Is Swag Dead?

Is Swag Dead?


(As featured in Fast Company)

We’ve all been there. You come home from that conference, meeting, or seminar with a head full of great ideas—and a bag full of branded merchandise. At first, it seems like you’ll definitely be using that pen, stress ball, or flashlight but as it migrates into a desk drawer filled with identical objects, its ultimate fate becomes all too sadly clear.

Like all the other branded swag, it’ll linger for a few months or years until the annoyance of keeping it outweighs the guilt of throwing it away, ultimately heading to a thrift store or landfill. There has to be a better way, and as more and more companies move towards a lower-waste way of doing things, the traditional swag has found itself on the chopping block.

So what is the current state of swag? And is there a better, more conscious way to create objects that will inspire partners to keep your brand in mind? Let’s take a closer look.

A Brief History of Swag

For decades, swag and other promotional products have been a fun, memorable way for companies to lure you into a conversation with a salesperson through the siren song of “booth bait” at conferences. Once you’re back home, these branded items remind you of the interaction to make sure they’re staying top of mind for customers and partners. Better than a business card, an object that you reach for and use throughout your day can be a powerful symbol of the utility your brand offers, one that may stick subconsciously in the minds of people who will then remember to turn to you for support. But where did this concept come from?

The first recorded evidence of swag happened all the way back in 1789, when commemorative buttons were printed to celebrate and promote the presidency of the newly elected George Washington. But swag didn’t really take off beyond the limited world of branded bottle openers and other tie-ins created by beer companies until a few decades later, thanks to the so-called “father of swag,” Jasper Meek.

Meek was a printer who used his press to create branded burlap bags that local businesses could give to shoppers, sparking the first wave of swag that would go on to take over American corporate culture.

The rise of plastics gave swag production a major boost, as it became easier than ever before to manufacture lower-cost branded objects that didn’t have to be handled with care and lasted for longer, expanding their impact on consumers. Over the next few decades, swag spread across the globe, leading to major market saturation as these branded objects became more ubiquitous than ever before.

The SOS (State of Swag)

Swag production took a major hit over the 2020 pandemic when in-person events such as conferences, company-wide meetings, and seminars moved online. While some businesses still mailed swag bags to participants, many people found that there was considerably less charm in receiving a package full of random plastic items celebrating a few hours spent on Zoom.

As we return to work in the real world, swag has come roaring back. Brands recovering from the pandemic and meeting up in person for significant events are tempted to return to their old ways, churning out stress balls, lightweight water bottles, and all the other swag classics. But do people actually still want these things (if they ever really did)?

It’s no secret that rising generations like millennials and Gen Z, who now comprise a major part of any workplace, have a more anti-consumerist attitude than past generations exhibited—meaning to them, swag feels more wasteful than exciting. Although the allure of receiving “something for nothing” will remain eternal, these items are never really free—think of your irreplaceable time with a salesperson or the pounds of merch stuffed into your suitcase. And as younger, more environmentally conscious workers prioritize ethical brands offering more expensive items that last over fast fashion and disposable goods, these younger members of the workforce seem to be losing interest in swag’s once universal appeal.

Everyone likes free stuff, but these days, giveaway items need to have a perceived value beyond that of cheap water bottles and branded pens. For a brand to make a statement with swag, it needs to consider what its audience actually values, and appeal to those values in a more purposeful way.

On Beyond Swag

It’s high time to think beyond the traditional boundaries that define the world of swag. The content your brand puts into the world needs to reflect its culture and values, and the promotional items it creates for consumers should be no exception.

Instead of being an afterthought, swag should be an intentional part of your branding strategy. Like it or not, swag is a lasting representation of who your company is and what it stands for. Using cheap, disposable products that people throw away sends the message that your brand is stuck in a cheap, disposable mindset, offering little lasting value to discerning consumers and partners who want to ensure that you’re a good culture fit.

So what’s a swag-addicted company to do? Consider an alternative approach. New companies like Givsly have brought the swag model to charity, giving recipients the opportunity to make a donation to an organization they believe reflects the values of their company instead of shelling out on swag.

If branded items are a must, consider switching to higher-value items that people actually want, giving out fewer items that people will keep. Springing for branded YETI mugs or Kinto water bottles might cost more per unit, but they’ll be used over and over again, reinforcing the message that your company provides real value.

Whatever your new approach to swag, moving beyond the old disposable mindset is critical to establishing your company as a forward-looking changemaker committed to building a better world.
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