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A Franchise Approach to Promotional Products : Marketing: Adventures in Advertising wants to be the McDonalds of personalized T-shirts, caps, mugs, pens and yo-yos.

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From Associated Press

To the untrained eye, it’s a bag of sand. To Steve Avanessian, it’s a useful stress reducer with a company logo on it, and it leaves an impression--which is the important part.

The “stress ball” is just one of a hard-to-calculate number of promotional products offered by Bellevue’s Adventures in Advertising, where Avanessian is sales and marketing director.

“It’s quite possibly the oddest collection of elements that you’d find in any business,” he said.

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That odd collection is expanding lately in several ways. Adventures in Advertising, which started in the Kirkland home of founder and chairman Dan Carlson, began franchising last year and now has 12 outlets.

Parent company Adventures in Advertising Franchise Inc. logged $6 million in sales last year. Carlson has ambitious plans to try to open hundreds of franchises in the next ten years.

Adventures in Advertising may be the first franchise operation to make a concerted foray into the $6 billion-a-year promotional-products industry. The fragmented business of providing promotional products is ripe for a chain like theirs, say Carlson and Butch Garrison, the company’s president and CEO.

Garrison compares the state of the promotional products industry with that of real estate 20 years ago, when mom-and-pop agencies peeked out from every other corner.

“Now, companies like Century 21, ReMax and Coldwell Banker absolutely dominate. The promotional advertising industry is poised for that change,” he said.

Of course, Carlson and Garrison both want Adventures to be the next ReMax of promotional products.

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Therein lies the challenge.

The process of setting up a chain of franchises for sale is “very, very legally cumbersome,” Carlson said, but seemed like the right way to go for this business.

He thought the business would be more successful if he let people own their own franchises.

“We felt as an equity owner, as a business owner, you would work harder and smarter,” he said.

Adventures in Advertising charges its franchisees an initial fee of $24,500 for buying into the chain, followed by royalty payments. Franchisees also must spend $67,000 to $88,500 on estimated start-up costs.

In return, franchisees get in on the proprietary relationships the parent company negotiates with vendors who supply T-shirts, caps, mugs, pens, stress balls, yo-yos and other items.

Carlson claims he won’t start collecting royalties from franchises until they start making a profit.

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Spokane franchise owners Scott and Tessa Fitzgerald took the plunge and began making cold calls just a few weeks ago.

Scott Fitzgerald said he tries to advise companies on which types of promotional products really work for certain types of businesses, and which don’t.

“Anybody can go out and sell pens and pencils, but what we’d like to do is be the company’s advertising consultant. It’s taking the guesswork out,” he said.

Fitzgerald said he’s comforted by his franchise agreement, which prevents the parent company from selling another Adventures in Advertising franchise to someone two blocks away, something he’s seen other chains do.

“They can never, ever sell another one” in the area, he said.

Back in Bellevue, Avanessian contemplates the immense possibilities for promotional items.

“Anything you might see on your desk, we can do it to make an impression,” he said.

The company has a supplier that will vacuum pack T-shirts for mailing nearly to the dimensions of a three-by-five card. Several groups have mailed or given away trees as a metaphor for growth.

“It’s an air-packed Montana tree in a tubevelope,” Avanessian said.

And Wham-O puts out a Frisbee made from recycled plastic bottles. The old bottles are still visible in the plastic.

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The Adventures in Advertising setup is a common one, according to franchise expert Colin Wallace of Mercer Island.

“It’s a product-distribution company where the parent company has the product and you become the distributor,” he said.

People who are interested in buying a franchise can learn what questions they should ask by contacting the Federal Trade Commission or the International Franchise Assn. in Washington.

Wallace advises potential franchise buyers to ask several basic questions:

* Does the franchise have a solid, recognized brand name?

* Does the franchise have distribution and training systems in place?

* Does the franchise provide marketing, advertising and sales support?

Finally, every buyer should pose one final query before they acquire a franchise, Wallace said: “What am I buying?”

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