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The Pivot to PPE in the Promotional Products Industry

PPE traveling around the world to essential workers.

At a Glance

  • The promo industry developed an innovative process to get PPE to front lines in the fight against COVID-19
  • The process of supplying PPE has many obstacles, from blatant fraud to a market moving at warp speed
  • Successful companies have proven themselves through persistence, solid ethics, and relying on long-standing relationships

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a key player in the story of the pandemic. Initially, resources and front line workers were desperate for protection in the fight against the virus. Gradually those in need received the PPE, but not through their usual sources.

The promotional products industry is marked by an entrepreneurial spirit that rose to get PPE into the hands of essential workers. Though successful, the drive to get PPE necessary to fight the virus has held many obstacles. To gain insight into this process we spoke with Molly Johnson of Direct Defense USA and Ian Fenn of Dragon Power Promotional Products. Both proved to be successful through persistence and transparency. We’re here to discuss ways:

Innovation of the Promo Industry

PPE isn’t a part of the Promotional Product Industry’s repertoire, so it’s a wonder how the industry got drafted with the task. However, Ian Fenn says it follows that an industry marked by flexibility and creativity began tracking down desperately needed products. The promo industry has a reputation for creatively finding new products. Fenn believes regular suppliers with established systems of supplying PPE for Hospitals couldn’t accommodate the high demand and lack of supply. With many hospitals and government agencies feeling desperate, Fenn says, “then came in the saviors, promotional products companies.”

Shifting a focus to PPE has proven successful for promo companies, Ian Fenn says, “at least 90 percent [of his sales] is now PPE, without it, I’d be in a bad spot.” This process wasn’t easy to join, Ian Fenn helped Dragon Power Promo pivot towards PPE after hearing a need from customers, then speaking to his usual suppliers of promo products about PPE. Molly Johnson entered the PPE realm through a different route. Johnson created Direct Defense USA after being called upon government agencies that were in need of PPE. Though initially she didn’t know what PPE was, Johnson and her team learned quickly to help many during the pandemic. Johnson says Direct Defense goes, “many layers deep to watch sellers operate and transact, making sure they were consistently doing what they said.” Through carefully vetting suppliers, Direct Defense has become a leader in the industry.

Combatants to the Selling Process

The cause to supply protection to those fighting COVID-19 should be easy but the process has many obstacles. High demand means the supply chain moves incredibly fast. Fenn says, “normally supply-demand forces would evolve over one or two years but now it’s weeks.” The life cycle of products like masks has shown that hyper demand outstrips supply leading to price increases. Then once the suppliers finally catch up, demand shifts to another product like nitrile gloves. This speedy evolution is hard to run alongside as PPE companies try to find the best products and prices.

On top of unprecedented market speed, many people view the desperate need for PPE as a money-making opportunity. In the PPE industry, buyers and suppliers don’t have time or resources to find one another, that’s why companies like Dragon Power Promo, Direct Defense, and Chotchkes work to connect the two. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple: plenty of brokers want a cut of the sale and willingly use fraud to profit.

Often brokers will attempt to gain a cut of the sale that’s far more than the product is even worth. People like Ian Fenn and Molly Johnson have learned to be suspicious of everything. Both require buyers to show proof of their intent to purchase or suppliers to show the products really exist.

Often, suppliers will claim a product exists on the ground in the U.S. to rope in a buyer. Then once a buyer has committed, this supplier will claim the product has been bought, only to get the buyer to agree to a production order at a higher price. Fenn has even found himself speaking with a fake buyer and fake supplier attempting to make a deal. He found it comical how they used similar tactics to pull the other into a deal. Thankfully, companies like Dragon Power Promo and Direct Defense report any suspicious activity. Johnson says, “We learned there’s a lot of nonsense out there. We learned better by continually chasing.”

Resilience through Relationships and Solid Ethics

Solid ethics and established relationships win in the battle to get PPE to the front lines, even with plenty of obstacles. Dragon Power Promo has been an established member of the promo industry for many years. Ian Fenn says he’s been able to track down good PPE suppliers through his 20-year business relationships. Direct Defense commits to maintaining strong ethics and offering support in tough times.

Johnson sticks to her high principle for ethics, even when its meant turning down business that didn’t feel 100% right. Though the practice may not seem like a savvy business tactic, it’s led to a flourishing business and a strong sense of trust. Now Johnson knows to only speak to the buyer or the person representing the buyer when making a deal.

Counter to those who attempt to make large fraudulent deals, Fenn says that if you, “find someone who’s ethics are safe you may make more money.” This business isn’t for the faint of heart. Fenn says “I’m working harder and thinking more sharply, it’s easy to go asleep thinking you’re on top of it.”

Wrap Up

The Promotional products industry has proven to be a key player in the search for PPE. Through hard work and strong ethics and relationships, companies like Dragon Power Promotional Products, Direct Defense and Chotchkes have proven to be key players in getting PPE to the front lines.

Brandnews is the official blog of Chotchkes.

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Which Face Mask Is Right for You?

At a Glance

  • Now everyone needs to wear a face mask but PPE guidelines can be confusing
  • Following the process of evaluating your needs, evaluating the mask and finding an efficient source can help you get the best PPE, for the best price and the quickest turnaround

COVID has changed the world’s perception of face masks, making them a regular part of everyone’s lives. With masks becoming a necessity, finding the mask that fits your needs has become more difficult. PPE can get in the hands of your team if you understand your needs, evaluate the right mask, and find a supplier that is committed to efficiency.

One thing is obvious in the PPE supply chain: medical professionals are still struggling to find adequate PPE and fulfill their needs promptly. The supply chain is working to produce more PPE for the sake of fighting the spread of COVID, but it is even more crucial to get the right PPE to healthcare workers as quickly as possible. To simplify the process of getting face masks, you should:

1. Evaluate Your Own Needs

Are you wanting to promote your brand? If you are a business and looking for a way to promote your brand, cloth masks provide safety and follow CDC guidelines for everyday use in public spaces. Though mask guidelines can be confusing, it’s clear medical-grade masks need to go to healthcare professionals. Your brand can still deliver high-quality protection with cloth face masks.

Are you working directly with COVID patients or providing care to potentially infected people? Surgical masks offer protection but do not filter .1 level microns. N95 masks are the optimal choice for healthcare workers, which is why these are in even shorter supply. KN95 masks pass standards created by China that are similar to N95. Some KN95 masks are approved for use by NIOSH and the CDC. If you’re curious about the capabilities of specific KN95, the CDC has tested most KN95 masks and published their findings. N95 masks are the optimal choice in the medical field but if these are out of sight, an approved KN95 mask can offer the right protection.

2. Evaluate the Mask

Searching for the best-branded cloth mask? Look for options that have more than one layer, offer room for a paper filter, and are washable. Breathable fabric and comfortable ear loops are ways to win big with your customers.

For medical-grade masks, you can easily make sure the face masks measure up. Every medical-grade mask receives an approval number by CDC or NIOSH. Approved PPE will have the approval number listed on the mask. Suppliers also show approval information in their description, whether the mask is made in the states or abroad. If you are concerned about the legitimacy of a mask, there are ways to identify counterfeit masks. The CDC and NOSH have done the work to ensure that you will have the resources to evaluate any possible masks and put them through the test. Be sure to do your homework so your team can be protected well.

3. Find the Most Efficient Source

For cloth masks, many suppliers are at the ready and offer great options. Be sure to ask about the timeline for receiving the face masks. If a great mask will take a long time to arrive at your doorstep it is not a great mask. Prioritize efficiency.

Receiving your PPE quickly is as high of a priority as finding the right mask. Masks that are on the ground in the U.S. might be able to ship more quickly, but they can be harder to locate. Masks in China will take longer to arrive, but in many cases these suppliers are easier to find and more prepared to ship. Both options will provide you with effective, sterile equipment. Consider both options and be ready to act once you find the right supplier.


Information about PPE is ever-evolving. The world is trying to find the most effective and efficient way of getting PPE in the hands of healthcare professionals. The CDC and NIOSH are committed to keeping us informed and guiding us through the process. By evaluating your PPE needs, assessing the mask you find, and finding an efficient supplier, you can offer the best equipment for fighting coronavirus together.

BrandNews is the official blog of