The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas is known making headlines with new innovations and technology unveilings. However the most recent conference held a few weeks ago put a small spotlight on swag or the promotional items given away at the event.
Many claim that these freebies are pointless and just end up in the trash while the promotional product industry touts them as important branding tools. After spending several years in the promotional products industry (which loathes the word “swag”), I can tell you that both are right. They are an effective brand building tool when used correctly and without careful planning, they can be a waste of advertising dollars.
Also based on my experience, when the “Stuff We All Get” makes it into the news, there is usually a good promotional advertising lesson to be learned.
Don’t Grab the Attention of the TSA
Story: Flights leaving Austin after SXSW were delayed due to promotional items setting of alarms in airport security. Details on what items cause the problems weren’t released, but it still highlights an important consideration when choosing promotional products for an event.
Lesson: Consider the circumstances of those attending the event. Value and ease of use are two important factors that dictate the success of a promotional item.
If an item provides a value or convenience to the attendee during the event, it is less likely that the product will end up in a heap somewhere afterwards. Canvas bags, a event staple, provide a convenient way to carry materials around an event floor, and can be used well after the show providing long term value both to the attendee and the advertiser.
If attendees are they traveling, promotional items should be easy to pack and not set off airport security. So knives are out. Liquids like hand sanitizers or sunblock should be 3 ounces or less to comply with TSA rules. Also consider weather conditions around the event. People attending warm weather events have different needs than those attending winter ones.
The experience of the product is just as important in promoting your brand as the logo and color are. The more convenient the promotional item is, the better the brand experience it provides and the more valuable it is to the advertiser.
Don’t Let Your Swag be Given to the Homeless
Story: A group collected unwanted SXSW swag to give to the homeless through Homeless Foundation of Austin. With an event this large, attendees will be inundated with SWAG and promotional materials. It’s a great idea…for your competitor’s promotional items.
Lesson: Give attendees a reason to keep your promotional items.
To have successful swag, you need to have an understanding of the lifestyle, work day or personality of those attending the event. Integrating a product into the home or work routine of the recipient gives them a reason to keep it, see it and continually remember your brand experience. While usefulness is key, don’t underestimate the importance of the wow factor, regardless of the profile of your event’s attendees.
Another way to keep your swag from being discarded is to align it with an attendee’s personal brand. Here again, you must know the profile of those attending of the event. Are they looking for something cool or innovative? Look for new, unique gadgets or trendy colors. If the audience is more affluent, items should reflect a person’s perceived status.
Swag serves two basic purposes in a trade show setting – bring people to the booth and give them something to remember it by after they go home. However, the item only works if the recipient keeps it. Like any other advertising method, the better the piece relates to the audience, the more successful it is.
Don’t Just Give Swag Away
Story: In response to unflattering portrayals of promotional products in the news stories referenced above, the Promotional Products Association International released statement. In it, the organization’s President and CEO Paul Bellantone, debunked the myths and explaining effectiveness of “strategically branded campaigns” or carefully plan use of promotional products.
Lesson: Just giving away promotional products/swag at an event is a waste of money. Bellantone’s emphasis on strategy in PPAI’s statement reflects the industries continued attempts to educate business owners, marketers and advertising agencies on the proper approach to promotional products.
Have a plan. You wouldn’t shoot a random video on your phone and send it off to a TV station and say here’s our money just broadcast this anytime. There would be brainstorming, strategy sessions and a long list of approvals. The same care needs to be taken with promotional items.
For the best results, swag should not be “Stuff We All Get.” The biggest mistakes I saw in my time in the industry is advertisers just freely giving away promotional items to anyone. Make them earn it. Have attendees listen to a pitch, drop off a business card (so you can follow up) or whatever else you determine gets you closer to a sale or whatever your endgame is.
Moral of the Story
Swag that is just thrown at people is waste and belongs in the trash or with the homeless. With careful planning, audience consideration, strategic distribution and a little creativity, your swag will build your brand and deliver your message well after event attendees have made it home.