Whilst the digital age has allowed businesses of all sizes to reach out to potentially huge numbers of potential customers, across all manner of platforms, there’s still a lot to be said for communication rooted in the real world. The advantage of a face to face touchpoint compared to a digital one is hard to measure but there is no doubt that impression left is a far more enduring and positive one.

Let’s make no mistake, building a brand takes a variety of approaches both digital and non-digital. When it comes to raw exposure, for example, it largely comes down to a numbers game and in these instances, digital platforms offer the opportunity to reach huge audiences. But a lot of the time it is about so much more than just exposure. Creating a positive and lasting impression of your brand that gets people talking and encourages genuine brand advocacy is vital and there are few marketing strategies as good at doing this as promotional merchandise.

Brand Recall and Exposure over the Long Term

In their 2016 cost analysis of promotional products versus other advertising media, the Advertising Specialty Institute surveyed over 100,000 consumers and found that, on average, a promotional product was kept and used for around 8 months. They also found that 85% of consumers said they were more likely to remember the advertiser if they were emblazoned on a promotional product.

So what do these figures tell us?

Well, they offer up an insight into the power of promotional marketing to do two things better than digital.

The first is to do with brand recall. Promotional merchandise has been shown to create an especially strong association between brand and consumers (in this case the recipient of the promotional item and those who are exposed to it). This is to do with the fact that the product exists in the real physical world making it more memorable than digital media. Research supports this, with a recent neuroscience study suggesting our brains are more receptive to physical material as it “has a meaning, and a place. It is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks.”

The second factor is to do with longevity. This is based on the fact that promotional products, if they are genuinely desirable or useful (more on that in a bit), will get used on average for around 8 months, according to the ASI study. In other words, compared to digital media, promotional marketing endures over the long term. Reach over the lifetime of a product will vary greatly, depending on the nature of the product (a t-shirt will get more brand exposure than a USB stick for example).

So what promotional merchandise lacks in mass exposure, when compared to digital media, it makes up for in longevity and brand recall.

Quality, Utility and Relevance

The secret of promotional marketing (or for that matter all marketing) is creating a good first impression. Unlike digital forms of marketing media, promotional products exist in the real world and so getting it right first time is a must. Unlike the slow drip feed effect of brand building on digital platforms (a promoted social media post here, a well optimised YouTube video there), promotional marketing is entirely reliant on that first impression, which is why it’s crucial that your products – whether they be freebies or not – come up to speed in three key areas.

  • Quality: When it comes to promotional merchandise, quality really needs to be paramount. It’s all too easy to think that if you’re giving something away for free, the recipients will be grateful whatever it is. This couldn’t be further from the truth and this kind of thinking can actually do more harm than good. An umbrella that falls apart after a few uses is only going to come across as shoddy and that impression will be projected onto your brand and its products, whether you like it or not. So, in this case, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
  • Utility: There is a lot of evidence to suggest that utility is a huge driver of positive brand association when it comes to promotional products. Whilst t-shirt and bags can be extremely appealing as fashion items, it’s important to note that they serve a purpose. The appeal here is that they’re also worn or used out in public which increases brand exposure.
  • Relevance: Knowing your customers is something that will help you establish a genuine level of association and even loyalty from them. This is why your promotional products need to really appeal to your average customer. This is clearly not an exact science as everyone is different but if you can give off the impression that you’ve thought about your customer in the process, this will help establish that vital good first impression you’re after.

Where Digital and Physical Marketing Meets

Like a lot of marketing that strives to brand build (as opposed to delivering direct sales or enquiries) promotional marketing isn’t always as easy to track in terms of ROI. What’s more, without the suite of tools and analytics that so many digital platforms afford, tracking promotional marketing is done indirectly by watching other channels like social media.

What this reveals though, is the potential of promotional marketing to feed into other channels, notably digital ones. It’s why truly great promotional marketing campaigns are not built in silos but are instead conceived and executed as part of a wider and more integrated marketing strategy. Social media can and should play a huge part in this, along with other forms or digital marketing like email, PPC advertising and non-digital marketing like direct mail and print ads.

For example, if we were to take a product launch event as the medium through which our promotional merchandise will be distributed (whether it be a free ‘swag bag’ or a competition to win said product before it even goes on sale) then the digital marketing opportunities are endless, whether it’s live streaming the first product demo on Facebook or encouraging attendees to live tweet their thoughts. Whilst it’s imperative to plan the actual event well and get the right kind of attendees, the potential such an event has to get traction across all your digital channels is huge.

About the Author: Steve Hill is the Director of Bag Workshop, a leading UK supplier in promotional bags and custom branded bags. Having worked in marketing for over a decade, Steve stepped aside to found three separate companies supplying bespoke marketing products under the Wurlin Promo umbrella. You can connect with Bag Workshop on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Steve Hill

Steve Hill


Steve Hill is the director of Bag Workshop