Two people outside a restaurant with one wearing a branded T-shirt.

How promotional merch can turn your customers into brand advocates

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

These days, digital connections offer lots of value to brands — but there’s just something special about engaging with people face-to-face. One key opportunity to boost brand recognition in an authentic, real-world way is through promotional merch. These giveaway items, often called “swag,” can help your brand break into new markets while also giving loyal customers everyday items that act as walking billboards for your business.

Whether you regularly give out merchandise to your customers or save it for special events, this category of marketing has a lot to offer both the new and established small business. Let’s learn more about how promotional merch can boost brand awareness and provide customers with useful items they’ll love.

What is promotional merch, and why does it work?

From those printed pens you find at hotels, to that brewery logo T-shirt your brother always wears, to that colorful tote bag that caught your eye at the market — promotional merch comes in so many shapes, sizes and uses. That’s really good news, too, because no matter how your brand might be best translated to merch or how you choose to use it, there’s an easily customizable option out there for you.

“I’ll be popping some little goodies into random purchases during my in-person markets coming up,” says Olivia Brydon of Creatiive Natiive. “A little thank you to pass along and to share my love of office supplies.”

A pile of custom branded pens

Source: @creatiivenatiive on Instagram

Merchandise has expanded to include all kinds of novel and useful products, including:

  • Office supplies, such as pens, pencils, organizational tools and notebooks.
  • Tech accessories, such as power cords, mouse pads, USB storage, charging stations and earbuds.
  • Clothing, such as T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats.
  • Drinkware, such as tumblers, can coolers, water bottles and mugs.
  • Household items, such as magnets, flashlights, tools and safety kits.
  • Food items, such as candy, snacks and gum.

But what’s the difference between promotional merchandise and some other marketing tool, like a brochure or business card? For one, people should find merch valuable on its own, even without your branding. It should mean something to them, and they should be more likely to keep and use it over time compared to, say, a promotional postcard about an upcoming event.

The best product merchandise are items people use every day. Every time they use your gift, they will be reminded that you exist. And people around them will see it too (more on that in a bit). That is a big win for a growing small business, because brand recognition is the ultimate way to stand out in a crowded market.

How branded merch spreads the word — online and offline

Humans are social beings. We share everything we do (well, most of it) with our friends, family and online communities. So promotional merch has the added benefit of being visible as we live out our lives. When hiking with friends, they’ll see that branded water bottle. When posting photos on Instagram, they’ll see that sweatshirt with a cool logo on the front. Visiting a local market or strolling around town? Passersby are sure to notice that handy tote bag.

A small business owner with their branded tote bag

Source: @creatiivenatiive on Instagram

What’s more, in this day and age of brand ambassadors, it’s much easier for an online influencer to share news about your business if they have natural elements and useful tools at their disposal. You also have a better chance of seeing your brand “out in the wild” or spotting it in an organic social media post. This may be far more effective than any paid placement and a true testament to the quality of your merch.

Seeing merch perks curiosity and begs the question, “Where did you get that?” It’s also fun to watch online personalities unbox swag bags and boxes or share the merchandise they’ve received from brands. If you’re doing any kind of influencer outreach, adding some branded items to your package is a must.

Merch can be displayed for purchase in brick-and-mortar locations or included as freebies with e-commerce orders. You can sell and give items away at a trade show booth or local farmer’s market. It also makes great prizes for redeeming loyalty points. Get creative with how you use swag and merch to show your appreciation to existing customers, as well as potential new ones. And check out the competition, so you can differentiate your merch and avoid giving away the same thing everyone else is.

VistaPrint Tip

For in-person and online retail purchases, throw in a custom die-cut sticker to add a splash of your brand personality that customers can put on their favorite gear.

A stack of custom logo stickers

Source: @creatiivenatiive on Instagram

Tips to get started on your merch journey

So, merch works hard for your brand, and there are plenty of spaces where you can display it for sale or give it away as freebies. But how do you get started? Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to find a product you like and get your brand name, logo and a QR code added.

When perusing your options, keep these three tips in mind:

  1. Order early. Especially if you’re preparing for an event, make sure to plan out your merch with plenty of time to spare. If you’re planning a larger order or trying out a new type of exclusive merch for your VIP customers, you may also want to order some test products so you know they will work as intended before placing the full order.
  2. Consider the season. Look for items that can be used year-round, such as pens or baseball hats, or opt for season-specific items that fit a particular theme, such as water bottles for a summer outdoor event or cozy beanies during the colder months.
  3. Show brand consistency. Does all your swag tell a story about you? While you can certainly mix up your merch with various pieces, sometimes consistency can be good. A brand that always brings the best T-shirts to the annual community event will stick out among the competition.

VistaPrint Tip

Keep your customers engaged over time by regularly adding new merch products and designs to your inventory.

It’s tempting to buy all the things right away, but a steady approach will help you track what’s working so you can easily reorder the merch that stands out. With some creativity and an eye on your long-term business objectives, promotional merch can delight your customers and take your marketing efforts to the next level.