BAPP (the Belgian Association of Promotional Products) that was founded in the year 2000 is one of the most active promotional products associations on the European industry scene. Axel Debruyne, the current Chairman, talked about the association’s current projects as well as the special features of and challenges within the Belgian industry.

deBruyneAxel Debruyne, born in 1977, is CEO of the promotional products agency, Special Things. The company based in Bonheiden, Flanders that was founded in 1970 specialises in custom-made products and has had its own business unit in Guangzhou, China, since 2005. Debruyne has been the Chairman of BAPP since December 2014. The association currently has 210 members, 129 of whom come from Belgium and 81 from abroad. 98 distributors and 112 suppliers are organised within BAPP. In addition to the Networking Day – a platform for suppliers and distributors – that is staged annually in the summer, BAPP has also conducted the trade show PromGifts every year since 2013, which is also open to the users of promotional products.

Mr. Debruyne, how big is the Belgian promotional products market?

Axel Debruyne: Unfortunately, there are no reliable figures on the size of the Belgian market. The number of BAPP members is a very vague indication of its size – we have 210 members, who are based in Belgium, including 112 suppliers and 98 distributors. Of course, we cannot assess how many market participants that are not members fall through the net here. And as is the case everywhere, it is difficult to demarcate the industry accurately. Broadly speaking one can say: Belgium is a small country, the market volume for haptic advertising is correspondingly low and the order volumes are correspondingly small. That is why nearly all of the domestic suppliers here have an enormously high export share.

Can you tell us something about the structure of the market?

Axel Debruyne: Our market is strongly fragmented: Among the promotional products distributors there are two or three big players – even in the European comparison – followed by ten medium-sized distributors perhaps. The remaining distributors are small, often one or two-man businesses. There is also a big gap between the dynamic North, where a correspondingly high number of companies are located, and South, where there are much fewer distributors.

One of the special features about Belgium is its multilingualism. Does it play a role within the association and in everyday business life?

Axel Debruyne: We are used to living in a state that has two national languages. At BAPP the bilingualism doesn’t actually play a role – apart from some exceptions, for example when it comes to organising projects together with the Dutch federation PPP, which is not easy because of the language issue. Many distributors, particularly in Wallonia, remain in their language region to a large extent as far as their clientele is concerned. That is partly because it is easier to do business with customers in one’s own language. Since bilingual marketing is indeed a challenge. English works as a means of communicating, however when it comes down to buying other rules prevail – most potential customers expect to be addressed in their native language. The administration is also demanding in some cases – in accordance with the law many things have to be formulated in both Dutch and French. Companies that are not equally proficient in both languages have to fall back on the services of a translator, for instance for contracts or the general terms and conditions.

Are there any other administrative differences between Flanders and Wallonia that currently prove difficult?

Axel Debruyne: Discussions are presently being held about changing the hitherto uniform tax legislation. If different framework conditions actually come into force in Flanders and Wallonia, it would of course cause a problem. The complicated administration structures that prevail in Belgium are generally annoying sometimes. A lot of things are decided at several levels and not every person involved always knows what the others are doing. In the case of a city like Brussels that has almost twenty Mayors it is incredible that anything works at all. Some people maintain that these circumstances are responsible for the terrorist attacks in March, but I don’t believe that. The terror is not a Belgian problem, the terrorist attacks in Brussels could have happened anywhere.

Which effects have the attacks had on the business?

Axel Debruyne: They have shocked the country and have, of course, also had an effect on everyday business life. It is, for example, difficult to arrange meetings in Brussels. Many people work from home and even people that weren’t frightened in the past when terror warnings were announced, still don’t use the metro. The situation is catastrophic for the local industry, especially the hotel and gastronomy trade, of course. I am not actually observing that budgets are being reduced at the moment, but it is clear that Brussels and the whole of Belgium has an image problem. It is now very important that we look ahead.

Talking about looking ahead: Which projects is BAPP working on at the moment?

Axel Debruyne: On the one hand there is our trade show, PromGifts, which we would like to organise again in 2017. At the moment we are discussing with our members whether to do so and what form it should take on. A further project is the collection of data about our industry – I hope that we will succeed in launching a corresponding survey by the end of the year. One of the most important items on our agenda is how to position the promotional product more prominently in the eyes of the users. In 2015, we launched a campaign and introduced the term “Product Media”. We are trying to convince as many members as possible to use this term and promote their products as marketing tools and advertising media. We are also planning to address the universities and marketing courses and to convey knowledge on the implementation of promotional products in the marketing mix to the students.

How do you assess the standing that the promotional product enjoys on the agency scene and among the industry users?

Axel Debruyne: There is still a lot to do here. Indeed it is the same story everywhere in Europe: Instead of being planned within the concepts of campaigns, haptic advertising often comes last on the list. Even though many people in the marketing sector know precisely what power it can enfold. At the last Promgifts, for instance, we had a speaker from the marketing department of the city of Antwerp, who reported enthusiastically how important promotional products are for his job. We have to seek such examples and accentuate these again and again to ensure that we are not interchangeable. This is also the task of BAPP and its members.

Considering that the industry in Belgium is relatively small, a lot happens on the association front compared to the rest of Europe – at least according to the opinion of many international colleagues.

Axel Debruyne: That is correct – compared with other associations we are extremely active. Sometimes I think to myself that we are not proud enough of what we achieve – perhaps a “typically Belgian“ attribute.

// Till Barth spoke to Axel Debruyne.

A detailed report about the Belgian promotional products market can be found here: Part 1.

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