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Event Swag: From Drag to Brag in Four Steps

By Shawna McKinley
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Love them or hate them, promotional event products are the bread and butter of the event industry, worth over $17 billion. A good product can entice interest and create a positive impression for your brand. A bad product can put customers off, erode goodwill and create waste. So how do you increase your odds of the former, and reduce the likelihood of the latter?

EMB_image_Event Swag- from Drag to Brag in 4 Steps (1)

Ask if the Item is Needed

Decades of excessive, wasteful purchases have given the promotional products industry a bad rap, sadly. And it’s not hard to see why. From stress balls to cheap pens and Frisbees: many event giveaways have a whiff of last-minute-order-of-the-cheapest-thing-possible-to-get-you-in-my-booth about them. The drive for lowest price means you don’t ask, don’t tell on working conditions in factories where items are made, or deliberately over-order to compensate for the inevitability of damaged and defective items.

Does that mean events should do-away with promotional items entirely? Maybe, although that seems a bit rash. After all, who doesn’t like some nice swag? In the least, event professionals should always be asking if their giveaways are working for them in the best way possible, and eliminating or evolving them if they are not.

So if well thought-out promotional items have a role to play in event marketing, how can you choose the best one?

Put the Focus on the Customer: Your Event Participant

Ever receive a gift for your birthday that was less about you and more about the person giving it? Promotional products can be similar, and create the strongest positive impression where they sincerely reflect on the desires, needs and values of the recipient.

Promotional product strategists choose event giveaways that show they know, respect and care about attendees. The items they select:

- Show knowledge of what attendees do, as well as their interests. The item may provide a solution to a common problem an attendee group might experience, or fulfill a need that is anticipated at the event, even if it is a free cup of coffee or complimentary massage.
- Celebrate that attendees are unique. One-size fits all promotional products are easy, but can overlook the recipients’ desire for choice and flexibility. Does your item come in multiple sizes and colors that enable self-expression? And in being unique does it also resist the urge to make assumptions? For example, just because I’m female does not mean I really want a pink nail file with your brand on it.
- Affirm an attendee’s sense of self. Giveaways can reinforce the recipients’ desires to be responsible, fun, healthy, friendly or generous. Or in the least, should not contribute to a negative perception they are irresponsible, boring, unhealthy, unkind or cheap. Make sure your event giveaways help recipients do this.
- Are sensitive to reciprocity. Promotional products can often create a sense of obligation that restricts event attendee freedom. So don’t forget that giveaways are a gift, and it can be counter-productive to affix strings to your giveaway that may make a recipient feel fenced in, or like they owe you something.

Pay Attention to What the Promotional Product Says About You

I’ve often wondered what an Event Giveaway Hall of Shame might look like if we pooled our campfire stories. Mine would include a lonely flip flop I received via a room drop from a shall-remain-nameless destination enticing me to visit their booth to receive its mate. While the promotion was clever, I will forever see that lonely flip flop floating through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in my mind. Dissolving into something that 500 years from now will choke an unfortunate seabird that is destined to wash up on the shores of the destination in some tragic act of karma. Needless to say: not the impression the gifter was looking to leave me with!

Event giveaways say a lot about you, so it’s critically important to filter them with some basic rules that ensure the item puts your best foot forward. Things to check for include if the item:

- Is safe and healthy. Event organizers owe a duty of care to event recipients to ensure giveaways are free from harmful chemicals, like toxic dyes, phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA). This duty also extends to those who made the item, too. So ask if they are manufactured by a supplier who ensures workplace health, safety and fairness procedures are in place. No one wants their logo on an item that was manufactured by children or forced labor or in a facility that is unsafe.
- Is of good quality. A useful, durable giveaway keeps your brand visible to an event participant for a long time. So don’t skimp: ensure the item is well-made and free of defects.
- Expresses the givers’ personality and values. Promotional products present a rare opportunity for event hosts to show what they care about, and what they stand for. They remind event participants why the organization does what it does, and how the event is different than others. In this battle for attendee attention, creative ingenuity, good design and diligence on environmental and social responsibility are key as they help promote respect, loyalty and trust.

Make an Emotional Connection

A giveaway that is helpful creates a practical connection. A giveaway that tells a story creates an emotional connection. An average promotional product may invite an attendee to an experience, and help them participate. At this basic level it is part gift, part practical solution: a water bottle, or an exhibit hall tote bag. An exceptional promotional product transcends mere usefulness to become a souvenir of why they attended, and a reminder of how their participation caused a change for the better, for them and the community. So that’s not merely an event lanyard an event attendee is wearing: it’s part of a story. It’s a statement about how the person wearing it is contributing to a better world, by the fact it is hand-crafted, recycled or shared with others, perhaps. Or perhaps is customized with achievements earned. A tall order for a lowly conference giveaway, but possible with careful thought, empathy for attendees and attention to sourcing.

In Conclusion

How many boxes of conference giveaway trash must be sacrificed to the local thrift store before we accept faceless consumer items are not the best use of our precious event budget? It’s time for us to elevate event promotional items to become a thoughtful, integrated part of the experience and brand we want to create.

How have you elevated your swag from drag to brag?

about the author

Shawna McKinley
Shawna McKinley is a sustainability specialist who believes in the power of events to make the world a better place. She helps eventprofs take practical, smart steps through zero waste and carbon-conscious choices that generate social good, business value, and happy event participants.She is an accomplished sustainability consultant, event planner, author, and instructor. Read more on her blog, Eventcellany.
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