Academic Awards: Acknowledging Academic Achievement

The academic market is teeming with profit potential; are you taking advantage of the many opportunities? This feature explains how to do so.

Recent studies done by Stanford University’s Education Department demonstrate that students who are praised for their work ethic perform better and learn more than students who are praised simply for being smart. When students praised for their work ethic encountered a difficult problem, they were much more likely to stick with it and solve the problem than students who were solely complimented on their intelligence. Those students were more likely to give up on a difficult problem and move on to something easier.

This begs the question: Will participation trophies ever become part of the education system? If the studies done by Stanford are any indication, it looks as though the answer to increase overall academic performance isn’t to give fewer trophies, but to give more and recognize that consistent hard work counts.

The academic market encompasses many categories where hard work pays off: math clubs, debate teams and grade point averages. With so many options, the awards retailer should be selling to these customers.


Homework is a part of the job for successful businesses, and those that have done their due diligence on the academic market report that while its season is a brief stretch of time on the awards year calendar, it can be a profitable bit of time.

For some awards shops, says Kurt Zimmermann of Gravotech, it constitutes a large portion of their business. “(This is especially true of) awards businesses adjacent to college campuses or even some high schools. It also can include the signage business. The addition of the ability to do apparel and gifts is important,” he adds.

He isn’t the only one to observe the versatile opportunities presented by working with educational institutions. “The academic segment is very attractive due to the fact that there are so many opportunities for schools to honor and recognize students,” says Kevin Sheehy, Johnson Plastics. “Academics, sports, music, science, theater, etc., are all unique categories and represent a large cross section of the student population. School spirit has evolved beyond sports, and recognizing the diverse talents of all students is a goal for most academic institutions.”

“The academic market is huge and it renews itself continuously,” says Mike May, JDS Industries. “The needs in academic-related recognition are vast and offer a lot of opportunity for retailers.”

That opportunity isn’t going anywhere, either. According to Linda Tran, Topmost Designs, the academic market is a worthwhile business pursuit because academics will always be a necessity; therefore, there is and will be a continuous need for academic recognition. “Also, your business venture will not be limited because there are numerous schools, universities and private institutes all seeking a source for their academic recognition needs,” she points out.


The season for academic awards is short, but it can be extremely profitable, notes Cathy Garcia of Marco Awards Group. However, the retailer needs to treat the elementary awards segment different than the high school segment, and be knowledgeable about the types of awards given at those levels.

As for specific types of awards, Garcia says elementary schools usually give awards for attendance and most improved, while high schools give awards for difficult subjects such as math and science, and college-level academic awards are an entirely different format altogether.

Tran adds to that point, stating that plaques are a huge hit; however, crystal apples and books are always related to academics and are thus becoming a more popular choice for prestigious recognition.

In general, Sheehy says, the amount of categories that schools identify as recognition opportunities presents tremendous growth potential. However, keep in mind that high school students, middle school students and elementary school children study different topics and are interested in different things. Make sure the lineup of awards you present to schools reflects trends relevant to each group.

Aside from the age groups, other factors such as price should also be considered when selling to this market. According to Zimmermann, one of the market’s general trends of late has been to go for inexpensive, low-cost items.

May has made similar observations: “I think the average transaction value for academic awards has shrunk in the years since the 2009 economic decline. A lot of schools are cutting back on the size and type of award they’re presenting rather than cutting back on the number of awards.”


Just as it is important to know which awards best fit each targeted group of customers in the academic market, it is also important to know when those awards are handed out, making certain that sales orders are taken care of at the correct time.

Academic awards are typically handed out at the end of the school year, roughly around the months of May and June, says Tran, depending on the school’s location and district. Every school is different-some institutions may even have a quarter or semester program.

“According to our customers, the best times are at semester breaks and the end of the school year. But keep in mind, the seasonal sports provide the opportunity to recognize athletes, cheerleaders, dance lines, etc., throughout the year,” says Sheehy.

When preparing for the academic awards season, it’s also vital to know who the decision makers are and then cultivate a solid business relationship with them. “The retailer needs to market to schools and school districts,” says Garcia.

“Developing relationships creates the business,” Zimmermann elaborates. As far as who that relationship might be with, he says it depends on how things are organized at that specific school. The principal could be in control or each teacher might be responsible. The academic customer also includes the dean of students, assistant principals and members of school boards.

Tran adds that when you do not know who specifically purchases the academic awards, developing a relationship with any school official is beneficial to your expansion into the academic market, as referrals and recommendations are highly looked upon.

Once meetings with potential clients are set, make sure you’re well prepared. Sheehy suggests shops “create a book of capabilities, costs and timelines along with photos of actual finished product samples. It is a great way for shop owners to solicit schools for opportunities. Show them what you are good at and differentiate your offerings to make you stand out from your competitors.”

To increase any sales, Tran says that marketing is essential. “Take a more direct approach by introducing yourself and your business to your local schools’ officials. Consider looking into your local school district’s sponsorship program where the main goal is to foster a partnership between schools and the business community.”


Most shops sell trophies to the sports market before they decide to expand into academic awards. When they do decide to expand, they notice some differences and some similarities.

Zimmermann points out both similarities and differences. “They are both about achievement and participation. The high school side is getting more into booster gear such apparel and gift items, and they sell those for fundraising as opposed to trophies.”

Sheehy expands on those points. “Sports teams typically have several layers: varsity, JV, sophomore teams, etc., whereas academic categories are segmented by grade and discipline. They are similar in that both will have participant recognition for all students and trophy/plaques for a few top performers.”

Tran also sees a little of both. “The academic market focuses on an array of recognition, such as excelling in a specific school subject, participating in clubs, school sports, and other extracurricular actives or commendable events that involve the students and staff; whereas, the sports market focuses solely on sports. One of the similarities that the academic market and the sports market have is that the recipients of the awards will vary from youth to adulthood.”


Just as every student deserves recognition and attention, make sure that you give each market its due attention. Your business will thank you. “There is strength and security in diversification of markets that you serve. It’s healthy to pursue sales in the various markets available to you,” says May.

Kristian Steven Wieber

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Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is the executive editor of GRAPHICS PRO and WRAPS magazines. Before that he was served as editor of Sign & Digital Graphics and Sign Business Magazine. He can be reached at 720-566-7286.

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