Brand Strategy

Are companies second-guessing branded swag as gifts?

Merchandise companies are thinking of new ways to reduce wastefulness as people consider their consumption habits.
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· 5 min read

It’s the season of giving, and employees across America are gearing up to receive a gesture of thanks from their employer in the form of branded mugs and sweatshirts. But are they excited about it?

According to a poll of Marketing Brew readers, about one-third of the more than 1,000 respondents said they keep their company’s branded merch and wear it publicly, one-third said they wear it only in private, and the final third was almost equally split between donating it and throwing it away.

Son Lam, marketing professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, told Marketing Brew that how visible an employee wants their company swag to be (or if they want to wear it at all) often depends on how tied they are to the company. So it’s no surprise that those subjected to layoffs might make a quick trip to Goodwill.

But even among current employees, the sheer volume of swag from events like recruiting camps and conferences can quickly add up and eventually end up in a landfill halfway across the world once tossed. With people becoming more aware of their consumption habits, industry experts told us the corporate gifting world is starting to change as well.

Avoiding the trash

Leo Friedman, CEO and founder of promotional product supplier iPromo, told us that when the pandemic separated coworkers and clients, the “whole gifting industry blew up.” According to IBIS World, the promotional products industry in the US is worth more than $19 billion.

Friedman said there’s also been “a huge swing, tied toward [gifts] being eco-friendly and meaningful.” One current solution, he said, is “redemption stores,” in which employees can choose from a variety of products of the same value. Ultimately, he said, it’s better to give gifts less frequently but with higher-quality selections, like AirPods or Ember mugs, than to give less-valuable gifts more often.

“You give me some trinkets that I’m throwing in the trash; like, why are you making me pollute the environment? Why are you making me fill up the landfill?” he said, adding that “companies are recognizing it’s just not an eco-friendly way to go about things.”

While Friedman said the majority of companies still want to brand products in some way to get their name out there, he also said he’s seen companies choose more subtle, black or gray logos, or decide to brand the packaging instead of the gift itself.

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Last year, Patagonia made the announcement that it would no longer brand its products with corporate logos, stating on its website that “adding an additional non-removable logo reduces the lifespan of a garment…for trivial reasons,” like people changing jobs, not passing the item on to others, and not wanting to be “an advertisement on weekends.”

Simon Polet, co-founder of promotional product supplier Merchery, echoed this sentiment: “A gift that’s sustainable is a gift that’s useful,” he told us, adding that “when we think about a backpack, for example, the chances of someone using the backpack will be higher if the customization is more humble.”

In addition to Patagonia products, Polet said there are a number of unbranded products that Merchery offers, adding that he believes having a mixture of high-quality gifts—with and without employer logos—is what he sees as the future.

“Overall, I think the industry of branded products will suffer in the long run and be replaced by genuine gifts and gifts that are probably unbranded,” Polet said.

No merch at all

Another possible future? Swapping out gifts altogether. Givsly is a platform that has worked with companies like Vox Media and Dentsu to donate money on behalf of clients or employees.

This year marks its third “Season Without Swag” campaign, educating agencies and brands on the environmental impact of unused swag and encouraging them to give philanthropically during the holiday season in lieu of gifting.

Chad Hickey, CEO and co-founder of Givsly, told us he came up with the idea for the campaign after speaking with advertising industry colleagues about how wasteful it can feel to receive duplicate holiday gifts from clients.

While some may feel that tangible, branded gifts create better brand recall or recognition, Hickey said that’s not necessarily the case. “When you have some sort of purpose messaging, people pay more attention to what that brand is doing,” he said, emphasizing that Gen Z and millennials are especially tuned in to how brands donate.

Hickey said the company’s goal isn’t to cut swag altogether but rather to give them options.

“If somebody wants a T-shirt, and they love that T-shirt, and they wear it, and it has a logo of a big company on it, then that’s not wasteful…so why not let that person have it?” Hickey said. “I just think there’s a growing number of people that don’t necessarily want it.”

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