I can't count the number of times I've walked the aisles at trade shows, only to happen upon companies that have brought seemingly every item in their inventory to display in their exhibits. They've pinned products on walls, scattered them atop tables, or otherwise displayed them in their booths based on the myth that attendees will be unfulfilled if they're shown the X-1000 widget in beige when they were really hoping to see the taupe version.
Every time I see these flea-market-like exhibits, I shake my head. A booth merchandised like a Spencer's Gifts store sends a certain message, showcasing a company's goods rather than any message about the company's key differentiators or dedication to its customers. This strategy might be great if you're running a truck-stop gift shop, where the emphasis is on showing off the goods. But it misses the mark in the trade show industry, where success often comes from making a memorable first impression that helps your brand stand out on the show floor.
A Star-Spangled Mess
One of the best before-and-after examples in the category of cluttered exhibits is the Valley Forge Flag Co. At a recent expo, Valley Forge Flag set up a 10-by-20-foot exhibit and filled it wall to wall with Old Glory. It had big flags, medium flags, flags that fit on your desk, fringed flags, all-weather flags, and pretty much every size of the Stars and Stripes available.
Attendees at the show included retailers looking for products to stock in their stores. At the Valley Forge Flag booth, those retailers found products alright, but nothing in the booth positioned Valley Forge's flags as better or more desirable than any other flag on the market. After all, it's presumable that every company in the flag-making business offers up an equally rich product catalogue. And Old Glory is what it is: 13 stripes alternating red then white from top to bottom and a blue field filled with 50 white stars arranged in rows of six and five. Even the length-to-width ratio is set. So, frankly, any two American flags, whether they are made by Valley Forge Flag or sewn by the living descendants of Betsy Ross, are almost exactly the same.
The worst part about Valley Forge's display was that the exhibit failed to tell attendees what is so great about the company's flags, as opposed to every other American-flag-making company. And, at least in this company's case, that story can make all the difference.
What you wouldn't have known by walking past the Valley Forge booth is that all the American flags on the moon are Valley Forge flags. Every flag on a military coffin is made by Valley Forge Flag. And the flag on President Kennedy's coffin, guess who made it? Valley Forge Flag, of course. And while other flag makers can use the same materials and follow the same dimensional instructions set out by Congress for making American flags, only Valley Forge Flag has been a part of these iconic moments in American history.
Now, wouldn't that be a great story to tell attendees? Wouldn't the story of Valley Forge Flag's place in history tell attendees that this company is about more than just making standard flags in all sizes? For a company like Valley Forge Flag, the difference between trotting out the inventory and telling its unique and compelling story would be the difference between trying to make a simple sale and trying to differentiate itself on a level that no other flag manufacturer can compete.
I Can't Believe It's Not Cluttered
There is nothing inherently wrong with displaying oodles of offerings. But if your exhibit focuses too much on merchandising and not enough on communicating with buyers and driving home your differentiators, you should ask yourself the following questions and think about the message that you are sending with all that clutter.
1. Is my exhibit cluttered? No matter how neat and clean your display might be, if you're showcasing more than a few versions of what is essentially the same item, there is probably more product in your booth than anyone beyond the most dedicated attendee will take the time to see.
If you're unsure whether you've got too many products on display, pay attention to how often each one is referenced at your next show. If it's not attracting attention, it's probably not essential.
2. What message am I sending? Stand back and examine your booth. What message does it communicate to passersby? If the bulk of doodads is overshadowing your company's key messages, or detracting from your differentiators, it's time to clean house. While you might think having the beige and taupe widgets on hand makes you look prepared, in reality, having too much product in the booth looks unorganized.
If you need to showcase widgets, doodads, and thingies, then bring one of each and let attendees know they all come in eight different colors. Or bring your product line on USB thumb drives and hand them out, letting attendees peruse all the features of each model of your products. Unless you're the only company to offer that widget in eight different colors, displaying all eight is unlikely to help you differentiate yourself from your competitors.
3. What should my message be? Whether you've filled your booth with American flags or an array of widgets, you've essentially told attendees to focus on the variety of your product line. OK, that's not horrible, but in doing so, you've also taken the focus off your story. Why are your widgets -- in all their colors and with all their features -- better than similar products? Are your widgets cheaper? Are they higher quality? Are they used by large, recognizable clients?
Chances are, no matter what industry you're in, you have a competitor that makes a product similar to your own. If you're going to win the sales battle against that competitor, I guarantee it won't be because you have eight colors of widgets or 50-plus versions of the American flag. You need to find the story -- the compelling reason why your company should be trusted to deliver this product -- and let that take center stage instead.
Thankfully, Valley Forge Flag has learned its lesson and designed a new booth that tells its unique story through iconic back-wall graphics. But when I think back to the company's old exhibit, I'm awestruck by the fact that I wouldn't have ever known its story had I not badgered the booth staffer with questions. To this day, every time I see an American flag, I am reminded of Valley Forge. But I bet that to most of the attendees who visited the company's old booth, a flag is a flag -- and Valley Forge, much like its competitors, has them in every size imaginable.