Take stock of the items around you. Perhaps you’re sitting in your dentist’s office awaiting a dreaded root canal, and you spy items emblazoned with the logo of a pharmaceutical company you’ve never heard of. Maybe you’re in the swanky lobby of some Bellevue high-rise waiting to begin a meeting as you nosh on the branded mint you grabbed from the bowl on the front desk. You might even be sitting on the couch in your home as you sip coffee from the logoed mug your boss gave everyone at last year’s holiday party.

Chances are, no matter where you are at this moment, you likely are in the vicinity of at least a few promotional products, or as some like to call them, swag, an acronym that stands for “stuff we all get” or “souvenirs, wearables, and gifts.”

“I basically decorated my condo for free with all of my swag,” boasted Steve Carell’s moronic, yet loveable, Michael Scott in the TV show The Office. Though Carell’s character was known to exaggerate, it’s true that promotional products can take varied forms.

T-shirts, pens, cups, and keychains are the items that readily come to mind, yet there are literally millions of other forms of swag — from boxes of gourmet chocolate to hammers, phone chargers, and oven mitts. And it’s no wonder swag has permeated our lives so completely; after all, the industry grew 9 percent last year and now is a $23 billion industry.

So why are so many companies using their marketing dollars to purchase stress balls, letter openers, and magnetic picture frames? Because it works.

In one study conducted by Promotional Products Association International, consumers reported that they were 83 percent more likely to do business with the advertiser if they receive a promotional product. The same study found that 88 percent of millennials had a more favorable impression of the advertiser after receiving a promotional item from them.

Tom Goos

Tom Goos, president of Kirkland-based branded merchandise agency Image Source, shows off the breadth of his company’s products.

“It’s the only form of marketing where (the audience) says, ‘Thank you,’” said Tom Goos, president of Kirkland-based branded merchandise agency Image Source. “Think of any other marketing medium where someone is presented with a billboard, a pop-up ad, a commercial — no one is saying, ‘Thank you.’ It’s really unique in that sense.”

Promotional products also beat these other media in cost per impression, which, to marketers, is advertising money in the bank. The average cost per impression for a newspaper ad is approximately .7 cents, while a prime-time TV ad might run about 1.8 cents. Meanwhile, promotional products will run an advertiser an average of .6 cents per impression, according to the Advertising Specialty Institute.

Though this form of marketing is effective and cheap, campaigns still can fall flat if a company is simply throwing its logo on any old product, according to Jeremy Lott, president of Issaquah-based apparel manufacturer and distributor SanMar.

“Our industry used to be known for trinkets and trash because you could get every piece of junk you could imagine with your logo on it,” Lott said. “But I think what our industry is trying to do is elevate the quality of the products because — we’ve all done this — when you go to a conference and you check in, they give you a bag of stuff — they call it swag or whatever it is — and sometimes it literally ends up in the garbage in the hotel room.”

This is where Eastside companies like Goos’ Image Source, Bensussen Deutsch & Associates in Woodinville, and Sunrise Identity in Bellevue come in.

Image Source

The entrance to Goos Image Source shows off some of the company’s most innovative products and the logos of its most illustrious clients.

“Instead of going out and pushing products, we really try to understand what the client is trying to solve — there’s always a purpose,” Goos said. “We need to ask ‘Why?’ several times to get to the ultimate purpose, because a lot of times people just lead with product. They (see) a pen on sale; it’s a $1.50 pen, it’s got 1.2 miles of ink, but they don’t need a pen; they need sales leads.”

Once the perfect product has been chosen, there are many echelons of quality to be considered, especially when it comes to branded apparel. Lott said trading down to a lesser item of higher quality is the best way to save a few bucks while showing clients the best value.

“We try to have different price points, certainly,” he said. “I would tell people if you don’t have money for a decent polo, then buy a great T-shirt. If you don’t have a budget for a great jacket, buy a great polo. Because I think you can trade down categories in price points and still get a great piece without settling for something that really doesn’t perform.”

Lott said he’ll often walk into a retail store and see the quality of the employees’ uniforms (yes, these fall into the category of promotional products, too) as that business’ dedication (or lack thereof) for building its brand.

“I know what that store spends to get people to walk in the door, and (if) they have chosen the cheapest polo shirt that they can find anywhere on Earth, to me it doesn’t pay off at all for that brand,” Lott said. “Those people who work at those stores are the frontline representation of that company’s brand, and they put them in the worst-fitting, cheapest shirt they can find.”

BackpacksSecond only to quality, the emotional response to promotional items is paramount in selecting the right item to market a business. This is something the Seattle Mariners’ senior marketing director, Camden Finney, considers as she and her team begin the arduous, albeit fun, task of deciding which swag items visitors will receive when they arrive at Safeco Field for many of the team’s 81 home games.

For this task, Finney largely pulls from her memories of watching the Mariners in her own youth.

“Gosh, I remember getting bats back in the Kingdome days — I still have those,” she said wistfully. “That’s what we want. We want people to keep these items and be excited about them … (These items) mean something to you, and they remind you of these great memories at the ballpark with your friends and family.”

Additionally, Finney said she gets her inspiration from the vendors she buys from (including Goos’ Image Source) as well as looking at what other MLB teams are doing. Apparently, there’s plenty of competition among teams off the field, too.

Oberto Merchandise“I want to lead the league for best promotional items,” she said following her successful launch of a bobblehead collectible in which fans could plant and grow real grass, the first of its kind in the major leagues. Finney said she was elated when other teams started calling to ask her about it.

Giveaway items like the grass-growing bobblehead aren’t just fun knick-knacks or toys for kids. They are highly coveted and collectable. Finney said she has no doubt these items drive ticket sales.

Goos agreed. After all, his own son was lured to the ballpark by one of Finney’s innovative promotional products.

“We were watching TV, and a Mariners ad came on talking about Paxton night — (James) Paxton is one of the Mariner pitchers — and they were giving away a fanny pack,” Goos said. “I heard it but he didn’t know I was paying attention, and he said, ‘Dad, for my birthday I’d like to go to a Mariners game.’ It really drives behavior.”

This drive is largely due to the ever-increasing anxiety known as fear of missing out — or FOMO, as it is popularly dubbed on social media. Though largely based on missing out on travel experiences, FOMO is being taught to young marketers as a viable technique. If marketers create a sense of exclusivity in their campaigns — like the first 10,000 Mariners fans through the gate — it activates the recipient’s FOMO.

But promotional products don’t have to be flashy sunglasses or a designer make-up bag. Goos said his products serve many important, or even critical, purposes. Promotional products can educate people on important topics, recruit for a worthy cause, and drive awareness to a social problem. Promotional products can even save lives.

“We had a program that we were promoting that was a onesie that said, ‘This side up,’ and it was to help parents think about SIDS,” Goos said. “We did a program for McKinstry; they are a local mechanical contractor, so we did an earthquake kit. We did a logoed bag with rations of Meals Ready to Eat, water, first-aid kits, and things like that, for their holiday gift and now they’ve turned it into their new-hire gifts.”

Take a moment the next time you are handed a swag bag to consider what the given company might be trying to accomplish with its product. If you do, you might see the utility in the item and use it in your daily life.

“And the next time you are at Sea-Tac and you’re just sitting watching people (board) the plane, you’ll understand what we do,” said SanMar’s Lott. “Because the people that will walk on to that Alaska flight wearing a logo for their company, their school, their church, their team, or carry a bag with a logo, that is our business. That is what we do.”


Sidebar Source: Promotional Products Association International and Advertising Specialty Institute