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Dye-Sublimation: A Colorful Burst of Personality

How fortunate are we to make and sell products that inherently, and without nudging, stir deep emotion within our customers? The average marketing executive who struggles each day to stir up consumer devotion to, say, a kitchen device or an athletic shoe must regard feel-good awards and personalization products as the golden egg of advertising just for having that intrinsic hold on customers.

Dye-Sublimation: A Colorful Burst of Personality

Experienced Sublimators Share the Secrets of Their Success

By Jane Martinsons

(Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Recognition Review.)

How fortunate are we to make and sell products that inherently, and without nudging, stir deep emotion within our customers?

The average marketing executive who struggles each day to stir up consumer devotion to, say, a kitchen device or an athletic shoe must regard feel-good awards and personalization products as the golden egg of advertising just for having that intrinsic hold on customers.

Now add to this a colorful burst of personality that sublimation brings to growing lines of awards and personalization products—an eye-catching logo or graphic; heart-felt text; a digital image of one of life’s milestones: a birth, a groom’s first sight of his gorgeous bride, a favorite photo of a deceased loved one—and it’s clear that sublimation comes with emotional strings, but of the good variety, the type that sells.

The (Sales) Power of Emotion

Indeed, Awards and Personalization Association retailers say that although they may think about long-term marketing plans, they mainly rely on easy word-of-mouth marketing to move sublimated products. They find that they don’t need to promote items that come fully customized to spread joy, love (think mousepad with a photo of your kids), and heart-felt appreciation.

Annette Coffin of Broadway Awards in Minneapolis, MN, says that sublimation constitutes “a small but very important” part of her business, one she sees growing in coming years. She clearly understands sublimation’s emotional draw, particularly when photos are featured. After completing a sizable corporate order of sublimated plaques, she suggested giving the executive of the company a plaque that featured a photo of him kayaking. As expected, it went over big, garnering repeat business. That’s why she continues to feature memorable images, such as a handshake, on plaques.

“My customers always tell me that they’re looking to make their awards special,” said Ron Chapellaz, owner of Chapellaz Trophies in St. Francois Xavier, Manitoba, Canada. “I don’t want to hand little Johnny on the soccer team just a simple trophy. I want him to go home and have a wow moment. That’s why I will always try to put sublimation into that mix”— adding a logo, name, or uniform number, he said. “Sublimation goes so well at enhancing what the industry already gives us.”

Chapellaz says the emotional connection to customized products is “huge” for his sports, school, and corporate clients. For Realtors®, for example, he offers coffee mugs that celebrate the 1-year anniversary of a home sale by featuring photos of both the house and the real estate agent’s business card. “If you can have (clients) remember you long after the moment is gone, they’ll recommend you to others. It’s a simple little thing, but if you can make that heart-to-heart connection with customers, it speaks volumes,” Chapellaz said.

Debbie Wheaton of All American Awards in Arlington, TX, recalls her own family being brought to tears when she gave her young niece a confirmation gift—a beautiful sublimated ChromaLuxe display with a prayer highlighted in subtle shades of purple, her niece’s favorite color.

“Awards make you feel good, but using color lets us make it even more personal,” Wheaton said. “It touches your heart and makes you happy.”

Tips from Retailers

These Awards and Personalization Association retailers speak glowingly of sublimation and say they expect that portion of their business to expand. Laser engraving is still their bread-and-butter business, but they’ve witnessed a shift in recent years toward sublimated products, including pet memorials, wedding accessories, apparel, and mugs. Wheaton, for instance, said that 10 years ago she had one standing order for gold and black sublimated plaques. Today, her varied product line of sublimated sports, corporate, and school plaques; wedding packages; and exquisite gift items makes up 30% of her business.

Likewise, Ron Strowger of Engraving Emporium Inc. in Longview, WA, has seen the sublimation side of his business climb from 10% to 30% in just 3 years; he hopes it will rise to 40%. His odds are good, judging by plans to provide large-format sublimated wall panels to a national supplier of metallic-coated and prepainted steel. “We find that the polyester coating on metal roofing and interior-decorator lines really takes well to sublimation,” he said.

Sublimated products have the power to evoke emotion and memory, as Ron Chapellaz’s mouse pad does.

Engraved Image has produced more than 4,000 sublimated mugs for a hospital chain.

The local business community learns of their business’s sublimated products through word-of-mouth, said Matt Hart, CRS, a member of his local Chamber of Commerce.

“If you can have them remember you long after the moment is gone, they’ll recommend you to others,” Ron Chapellaz said.

What advice do these experienced sublimators have for their fellow Awards and Personalization Association retailers, particularly newcomers to the process?

  1. Realize that sublimation is affordable.
    “It’s easy for the average retailer to get into sublimation,” said Matt Hart, CRS, of Engraved Image in Temperance, MI. Attendees at our association’s 2015 show in Las Vegas voted Engraved Image’s work as the best sublimated product in the retailer category. The Harts took home four Clear Obelisks for outstanding products in 2014! The only equipment purchases required for sublimation are printers and heat presses. “It’s not very high-cost. You don’t have a big outlay like you do to buy (other industry equipment),” Hart said. “I think it makes it easy to enter that market. If you’re not doing sublimation now, do it.”

  2. Take advantage of helpful and readily available education and tech support.
    “If you’re just getting into sublimation, take your time and do lots of research because there are so many different (printer) systems out there,” said Chapellaz, who has offered sublimation for 12 years. “Make sure that, no matter which printer you buy and which ink company you buy from, you have great tech support. You are going to need their help.”
    Coffin is highly appreciative of her suppliers’ ongoing tech support, instruction, and patience as she learns tricks of the trade for applying color and shades of black through sublimation.
    “Knowing the substrate you’re working with and the settings used and applied for that substrate is key to sublimation success,” Chapellaz said. Suppliers of equipment and consumables can help you determine those settings to eliminate spoilage.
    Both Coffin and Chapellaz strongly recommend that retailers take advantage of sublimation education at our association’s Awards & Personalization Expos. “The Las Vegas trade show has the best classes,” Coffin said. “I go there and love to see my vendors and new products, but the most important thing about the show is the classes. No one else offers special classes like that. Where can you get classes for 4 days straight on CorelDraw, laser engraving, sandblasting, and sublimation?”
    Chapellaz also urges retailers to take advantage of webinars and the Member2Member Forum to get real-time expert advice on sublimation from fellow members at www.AwardsPersonalization.org.

  3. “I have a really good following with car clubs, and we work hard with them all year long,” said Ron Strowger of Engraving Emporium Inc. in Longview, WA. He is a self-described car guy and his family owns a wrecking yard.

    “A huge percentage of people have pets,” says Annette Coffin of Broadway Awards in Minneapolis, MN. She is considering extending her reach into the pet-product line. “It is a big market to get into.”


  4. Find your niche and run with it.
    Strowger, a self-described avid and lifelong car guy, attends 12–16 car shows annually. It’s no coincidence that his most popular sublimated products are car dash plaques, car show awards, and large car-related plaques. “I have a really good following of car clubs, and we work hard with them all year long,” he said. “We pull together people (locally) and work with artisans to supply us graphics for T-shirts, which is one of our biggest products. This way, car clubs aren’t paying twice, the graphics are already done, and everything matches.”
    Though Chapellaz isn’t a car aficionado, dash plaques and “people’s choice” plaques are big sellers for him at car shows. It wasn’t always that way; he didn’t even know what a dash plaque was until a local acquaintance showed him one and he realized he could make them easily given that he already had the materials, equipment, and know-how.
    Wheaton’s local niche market is a university, located literally around the corner from her in Arlington. There, Wheaton’s scope of work exploded from on-campus event and activity awards to colored name badges by the thousands for school departments. Now, she offers name badges as popular gift items to corporate clients. Last year, she added Christmas ornaments as gifts—an idea that snowballed so quickly that she plans to spread good cheer with it again this holiday season. She has also added wedding packages that include gifts and table decorations with photos of the wedding party and parents of the happy couple.
    “Everyone has a niche market,” she said. “The opportunities are endless for the use of color on awards, gift items, and different products. Don’t underestimate the potential applicability to any market.”

  5. Understand your market.
    Chapellaz stresses that sublimation is full of opportunity. “When I first got into sublimation, I didn’t realize the wide scope of things you could do with it. After researching a bit, I realized how many more items can be sublimated, and that there are always new products coming out. I suggest staying on top of it and finding out what’s new that is coming out; you might find something that’s a goldmine.”

  6. Follow your passion.
    Just as Strowger loves cars, Coffin loves to rescue pug dogs. Her passion has led her to enter the lucrative pet industry. She makes memorial urns with photos of beloved pets and donates dogbone-shaped keychains to her pug rescue organization, which sells them to raise funds. Coffin plans to expand into other sublimated pet products, such as water and food bowls, in the next 5 years.

  7. Be forward-thinking.
    Hart notes today’s reality of quick, affordable, and easy-to-use printers and heat presses have little in common with the decades-old, often headache-inducing process of sublimation. “Sublimation is something that the customers want, and the technology has really come up to speed on this,” he said. “You can’t be locked into thinking, ‘I’m only going to do diamond drag engraving or laser engraving.’ You will only service a very small portion of (customers that way). Sublimation is just another facet of our field.”
    Strowger agrees. “Sublimation is a wonderful market for getting full, multicolor color depth and for cost (savings) because it’s not very expensive to produce,” he said. “Not only that, but with the ChromaLuxe aluminum line, the finishes for portraits are spectacular. We’re working with photographers to print 16-in.-by-20-in. (panels), as big as our presses will go, and the portraits are beautiful.”
    Going forward, he hopes sublimatable UV-safe aluminum signage will be available. “I think that with new coatings, the UV rating is going to be the next big thing in terms of quickness and durability,” he said. “If we can guide ourselves in that direction,” that market is sure to grow outdoors.

  8. Enjoy your work!
    The most important thing is to remember that sublimation is fun, Wheaton said. “Sublimation and all four-color processes are changing the industry in such a positive way,” she said. “It’s giving us a lot to work with. In my mind, it’s a lot of fun. There are so many products to choose that now it’s just ‘pick your pie!’”

Why Sublimate?

If you’ve missed Awards and Personalization Association seminars and webinars presented by Jimmy Lamb of Sawgrass Technologies, here are some sublimation takeaways.

  • A product that features a photo or custom image typically has more perceived value as high-end gift product.
  • Focus on emotional aspects, as seen through the eyes (and heart strings) of the customer.
  • To preserve memories with digitally decorated products, focus on pictures first and graphics second.
  • Stating that you produce good quality products at a great price is not an exciting sales approach. Everything you say and do must be focused on filling a need for that customer! Rather than selling sublimated products, sell “souvenirs” and “memories.”
  • By using high-energy graphics, inspiring layouts, and cool products, you can turn ordinary into extraordinary. This leads to larger volume orders and increased sales from repeat orders.
  • It’s not just about what you sell, but to whom you sell. Make your products unique and creative while appealing to the wants and demands of your targeted customer.
  • Cross-selling (offering associated products) is perhaps the easiest way to boost revenue.
  • Equipment costs are low, the process is simple, and production is quick.

Hear Lamb’s wisdom with your own ears! Go to www.AwardsPersonalization.org to register for the 2016 International Awards & Personalization Expo March 1–4 in Las Vegas, NV. Lamb will present “Sublimation Toolbox” and “Pressing for Profit.”

Learn more from Lamb before the show by going to www.AwardsPersonalization.org/store and choose “Sublimation” from the Topics menu on the left. Lamb’s previous sessions—“Sublimation Design Analysis” and “Adding Sublimation to Your Business”—and two others from our association’s 2015 international show are available for purchase and download.

Rotary Engrave a Sublimated Industrial Identification Plate

Ron Strowger of Engraving Emporium Inc. in Longview, WA

For this series we specifically use ChromaLuxe® Silver for commercial use. Now, if someone could just produce this with UV protection for outdoors!

1. We take the sublimated plate and burnish the variable text with a .005-in. cutter. This gives a smooth, clean edge through the thick sublimatable finish.

2. We clean away the residue.

3. We run the job again with a drag diamond graver.

4. We are ready to acid color.

5. Last, we inspect the finish and ship it.

Awards and Personalization Association

The Awards and Personalization Association is the organization for retailers and suppliers of personalized and customized items. By providing education, meetings, and access to a vibrant network of professionals, the Awards and Personalization Association is the one place to ensure the growth of your talent, your business, and your professional community.

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