What is it about a corporate freebie that makes it irresistible? Why do we, given the chance, grab up the T-shirts and the pens and the ball caps?
A big industry revolves around putting such swag in our hands. Last week, some of its representatives converged on the Long Beach Convention Center with their logoed light sabers, branded bamboo cutting boards, embossed squares of chocolate, campaign-ready seed packets and socks.
They talked trends. Did you know that many mortuaries now put their names on water bottles they offer the grieving? That Moscow Mule mugs — with shiny surfaces ripe for laser engraving — are red hot at big chain restaurants?
There were lots of goodies on offer at the Advertising Specialty Institute's promotional products convention. But, alas, the event wasn't open to the public.
The giveaway gathering was a chance for suppliers to pitch products to distributors, to sell them on freebies that people will snatch up, remember and, ideally, keep.
Think about it. If you eat a branded candy, you see the logo for a second before swallowing. But if McDonald's gives you a car charger that sports the golden arches and plays a few bars of its jingle, you've got Big Mac on the brain every time you plug in your phone and drive out into the world.
That's one of the reasons tech-related products — cord cradles, flash drives, power banks — are increasingly popular promotions. These are items people want and need and are likely to use every day.
One company at the show was hawking credit card-thin business cards with built-in flash drives. Almost all the free pens featured stylus tips.
As for a promotional shirt or reusable bag, it's a gift that keeps on giving. It doesn't just remind the direct recipient of your brand. It's also a mobile billboard.
Some products featured in the show flashed and glowed — a big hit, their sellers said, with millennials. Plastic ice cubes that blink in neon blue, green or pink make a company happy hour more lively, they said. Tech firms have been known to stage light saber battles at gala events. At $4 or $5 a pop, said Jeff Wheat of Alight Promos, they make great party favors.
In the mix too were old-fashioned companies, including Fisher Space Pens and Bicycle Playing Cards, which offers completely customized decks.
The advertising institute's mascot is a giant red exclamation point named Promo, who has a big smile and friendly googly eyes. And everything associated with the convention was branded: One company that markets such items as pens with pull-out calendars put its name on the participants' lanyards. Clipped onto each lanyard was a neoprene sleeve holding a tube of lip balm. The promotional lip balm company's name, naturally, appeared on the sleeve.
This crowd does not like to leave valuable real estate blank.
That's why the institute's public relations manager, Dawn Shurmaitis, covered the exterior surfaces of a Mazda Protege in logoed magnets, Slinkys, dolls, pens and much more in order to take the car on a promotional road trip. It leaves Monday on a 2,700-mile journey across 12 states. See it on the road, tweet #ASIpromocar and, of course, a free T-shirt is yours.
Many of the sales pitches at the two-day convention were low-key, perhaps because it was a crowd of old hands.
The booth with the Moscow Mule mugs, however, attracted a steady stream of potential buyers because of the showmanship of 28-year-old Nemanja Komadina. His hands were in constant motion as he demonstrated product after product — an "EZ fill flask" whose top flipped back to reveal a wide opening for pouring, a shot-size liquor bottle called "the hitch" that clips onto your glass.
Komadina had one for Jack Daniel's, one for Southern Comfort. "Let's say you go get a whiskey and Coke and you don't know what kind of whiskey" the bartender poured, he said. "Next time you recognize the brand. You know the shape. You know the color."
He had hitches in the shape of footballs too, ready for NFL team logos. "Everything we do," he said of his company, RP & Associates of Hermosa Beach, "is for a brand."
Moscow Mule mugs, Komadina said, account for at least 70% of sales. His actually aren't made of pure copper, but coated stainless steel.
"Everybody wants the vintage copper look," he said. For now. "I'm 100% aware that six months from now, if I have a stock of these, they'll be no good for me. It'll be over."
People hovered around his table, hoping for mug samples. Some carried large carts to hold their loot. But quite a few distributors came with only small bags or purses.
They knew all too well that once you get this free stuff home, the zeal that made you lunge for it, like the latest fad, often fades.