In search of the next bobblehead

Jay Deutsch thinks corporate America needs to take its tchotckes seriously.

By Stephanie Mehta, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Got a baseball player bobblehead doll on your desk? A stadium blanket, emblazoned with some corporate logo, shoved in the hallway closet? Or maybe your cupboard contains a few Coke glasses, just like the ones used by the American Idol judges?

If you do, you probably have Jay Deutsch to blame for the clutter. Deutsch is co-founder and CEO of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates, a "merchandise" agency responsible for helping corporations and sports teams promote their brands through logo festooned giveaways such as hats, tee-shirts, mugs and those ubiquitous bobblehead dolls.

american_idol_cup.03.jpg
ai_bowl.03.jpg

Only don't call him the tchotcke king. "Trinkets, tchotckes, swag, trash," Deutsch says, shaking his head. "We're blowing up that label."

Deutsch is out to make sure giveaway merchandise isn't an afterthought but rather part of a company's overall branding strategy. He has a point: A cheap pen or cheesy keychain bearing a corporate logo certainly can hurt a company's brand. But will a cool cell phone case or ballcap procured for free really build brand awareness and loyalty?

Apparently companies ranging from Bank of America (Charts) to Coca-Cola (Charts) to Toyota (Charts) seem to think so. They, along with dozens of Fortune 500 companies, work with BD&A to produce merchandise that enhance their brands or promote key products. Recently, the agency extended its deal with FreemantleMedia, producer and licensor of American Idol, to design and deliver promotional merchandise related to the show through the year 2010.

As part of the deal, BD&A helps create American Idol swag, and it runs an online store that sells Idol-branded shirts, caps and other gear. The company also works with the show's many sponsors -- companies like Coke, Dreyer's Ice Cream and Pringles - to create branded items with American Idol tie ins. For Dreyer's, for example, BD&A came up with some promotional ice cream bowls, mailed free to customers who purchase tubs of Dreyer's limited edition Idol flavors.

Deutsch calls such merchandise the ultimate "one-to-one" marketing vehicle. And indeed, when consumers are fast-forwarding through commercials, marketers certainly are looking at new ways to connect with customers. With branded merchandise, Deutsch says, companies are getting their brand in customers' homes - or on their backs - for a good long time. Those Dreyer's bowls are going to be sitting in some family's cabinets forever, and someone in the household is going to be staring at a Dreyer's logo every time he or she has a scoop of ice cream.

Deutsch and partner Eric Bensussen started in the business almost 20 years ago with sports marketing and promotions. The company's homerun: The sports star bobblehead doll, which BD&A introduced to fans in 2002 with a Cal Ripkin Jr. doll commemorating his retirement. (A little bobblehead history: Such dolls have been around since the turn of the century, originally fashioned from porcelain.) Today, bobbleheads are everywhere, but the ones BD&A produces only are available at giveaway days at ballparks. As a result, BD&A claims there's a lively secondary market for its bobbleheads on eBay (Charts).

BD&A has moved into some new and interesting areas. It provides some companies with employee uniforms and helps some corporations, such as Boeing (Charts), stock their company stores with mugs, shirts and other branded gear for proud employees to purchase. (Few items are off limits for corporate branding. I've seen baby clothes with company logs on them.)

One of its fastest growing new ventures: Video game accessories. The company makes carrying cases and plastic "organizers" for the Nintendo Wii system. Only these aren't promotional giveaways: BD&A's "starter kits" retail for $20 and up.

But Deutsch and his employees are always on the lookout for the next big promotional item. It followed up the bobblehead with the "Babooshkah" -- a sports collectible modeled after Russian nesting dolls. The next big thing? Something called the "Bobster," a figurine in an action pose. The first Bobster, a doll of Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore "diving for a loose ball in a superhero cape," according to the Indians, will be given to fans on April 28. Predicts Deutsch: "It is definitely going to become a collectible." Top of page