What Is Swag? (And How the Heck Do Companies Use It Today?)

August 4, 2023
What Is Swag? (And How the Heck Do Companies Use It Today?)

Swag, also known as promotional products or branded gifts, has the power to create lasting impressions and support long-term marketing goals. As an effective marketing tool, investing in swag can help your business reach a wider audience, strengthen customer relationships, and raise brand awareness. 

Despite all that power, swag has some pitfalls that could turn off a prospect or turn even great relationships sour. Finding the balance of when to gift swag versus something more personal (and less branded) is part art and, the more you do it, art science. But if you’re just getting started in swag’s expanding world of vests, tumblers, chip clips, planters, socks, shoes, and beyond, it’s tough to know where (or when) to start. Let’s dip into the benefits of investing in branded swag, some basic swag etiquette, and why it's ultimately worth every penny you put into it.

What Is Branded Swag and Why Is It Important?

In a nutshell, branded swag refers to promotional items that are customized with a company's logo, name, or message. These goods are typically given away as freebies to promote the brand or as rewards or new hire gifts to customers or employees. The most common examples of swag include t-shirts, hats, bags, pens, tumblers, and keychains (and those Patagonia vests we can’t get anymore).

A tweet showing fintech bros wearing Patagonia vests with the caption that Patagonia is refusing to make vests for Wall Street bros.

One of the key benefits of swag is its ability to boost brand recognition. By distributing branded items, businesses can increase their visibility and build that sweet, sweet brand awareness for relatively few dollars. Swag can be a cost-effective way of advertising, especially compared to other forms of marketing like TV ads or billboards. 

For instance, handing everyone a boldly branded t-shirt in your 100-person company and having them organically wear them around town, while traveling, and more is like having 100 little billboards in front of thousands of people—all for the price of peanuts compared with today’s typical ad spend.  

Plus, swag can create a powerful sense of loyalty among customers and employees. It provides them with a tangible reminder of their relationship with the brand, and essentially gives employees an instant sense of camaraderie and cohesion. Whether a customer has purchased your branded merch or was surprised with some swag by your marketing team, it’s undeniable that they have a rock-solid bond with your brand.

In today's competitive business environment, standing out from the crowd is more important than ever, and swag can be an effective way to crush this goal. By offering unique and eye-catching types of swag, businesses can differentiate themselves from their competitors, make a lasting impression on customers, and help new hires feel welcomed and like they’re truly part of a team. Investing in branded swag can result in numerous benefits for your company, making it an important aspect of any marketing strategy, community, or corporate culture. 

Different Types of Branded Swag and Their Effectiveness

Branded hats and t-shirts to pens and tumblers, there is a lot to choose from in the world of swag. A simple Google search for “branded swag” will send you scrolling for hours through gift guides, catalogs, case studies, and form after form when trying to reach a vendor that stands out. 

A Google SERP highlighting all the article titles for company swag ideas.
Just a small slice of Google search engine results for terms like "branded swag."

This broad category of goods is a big one — like, $21 billion big in the US according to IBIS World. Despite taking a dip at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the industry has been booming, and there’s good reason why. 

With hybrid workplaces and dispersed teams becoming the new standard working model in the US, creating a sense of belonging among employees is a big challenge faced by talent and HR teams. While welcoming new employees used to look like a shiny new nameplate on a cubicle, the experience is somewhat different today as cubicles and in-office start days have gone defunct. 

Aside from welcoming people to the team with a handsome logo sweatshirt, quality swag is also impactful when it comes to reaching brand fans on social media, celebrating new business partners or accounts, and creating a welcoming and inclusive culture no matter where swag recipients are located. It’s an instant and valued connection to the brand that’s doling it out. 

No matter who’s on the receiving end, swag makes people feel included, like they're a part of something bigger, and that’s a feeling rarely reached through ads alone.

Whether it's a corporate swag item like a branded pen or a trendy t-shirt, these items serve as a reminder of the brand and can even start conversations about it. And in this growing market, there’s a seemingly unlimited range of products a logo can be slapped on. While writing utensils top the swag charts (here’s looking at you, collection of ballpoint pens I have from every hotel, conference, and dentist office I’ve ever been to), other hot items include hats, tumblers, and even umbrellas. 

A bar chart showing which promotional products were most popular as of January 2020. Writing instruments, drinkware, and t0shirts were the top 3 products while power banks and umbrellas were the least popular.

When it comes to picking what swag to hand out, remember that the effectiveness of different types of branded swag depends on the target audience and the industry. For tech companies, trendy and functional items like branded phone cases or laptop stickers may resonate well with their audience. On the other hand, for more traditional industries, classic items like branded notebooks or pens might be more effective.

And beyond industries, carefully consider what swag you’re sending to recipients you know and the reason for sending. A branded five-panel hat may be a hit with a new hire or customer who just completed onboarding, but it may be a flop if the recipient is a teammate celebrating their 15th work anniversary with the company. 

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing swag is its usefulness. Will people actually want to use or wear it? If not, it's likely to end up in the trash or forgotten in a drawer, defeating the purpose of investing in swag. Another consideration is the quality of the swag. Cheap, low-quality items can reflect poorly on the brand and may not be perceived as valuable or desirable.

Leo Friedman, CEO and founder of promotional product supplier iPromo (aka A Guy Who Knows a Thing or Two About Swag), told MarketingBrew in an interview that “it’s better to give gifts less frequently but with higher-quality selections, like AirPods or Ember mugs, than to give less-valuable gifts more often.” The majority of companies still want to brand products in some way to get their name out there, but he also said he’s seen companies choose more subtle, black or gray logos, or decide to brand the packaging instead of the gift itself in order to boost swag retention rates.

A quote from the article that says "It's better to give gifts less frequently but with higher quality than to give less valuable gifts more often."

Ultimately, the goal of branded swag is to create positive associations with the brand and increase brand awareness. It's important to think about how and where the swag will be distributed to ensure maximum impact. Trade shows, conferences, and employee events are all great opportunities to distribute swag and generate buzz. Additionally, considering the target audience's preferences and lifestyle can help determine the most effective distribution channels. 

When it comes to designing branded swag, simplicity and consistency are key. A clear and easily recognizable logo or slogan can make a lasting impression. The messaging should align with the brand's values and appeal to the target audience. For example, an environmentally conscious crowd will appreciate reducing the carbon footprint and compostable packaging. The design should also be adaptable to different types of swag, whether it's a small pen or a large t-shirt.

Budgeting for branded swag is an important aspect to consider. It's crucial to allocate enough funds to create quality items that will resonate with the audience. Additionally, factoring in the costs of production, design, and distribution will help determine a realistic budget.

While branded swag can be a powerful marketing tool, it's important to avoid common mistakes. One common mistake is giving out swag without a clear strategy or purpose. It's important to have specific goals in mind and use swag strategically to achieve them. Another mistake is not tracking the ROI of branded swag efforts. It's essential to measure the impact of swag distribution to determine its effectiveness and make improvements.

What to Consider When Selecting Swag for Your Business Goals

In the wide open world of swag, how do you decide what to get for your audience? What's your swag budget? And how do you streamline sending swag as much as possible without losing a personal touch, blowing your budget, or missing the mark? 

When it comes to choosing the right swag for your business goals, there are several factors to consider. First and foremost, you need to have a clear understanding of your target audience. What appeals to them? What would they find useful or interesting? What will catch their attention or prove valuable to them? Thinking through these finer details will help you narrow down your options and ensure that your swag resonates with your audience instead of repelling them. 

Another important factor to consider is your budget. Swag can range in price from inexpensive items like pens and keychains to more high-end products like expensive apparel or tech gadgets. It's important to allocate a realistic budget for your swag to ensure that you are getting the best return on investment or not overspending on any one campaign.

Additionally, you need to think about the logistics of distributing your swag. Are you attending a trade show where you can hand out items in person? Or are you sending out packages to clients or prospects? Streamlining the process as much as possible without losing a personal touch is key. Consider using a fulfillment service to handle the shipping and packaging, or include a personalized note with each package to add a personal touch.

Lastly, consider the overall branding and messaging of your swag. Your swag should align with your brand identity and reinforce your company's message. Think about how your logo and branding can be incorporated into the design of your swag to make it memorable and impactful, and if possible, pick out a good mix of swag basics and rare products that really cut through the noise.

A pink CTA button asking "Ready to level up your swag game?" and directing people to Zest's swag catalog.

How to Distribute Branded Swag for Maximum Impact and ROI

The easiest way to distribute swag is with a tool that enables you to swiftly collect recipient addresses, lets recipients pick their size or piece of swag, and add a personalized note or touchpoint on one platform (that doesn’t blow your entire marketing budget). 

Swag and promotional product platforms have been around for a decade or longer, but for the most part, they’ve been slow to adopt modern technologies or adapt to modern businesses. People sourcing and shopping for swag are also consumers, which means their expectations are similar to when they’re shopping for themselves. In the direct-to-consumer ecommerce world, they order, pay for, and ship goods to themselves or anyone in a matter of clicks. When it comes to the swag tools of yore, though, they’re still met with clunky interfaces, lengthy sales processes, and tedious forms. 

In other words, it’s really hard to buy swag from most platforms today. 

This cumbersome swag-ordering process has lead to many companies having an overflowing swag closet taking up space and being cleaned out once every 5 years to make way for new swag or branded goods. It’s not an efficient or eco-friendly way to buy, store, and send swag in addition to the troublesome process. 

We noticed the gap between how modern businesses operate and how outdated swag platforms perform, so we built Zest to bring online gifting into the 21st century. Zest gifting is the platform that lets you do all of that without ever charging a SaaS fee. One of the key factors in maximizing the impact of your branded swag is ensuring that it is distributed effectively. By using a tool like Zest gifting, you can streamline the distribution process and make it as easy as possible for recipients to receive their swag. This not only saves you time and effort, but it also ensures that the swag reaches the intended recipients promptly.

When distributing swag, it's important to consider the preferences and needs of your target audience. By allowing recipients to pick their size or piece of swag, you are giving them a sense of ownership and ensuring that they receive something that they will actually use and appreciate. This personalized approach can greatly enhance the impact of your swag.

Adding a personalized note or touchpoint is another effective way to make your branded swag stand out. It shows that you value and appreciate the recipient, and helps to establish a connection between your brand and the individual. Whether it's a handwritten note or a thoughtful message included with the swag, these personal touches can leave a lasting impression and increase the likelihood of future engagement with your brand.

In addition to distribution, it's important to consider how to use branded swag for maximum impact. Swag can be used as a promotional tool at events and trade shows, as a thank-you gift for customers or clients, or even as an incentive for employees. By strategically choosing when and how to distribute swag, you can increase its effectiveness and achieve your desired marketing goals.

Budgeting for Branded Swag: How Much Should You Invest?

How much money should you invest in swag? How quickly should you scale? How often should you create and distribute new swag? Don't blow your swag budget on gifting platform fees like Sendoso or Alyce, which could charge you thousands more than is in your entire gifting budget.

When budgeting for branded swag, it's essential to strike a balance between quality and quantity. A simple rule of thumb is that your promotional goods shouldn’t surpass 20% of your marketing budget, but how much you spend will boil down to several factors unique to your company and goals.

Consider allocating a specific percentage of your marketing budget to corporate swag, or even ordering swag as you need and on an on-demand basis. This will help you ensure that you have a consistent supply of branded merch without overspending. Keep in mind that it's not just about the cost of the items themselves, but also the cost of customization, packaging, and shipping.

Another important factor to consider is the perceived value of the swag. Investing in high-quality items that people actually want and will use can have a greater impact than cheaper, low-quality items. Consider the preferences and interests of your target audience when selecting the type of swag to invest in. And don’t forget to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of your swag. Monitor the response rates, engagement levels, and ROI of different types of swag to determine what is working and what is not. This will help you make informed decisions about where to allocate your budget in the future or what pieces of swag to drop from your rotation.

Dodge Mistakes and Nail Your Branded Swag in Any Campaign

Let’s review: Send swag that's high-quality, desirable by your audience, and aligns with your brand mission or values.  

This may seem simple enough, but when it comes to actually sourcing and buying your new batch of swag, you may find it’s easier to misstep than you thought. One common mistake to avoid when using branded swag in marketing is sending out low-quality items. It may be tempting to go for cheaper options to save money or send a higher quantity, but if the swag is of poor quality, it reflects poorly on your brand. Invest in high-quality items that will leave a lasting impression on your audience and give instant value.

Another mistake to avoid is choosing swag that doesn't appeal to your target audience. Take the time to research and understand what your audience wants and values. If your audience consists of tech-savvy professionals, they may appreciate branded merch like USB drives or phone chargers. On the other hand, if your target audience is more eco-conscious, consider eco-friendly options like reusable water bottles or tote bags.

It's also important to ensure that the swag you choose aligns with your brand mission or values. Your branded swag should be a reflection of your brand identity and what you stand for. If your brand promotes sustainability, for example, consider opting for eco-friendly corporate swag.

Additionally, it's crucial to have a clear strategy in place for distributing and using your branded swag. Don't just hand out swag randomly – think about how you can maximize its impact. Consider using it as a giveaway at events, sending it as a thank you to loyal customers, or incorporating it into your social media campaigns.

Finally, be thoughtful when designing your branded swag. Ensure that your designs and messaging are consistent with your overall branding. The swag should be visually appealing and memorable. Think about how your audience will use or display the swag, and design accordingly.

When it comes to using branded swag in marketing, sales, customer success, or HR and talent initiatives, it's important to avoid common mistakes such as sending out low-quality items, choosing swag that doesn't resonate with your audience, neglecting to align it with your brand values, and not having a clear distribution strategy. By avoiding these mistakes and taking a thoughtful approach to your branded swag, you can harness its power and make a lasting impact on your target audience.

Liz Lorge
Liz Lorge
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