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Kaestner: 'Widgets' Help Companies' Branding Efforts

What do a pen, a paperweight, a pedometer and a pepper mill have in common? Slap a corporate logo on any one, and it becomes a widget. Middleton-based The Widget Source has been providing them for promotional purposes and employee rewards since 1983, back when widgets were called "advertising specialty items." Owner Sue Kaestner says "widget" with a straight face because she knows that behind the whimsy is a key lesson in branding, one of the most important and oft-overlooked pieces of the marketing puzzle.

Q&A by Robert Chappell
Madison Magazine

Why widgets?

A widget is anything that can be used to convey a message, and typically is imprinted with a corporate identity, such as a logo. Widgets are tangible ways to communicate messages. When people can hold it in their hand and the message is right, and comes at the right time, people are really excited to get it and to send it out. I like that creativity of it.

You used to be in politics. How did you make the switch to this business?

I worked for the campaign of Lee Dreyfus, and we won, so I worked in his office for four years. Then he decided not to run for reelection, so it's sort of like, "What do you do?" One of the other staffers, Naomi Bodway, and I went into business and did what former political staff people tend to do, fundraising and event planning.

In the campaign, we had these lapel pins that were little red vests, because Dreyfus always wore a red vest. You could earn one by putting in a certain number of volunteer hours. When we won, people loved those pins and asked the governor for a red vest lapel pin, and he was happy to oblige them. Well, some former campaign volunteers were upset by that, so another pin was created. That made me realize it's a little thing, but it really symbolizes a lot.

It seems like a pretty small leap from promoting Dreyfus to promoting a company. Are there similarities between what you did in politics and what you do now?

I guess, actually, when you ask the question that way, everything boils down to a campaign, whether for a public election or not. You want to identify a message, you want to be able to communicate that message to "voters," and you want to measure their response. Widgets are an effective way to do that.

You used to be called KaestnerBodway, Inc., and now you're The Widget Source. How did that change come about, and did it help?

We had been using the word "widget" for years. Within the industry people didn't understand "advertising specialty item." Seven or eight years ago, we worked with [ad firm] The Hiebing Group, and they came up with The Widget Source. We were KaestnerBodway: the Widget Source, and when I bought out my partner four years ago it was just The Widget Source. People like "The Widget Source." They have fun with the word. It's worked well. When we were KaestnerBodway, people thought we were a law firm.

How do people use your widgets - mostly for promotion, or mostly for internal communication?

It's kind of a cycle that I see. Right now we're seeing a lot of companies looking for awards and recognition items. People are looking to have a stronger presence at trade shows, to boost those sales efforts. A lot of non-profit organizations are looking to solidify their brands, to be more visible in the community.


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