Company swag isn’t dead...but it needs to be great

Bridget Poetker
Because slapping your logo on a stress ball isn't building a brand.

Fast Company recently published an article asking readers if we can “finally kill off cheap, disposable conference swag.”

The short answer is yes.

The majority of swag distributed at conferences ends up in the trash—it’s cheap because marketing budgets are tight and “who knows if this stuff actually works.”

I hear you, creating literal garbage is definitely not the most environmentally friendly approach to creating an impactful brand experience. But the main takeaway isn’t that swag doesn’t work, but that companies need to invest in higher-quality merchandise to create more memorable, personalized experiences.

The second half of the problem is that we seem to think swag is for everyone. The whole point of a marketing strategy is to have different tactics for different types of buyers. Yes, your ICP might all be growth marketers but they also have personal preferences. Some people might want your t-shirt, others a pair of socks, but some won't want it at all.

TLDR; you need to start creating swag that people actually want AND we need to make it easier for people to decline if they don't.

How to use swag to build your internal and external brand

Buying behaviors are moving away from pay-to-play growth tactics and toward overall brand experience to create customer loyalty and drive revenue. Nearly 80% of founders report that building a community is important to their business, and 28% say it’s critical to success.

B2B companies should invest in thoughtfully created swag and branded merchandise for two reasons:

  1. Externally, it builds community and raises brand awareness by giving people something to identify with as it relates to your company.
  2. Internally, it helps build company culture—a brand is both internal and external and you have to foster both. Swag is one way to bridge that gap.

The offline channel offers an impactful, experiential way to engage with and constantly build your brand community.

It could be a unique event kit containing treats for a virtual meet up or a branded zip-up with a phrase that pokes fun at your ICP, 99% of people are willing to go out of their way for a promotional item. Not to mention, when you offer items that are useful or relevant to your audience, you show them you understand them.

It’s why the most well-known B2B brands such as Slack, Figma, and Gong have swag stores that puts some actual clothing companies to shame.

Sub-branded programs, when executed correctly, create affinity for your brand by attracting new business and turning your customers into raving fans. Offline brand experiences can be a great assist for demand generation programs by motivating the buyer to take the next step in their journey.

Say you have a form on your website that’s specifically geared towards your main ICP. You can use the offline channel to effectively follow up and engage this lead by sending a custom item that speaks to this persona and represents your brand.

That’s what we in the biz like to call creating an experience.

External: community and awareness

Customers and prospects want a way to relate to your brand. In fact, a study conducted by Accenture found that 95% of millennials want brands to actively court them.

Branded items and experiences create affinity with your logo and potentially give recipients an item to make their day-to-day easier.

Use swag and offline experiences as an extension of your digital campaigns

Thoughtful, witty merchandise turns into free advertising once it’s adopted by consumers. Take for example Metadata’s ABM Isn’t campaign: they used a free ‘swag for sign-up’ offering giving the first 200 people to fill out their form a unique t-shirt that B2B professionals can relate to.

Not only did this offline incentive generate leads, but it also provided free in-person, or Zoom, advertising for their campaign. This is a great example of swag that’s executed in a way that doesn’t make the recipient feel like a walking billboard, by tying a clever and meaningful merchandise offering to a digital marketing campaign. Genius.

Another example of well-executed swag that brought a technology brand into the real world was Slack’s partnership with Cole Haan to produce these branded sneakers. They visually compete with Allbirds, and Cole Haan even promoted on their website that the collab is “...a vibrant example of how Slack is everything you need to get your work done.” Shoes that convey a company initiative and an item people would actually wear.

By executing on thoughtful swag such as Metadata and Slack, the barrier to in-person, or out-of-home advertising, comes crashing down. We polled subscribers to our newsletter, Making The Quarter, and saw a shockingly wide distribution for what respondents believe the barrier to entry for out-of-home advertising should be. The fact of the matter is that any company, from $100k to $100m in revenue can execute a creative and engaging swag campaign that drives action from prospects and customers.

Swag and branded merchandise is the lowest barrier to entry for out-of-home advertising.

Giving prospects and customers credits to your company swag store

A Mckinsey survey found 76% of consumers said that receiving personalized communications was a key factor in prompting their consideration of a brand.

By personalized communications, I don’t mean emails that lead with "Hi {first name}, hope everything is well at {company name}".

Personalized swag offerings don’t necessarily mean items that were literally created for an individual recipient. It’s all about how you position the offering. One of the best ways to create unique swag experiences is to give your recipients access to your company swag store, as well as credits to purchase an item of your choice. Doing so empowers your prospect or customer to choose a branded item that’s relevant to their needs or interests.

Distributing merchandise and branded items at conferences

Traditionally, you lug a suitcase stuffed full of t-shirts, bracelets, stress balls, and other tchotchkes across the country, through the event floor, and to your booth, only to hand out items that end up in a landfill. Nope. This is exactly the conference swag narrative the B2B world must let go of.

Instead, managing your swag closet in the cloud and distributing items via QR codes at the event. It’s much more eco-friendly, with the added bonus of sending swag right to people’s doorsteps. Two brand interactions for the price of one.

Internal: company culture

When it comes to building strong company culture and brand image, corporate swag distributed internally helps foster both of those things. It enables organizations to appreciate and delight employees while having continuity between the brand’s online and offline presence.

Disclaimer: You must design cool stuff that people are actually going to wear or use.

Clever swag based on a company’s inside jokes is a quick win to strengthen the bonds of remote workforces. It ensures the people of your organization are seen and heard, and also provides a tangible connection to your brand.

our product team's nod to their favorite jira status

Give employees credits to your company swag store

Similar to the external use case, a company swag store can also be a helpful tool for HR managers to ensure nobody is missing out on “swag fomo”. Say you never received the hip branded holiday quarter-zip because you just started your role—now you can buy it in the company swag store.

Similarly, people ops teams can empower employees by providing credits to the swag store, enabling them to choose the item they want instead of settling for the default gift everyone receives after working there a year.

Take your swag(ger) to the next level

Now you're absolutely convinced to make great swag that you're proud of and people actually want to wear. If you don't have the internal resources to get this done, work with our experienced team at Paper Plane Agency. If you're thinking ahead to inventory management and distribution, the Postal Platform offers an online marketplace and swag store to help with the logistics.

Marketing
Bridget Poetker

Bridget Poetker is the Director of Content & Brand at Postal. She’s passionate about authentic brand building and bringing creative campaigns back to B2B marketing. When she’s not working, Bridget co-hosts a podcast on personal and professional growth, walks the Chicago riverwalk with her dog, and is probably cooking.