Thinking About The Perfect Schwag

Source: GasMaskLexicon via epromos.

I was cleaning up my office today and spent a good hour going through a box of schwag that had accumulated over the past year of rep meetings, trade shows and conferences. The exercise resulted in a few thoughts on the subject that wanted to bounce off the blog's readers.

First, by schwag, let's mean promo items whose unit cost doesn't exceed ten bucks, give or take, which covers a range of situations from large-scale conferences to private meetings. Anything more expensive is probably out of the usual schwag budget and may even be frowned upon by the schwagee's (the recepient's) organization.

Second, it seems that good schwag is supposed to achieve a sustainable combination of the following goals:
1. Increase brand recognition through maximizing exposures, both in terms of frequency (how often do you see it) and reach (who else sees it). It should be perfectly possible to design proxy schwag: an item that you give to someone at a conference so that it ends up at the hands of the decision-making boss;
2. Build a connection with the advertised brand either through copy or relevant interactions;
3. Generate positive emotions in schwagees.

Now, "sustainable combination" is the key here. Many get the exposures part right one way or another -- branded sticky notes, for example, or a PlayStation keychain bottle opener I've been carrying around since college (the name has worn off years ago). The other two parts are trickier. I've got things that are amusing at first but are quickly forgotten: all of those novelty items that novel for about five seconds. Others don't really produce any emotions (oh, look, notepad) or, worse, are annoying (a paper fan that came apart after a few swings). Very few have anything to do with the company or service whose name they bear -- at best, you'll see a line of copy trying to bridge the semantic gap.

There are at least two kinds of schwag that hit all the points without even trying. One kind is collectibles or items that have otherwise acquired cultural significance. The other kind includes items that signify the schwagee's membership in or an association with an exclusive group. This VIP schwag is often so desirable that people pay money to have it -- I'm thinking about all that retro schwag on eBay or overpriced "official" branded tchotchkes parents buy at their kids' college bookstores.

As for the regular schwag, here are some observations:

1. When in doubt or on a budget, go with pens. Two notes, however. An obscure logo that screams freebie often cheapens an otherwise expensive pen. Second, people spend so much time with their writing instruments that they are very particular about how these instruments feel.

2. Even though they are on the more expensive end, books make great give-aways, especially in a smaller-scale setting. Besides making the right impression, books about your business will educate your audience and make your life easier down the road. Put them in a custom dust-cover if you must and write down your name and contact info as business cards and bookmarks tend to fall out.

3. USB drives. Very useful and well-received by any schwagee, they are not going to end up in the garbage. Not sure if anyone pays attention to what's written on the sides, though, so go for a custom shape.

4. Adhesive tape with the brand name printed on it. Of course, this works in a setting where adhesive tape is used in the first place. I think I've seen it done before, but don't remember the details.

5. Custom push-pins, especially if they are shaped as your brand mascot. Never seen those, but wouldn't they be fun?

6. Has anyone tried cubicle decorations? Cube Chic may be on the extreme end, but it will give you ideas.

7. Looking at the stuff in my box, I don't really see a point in cheap digital radios (unless they promote a radio station and are locked into the appropriate frequency), yo-yos (unless you have just bounced back from a bankruptcy) and playing cards (unless each of them is unique).

8. Desk organizers and picture frames probably work well.

9. Apparel is tricky, unless it is somehow exclusive. Yes, I did keep a couple of t-shirts I had been given, but I can't wear them to the office. Same goes for hats.

10. If I were to give away toys, I'd go for something like the Horrified B-Movie Victims.

E-promos: an entire blog on schwag
Wired: Great moments in schwag history
Promotional Products Association International
StartupSchwag -- an online store where one man's schwag is another man's treasure.

Designing Usable Conferences
Rant: Conference Blog Coverage Aggregation
Usable Conference Badges

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