and provides a communication hub internal to each company. This allows users to engage with this system-generated content to help internal collaboration in a very transparent way. The user experience supports the company’s belief that social media should live within the enterprise.”

Q. Tell me about your staff at RIGHTSLEEVE?

A. “We have young millennials in our team: they grew up with social; dialogue, transparency, response.  Being on Facebook, in fact, is part of their job,” said Graham.   With the internal news feed, they interact with colleagues internally and also across the supply chain in the same way they do in the consumer world.  This promotes engagement as well as fostering closer relationships with our supplier partners.

As commonsku is in the cloud, it enables the workforce to be mobile and gives them the flexibility to work when they want, where they want and how they want.  The transparency of information means they don’t have to be reporting on what they are doing, it is already visible on the news feed.  This provides a lot of freedom as people don’t have to be worried about face time.

Q. How much has the promotional marketing plan shifted to include interactive?

A. “The promotional industry as a whole is as important as any other industry [in the marketing arena].

“The promotional industry is based around relationships and a little friendly competition to provide the right solution,” said Graham. The industry was initially slower to adopt social media, but has embraced it over time.  The ability to engage customers in ongoing dialogue helps shape the understanding of the brand and a customer’s evolving marketing objectives.  I feel social media pairs brilliantly with digital and interactive as it is the ultimate physical extension of the brand.  It is the tangible way to create the long-lasting emotional connection with the customer.

Q. Where do you see promotional marketing heading in the future?

A. Graham responded, “It is an interesting time for the industry, as a whole. There has been an evolution from where it started – the ‘trinkets & trash perspective – to today where product quality is very important.”

The industry has evolved significantly to be in much closer step with retail trends.  It used to be that it would take 6 months before you would see a retail trend hit the promotional world, now it is often simultaneous.  The result is the availability of products that consumers actually want and are excited to receive.

As we see groundswell shifts in marketing budgets away from mediums like TV ads to more event-based grassroots initiatives, I believe we will see an increase in spending on promotional products.  Swag is a very cost effective medium with wide reach and an ability to establish an emotional connection that can have great longevity.

Q. If you had to focus on one tech-enabled solution for your clients tomorrow what would you recommend?

A. “We have created commonsku to be the business management platform to satisfy our clients who are very diverse and who have very different requirements” stated Graham.

“For the broader industry, the piece that ties everything together is the cloud. Cloud technology is totally changing how we work – from apps to Dropbox to daily communication.”

“I can see it being very impactful in 5 to 10 years in how businesses operate.”

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