As the president and CEO of Branders.com, the world's largest online corporate giveaway store, I take pride in my company's ability to carry nearly every item our customers could want to promote their business or organization. But sometimes our customer and community service depends as much on what we don't sell as what we do. This was brought home to me recently, after I spoke with Celeste Clark.
Celeste is the executive director of the Raymond Coalition for Youth, an organization that works to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among young adults in Raymond, NH. New Hampshire has the second-highest rate of young adults using pain relievers for non-medical purposes among the U.S. states and territories; as a result, much of the Coalition's attention goes to preventing prescription drug abuse.
Through branded items such as grocery store bags and water bottles, I'm proud to say that Branders.com has helped Celeste promote the Raymond Coalition for Youth in her community. A regular customer, Celeste visited Branders.com earlier this year to purchase Frisbees and beach balls for an upcoming summer festival.
It was while Celeste was on our site that she noticed another product we offered to our customers: mints, packaged as though they came from a prescription bottle. Usually, businesses purchase these mints to advertise their company as a "headache killer." Take two of these mints and call us, they usually print on the label, to cure your business dilemma.
I wouldn't be a marketer if I didn't admit to finding this a clever marketing approach. But I also wouldn't be a responsible marketer if I wasn't open to understanding the unintended messages of this approach. Celeste got in touch with my team at Branders.com, and I'm glad she did.
Prescription drug abuse, Celeste explained to me, is a major issue in America. More people die of prescription painkiller overdoses today than die of heroin and cocaine overdoses -- combined. And the problem is affecting young Americans, too: The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that even as overall youth drug use has declined, the abuse of prescription drugs is increasing.
"Part of the problem," Celeste said, "is that we as a society can have a blasé attitude when it comes to substance abuse." From popular culture to our everyday interactions, we might not take alcohol, drug, or prescription painkiller use very seriously. "But people can become addicted very quickly," Celeste said. "It's so much more effective to focus on prevention rather than to wait until treatment is necessary."
Celeste made good arguments for the dangers of trivializing an issue as important as drug abuse. I began to see how the mints in prescription bottles we were selling on Branders.com could be sending the wrong message. For instance: What if a child saw an adult eating the mints, and took that to understand that all pills were candy?
I contacted the organizations who had purchased our product. Thankfully, none of them had any news of unintended consequences. I also contacted the product's manufacturer and received a similar report.
Even though I was confident our product wasn't doing any direct harm, I was still sympathetic to Celeste's point of view. And as a businessman and a father, I wanted to make sure I was doing what I could to support the message that drug abuse is a serious issue. It was an easy call for me to make: We would stop selling the prescription-bottled mints at Branders.com.
I wanted my customers to know why we would no longer be carrying the product, so I sent an email to them that explained my reasoning. I expected that people would read the email, nod in agreement or shrug their shoulders and move on. I never would have guessed that hundreds of our customers would write back with appreciative notes.
Several wrote that they forwarded my email to anyone they knew who purchases promotional items. Another customer wrote that my message would make her and other Branders.com customers "more aware of the promotional items we may be using to sell our products and the impact we may be [having]." It was exciting to realize that my email could have a larger impact and help more people understand the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
"We all need to be aware, and we can all, in our own way, contribute to efforts to end this epidemic," Celeste said at the end of our conversation. She's right. And when we do, we do well by our children, our communities and our customers.