Promotional Products – An Essential Marketing & Communications Tool

Let’s be honest – people will always love free stuff!

Dylan Martin, a BostInno staff writer, Tech, recently attended the Boston TechJam event where he scored “some serious swag”. In fact, he got such a kick out of the promotional products, he went on to model and even demonstrate his favourites, from FitBit’s water gun to SmartBear’s cheeseburger chair.

After attending the Advertising Specialty Institute’s promotional products expo in Chicago in the fall of 2016, Chicago Tribune reporter Cheryl V. Jackson showcased some of the coolest items: a custom bicycle, virtual reality viewer, doggie rain jackets with reflective stripes, screen cleaners, smart tags that can find items such as keys or smartphones, lanyards with a built-in flat USB cable charger, a foldable pen that doubles as a business card, a transformable pen with a stylus and LED light that folds into a smartphone stand and reusable handwarmers.

Admit it – you’d love to see and receive even one of those ultra cool items – even though Jackson also noted that shirts, pens and bags remain the top three categories in the corporate giveaway and employee gift industry.That’s why whatever your preferred term – swag, promotional products or advertising specialty items – free stuff is still a great way to connect your target demographic with your brand’s products and services.

Here’s proof:

Carrier bags, hats/caps, writing instruments, outerwear and t-shirts continue to produce the most impressions according to the Advertising Specialty Institute’s “Global Advertising Specialties Impressions Study” 2016 Edition.

Promotional products or advertising specialty items are defined as anything that has the advertiser’s logo on it and is typically given away free of charge by the company. The intent is to develop a connection with the recipient in order to increase brand recognition, enhance the perception and/or reputation of the brand and embed the brand in the recipient’s memory with the goal of eventually influencing the purchasing decision.

The ASI interviewed thousands of people in-person and online in key cities in the U.S. and Mexico (over 100,000 consumers surveyed online), Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver), Europe (London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid) and Australia (Sydney). When asked about the cost analysis of promotional products versus other advertising media, those interviewed reported that advertising specialties remain one of the most high-impact, cost-effective advertising mediums around.

When asked for their overall opinion of advertising mediums, consumers under 55 years of age prefer promotional products or advertising specialty items, which indicates they are also considered the most highly regarded form of advertising ahead of TV, magazine, newspaper, radio, targeted mobile and internet advertising.

Promotional Products Ranked by the # of Impressions Generated

ASI’s “Global Advertising Specialties Impressions Study” 2016 Edition calculated the number of impressions a product makes by multiplying how long a recipient had a product and the number of people that came into contact with it while the recipient was using it.

According to the report, advertising specialties are still less expensive per impression than most other types of advertising simply because they directly touch the target demographic and encourage more interaction. The cost per impression is similar to radio and internet advertising and well below prime-time television, national magazine and newspaper ads.

Bags were the clear winner because they’re so often used in public spaces where they are seen by many people as are hats/caps, writing instruments, fleeces/outerwear and finally t-shirts, in that order.

Let’s check out the impressions for each item in Canada:

  • Bags – 4,724 impressions
  • Hats/caps – 3,634 impressions
  •  Writing instruments – 2,943
  •  Fleeces/outerwear – 2,805 impressions
  •  T-shirts – 2,253

While the exact number of impressions generated varies slightly from city to city and country to country, the overall list of products that generates the most impressions is remarkably consistent. To a degree, it relates to cultural and lifestyle habits, for example, the commitment to reuse and reusable bags, as well as what people typically wear in the office and on the street in addition to climate.

Wearables tend to deliver the most impressions because they are highly visible with the individual becoming the proverbial walking billboard. Health and safety items and USB drives produce fewer impressions because they’re intended primarily for a single individual but the connection lies in their relevance and value to the user.

Promotional Products – Preferred, Affordable, Targeted, Interactive

Consumers like promotional products or advertising specialty items the most and best of all for advertisers, it’s also the most affordable, targeted and interactive.

Consider this – 85% of consumers worldwide remember the advertiser that gave them the promotional or advertising specialty item and recall is the highest for apparel, such as a shirt or hat.

If you’re asking the question: “Promotional products or internet advertising?”

Here is the answer courtesy of the Advertising Specialty Institute’s “Global Advertising Specialties Impressions Study” 2016 Edition: “Consumers are nearly 2.5 times more likely to have a positive opinion of promotional products than Internet advertising.”

On average in Canada, male consumers own nine promotional products or advertising specialty items while women own 10.

Consumers in Canada and the U.S. tend to give them away when they’re finished with them and in Canada 64% will give it away, 18% will file it and just 18% throw it out. In fact, in most countries, 50% of recipients will give away what they don’t want rather than store it or trash it.

Promotional Products – Subtle & Discrete Over Blatantly In-Your-FACE

While recipients absolutely want to see brand names on promotional products because it confirms the quality, durability and value of the item, for example, Adidas, UnderArmor or Nike, promotional products and advertising specialty item distributors recognize that their customers may not want to share that space equally.

After all, their goal is to promote their brand, products and services not the manufacturer of that promotional product or advertising specialty item, whether it’s a fitness tracker, fleece hoodie, polo shirt, ball cap, watch or writing instrument.

As a result, increasingly industry experts and distributors note that their customers’ logos tend to take the most prominent position while the manufacturer’s logo will be discretely tucked away. In addition, experts and their customers recognize that recipients tend to be more likely to retain, use and display an item that is useful and attractive with a relatively subtle logo. Recipients will wear and use swag, but are more inclined to do so if it whispers or murmurs “promotional product from brand X” than if it shouts and screams it.

Promotional Products – Useful, Practical, Attractive

To have the most impact and get the most value for your brand’s investment in promotional products, the report points out that above all, consumers want practical and useful items. When it comes to items such as writing instruments and USB drives, usefulness is more important than attractiveness by at least five to one. For outerwear, attractiveness comes in second to usefulness with more than half keeping it because it looks good.

In Canada and the U.S., carrier bags generate the most impressions, followed by caps/hats, writing instruments, outerwear and t-shirts, but companies also had success with everything from mobile chargers, mugs and thumb drives to umbrellas.

To best influence the recipients’ opinions of the brand, the report found that these are the top five most influential products in this order:

  1. USB drives
  2. Outerwear
  3. Drinkware
  4. Writing instruments
  5. Performance wear

Promotional Products – Preferences by Age & Gender

As much as every recipient is an individual with unique preferences, the ASI noted distinct trends across age ranges as well as by gender.

Overall, by age:

  • More than half of consumers across all age groups own a branded t-shirt
  • Younger consumers are more likely to own a logoed USB drive, but 45% of U.S. consumers have them
  •  Across all ages, outerwear is a top five influential product

Product influence by age:

  •  Outerwear has the most influence on those 18 to 44 years old
  •  USBs have the most influence on those 45 to 54
  •  Drinkware has the most influence on those 55 to 64
  •  USBs have the most influence on those 65+

Men and women both love USB drives and outerwear, which has to look good, with 91% of recipients keeping USB drives because they are useful while 7% keep them because they are attractive:


  1. USB drives
  2. Drinkware
  3. Outerware

* Men are more likely than women to own branded desk/office accessories


  1. USB drives
  2. Outerwear
  3. Carrier bags – women are more likely own promotional or carrier bags than men

Canadians responded as follows when asked to rate the top three promotional items they had received in the last 12 months::

  • Writing instruments – 48%
  •  Shirts – 36%
  •  Bags – 25%
  •  Calendars – 25%
  •  Desk/office accessories – 16%
  •  Caps/headwear – 21%
  •  Drinkware – 13%
  •  USB drives/flash drives – 12%
  •  Health & Safety products – 11%
  •  Outerwear – 16%

General trends:

  •  42% have a more favourable opinion of the brand if the promotional product they received was environmentally friendly
  •  Recipients notice and appreciate items that were manufactured in their home countries
  •  76% of consumers who have calendars prominently display them at home or at work
  •  Consumers who own a promotional desk accessories typically keep it for 14 months
  •  61% of desk accessories stay at the office
  •  More than half of U.S. consumers who own logoed drinkware use it 2 to 3 times weekly or more
  •  83% would keep a promotional umbrella because it’s useful

Promotional Products – Strategic Planning Pays Off

The best promotional products distributor acts as a consultant to help you assess your promotional products’ campaign goals and the impact you want to have on your target prospects and customers.

At Everyday Office Supplies, we know that firms continue to recognize and show appreciation to their top employees and that companies of all sizes still rely on promotional products to embed their brands with new and existing customers.

Across the board, we see a broad range of advertising specialty items earning impressions, from consumables such as food to digital (e.g. fitness bands, screen cleaners, wireless speakers, mobile chargers) to luxury goods such as elegant bags. Notably, playful items with a touch of whimsy, such as adult colouring books remain popular.

As the experts, we help our customers determine which products make the best sense and will most appeal to their target markets because we know that the more thought and effort you put into the planning and selection process, the better the results will be.

Pretty much anyone will accept a free whatever – t-shirt, fridge magnet or water bottle. The question is does it have the appeal required to keep it in use rather than stashed in a drawer, cupboard or closet.

Tailor your order to your demographic. Mugs always make sense but what type of drinkware will truly resonate?

As Nathan Dresher wrote in Marketing Edge magazine in 2015, the promotional products industry is evolving to suit wide-ranging employee demographics that encompass everyone from millennials to baby boomers and gen-Xers. While every one of them is likely to appreciate a mug, the Boomer may cherish the traditional ceramic version while the millennial wants a trendy, portable stainless mug that’s eco-friendly.

In PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2011 workplace survey titled “Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace”, the firm found that millennials are highly technology-focused – duh – no surprise there – but their purchasing decisions also take into account corporate responsibility, style and the environment.

Even the millennials will take the t-shirt – but chances are they’ll wear it only if it’s a technical fabric with an on-trend message or design. A smartphone or iPhone case, a USB bracelet, backpack, tablet case, power band and ear buds will appeal to them more than any other employee demographic.

To maximize the return on your investment:

1) Plan Far Ahead: Create a calendar of events and be aware of the lead times required to select the most relevant, appropriate products and obtain the required, in-house approvals. Once you have the go-ahead, you need a certain amount of time to order, customize and ship them.

2) Align your brand, campaign message and goal with your target demographic (age, gender, lifestyle, culture) and commit to consistent messaging and branding.

3) Assess and know your budget: Cheap, disposable items probably won’t earn you accolades with your target audience and while indifference is a waste of your money, offending or irritating the very people you’re trying to please affects your reputation, image and bottom line.

4) Get creative and be smart about it. The most innovative campaign makes them smile and ensures they’ll keep and use the item. Ingenuity is pointless if it’s so off the wall it sends the wrong message or baffles recipients.

5) Consider every aspect of that product: Where was it made? Is it environmentally friendly? Is it attractive? Useful? Will they be more likely to keep it, give it away or pitch it?

6) Track results carefully to see what works and what doesn’t. Make detailed notes while the campaign and responses are fresh in your mind so that you can apply the lessons learned to your next advertising specialty and promotional products campaigns to maximize the return on your investment.