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Swag 101: What You Need to Know about Trade Show Giveaways and Promotional Items

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

One of the most important aspects of trade show exhibiting is swag — those promotional items designed to spread your logo and message to the masses. Here are some core considerations to help choose and design giveaways that won't be left in the hotel room.

1. Brand Alignment

Key consideration: Does the item support our brand and corporate image?

Expert insight: “It's got to be something that communicates the company's brand strategy, otherwise it's just another gimmick,” explains Los Angeles–based branding expert Rob Frankel. “Gimmicky toys are simply gimmicky toys. The most important aspect of giveaways is the ability to tie the promotional item to the solution the brand provides the prospect.”

Action item: Brainstorm trade show giveaways within the context of your brand or product/service promise.

2. Audience Value

Key consideration: What’s going to resonate with our customers, prospects and evangelists?

Expert insight: There are two schools of thought on promotional items: make them practical or make them unique. Personalized pens, mints and custom water bottles always seem to be in demand, which means they’ll get frequent use and spread your logo around for all to see. But something silly or creative also gets traction. Scottsdale, AZ–based Symmetry Software’s blinking badges have become collectibles since their debut in 2009. Emblazoned with the words Payroll Goddess or Payroll Titan, the items carry the logo of the company’s flagship brand, PaycheckCity. “Most often, payroll managers are overlooked until something goes wrong with an employee's paycheck, and then unfortunately, payroll managers are not always treated so nicely by upset employees,” explains Elizabeth Oviedo, Symmetry’s marketing manager. The badges address that head on by calling attention to the wearer. “We routinely hear from attendees at our trade shows that they have a collection of Payroll Goddess blinking badges from over the years. As a result of this marketing campaign we've seen increased brand recognition for PaycheckCity positioning us as the leader in paycheck management tools.”

Action item: Consider what problems or frustrations your customers have and choose a trade show promotional item that solves or eases it.

3. Durability

Key consideration: Is the item built to last?

Expert insight: It’s not a good reflection on your business if the promotional items you give out break or malfunction soon after the show. “Swag pieces are infamous for being cheap and short lived — exactly the opposite of how you want a relationship with your brand to be,” Frankel declares.

Action item: Ask your vendor for items with high-quality construction and materials, and good durability ratings.

4. Price

Key consideration: What’s the highest-quality trade show giveaway we can get with the marketing budget available, and what’s it going to cost to get the item to the show?

Expert insight: “Whatever swag you decide on usually has to be shipped to the trade show, event or promotional location,” cautions Jhan Robert Dolphin, director of Kenosha, WI–based Forge Ahead USA, a marketing assistance program that helps U.S manufacturers take advantage of their American-made status. “Think ahead about the size and weight of the items you want to hand out. Shipping can be a killer, and what if they take up too much storage space in a trade show display? If the items are too big to easily carry around, the idea fails.”

Action item: Investigate free shipping options with your vendor, or select one that has a location in the show city so you can easily pick up the goods and avoid costly freight charges.

Other important tips:

  • Don’t fall in love. In a previous business life, Greg Chambers executed a high-concept idea for his trade show booth that fell completely flat because no one got the joke. The Omaha-based business development consultant now cautions clients to weigh their ideas against the risk of failure and vet them with trusted customers. “In my case, failure was not only the cost of the booth, travel and swag, but also the cost of a bad first impression. We went legit the next season, but I never quite got past the embarrassment of a concept that fell flat.”
  • Start early. It’s crucial to plan ahead, especially when choosing something like a 3D printed version of your logo or miniature product, which presents a unique promotional opportunity. “There are so many logistical components to planning a show, it's easy to put design at the end, thinking we'll work on that when we know everything else is in place,” laments Carrboro, NC–based designer Tremayne Cryer. Don’t.
  • Make it sell. Swag is essentially an ad for your business, but it won’t be very effective if people can’t find you when they want to buy. Improve promotional products’ inbound marketing oomph by including a URL, social media handle or QR code along with your logo and phone number.
  • Don’t rely on swag alone. “Many vendors put more emphasis on the swag than on the pitch,” chides David Brimm, a public relations and marketing consultant in Deerfield, IL. “Just giving away premium items doesn't score sales if the people manning the booth don't know to engage visitors and close the sale. The purpose of being at a show is to generate leads, not to brag that all the swag items were picked up.”

Follow this expert advice to make sure your trade show promotional items get attention at the show and produce business results back at the office.

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