Promotional items at a trade show

What are promotional products? And how to get the most out of promotional items

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Promotional products, aka merchandise, swag or branded items, can be many different things. Imagine pens, mugs, notepads and other items you’d find at trade show booths and in networking event goody bags. They include the free T-shirts student clubs give away at orientations, pens at the bank counter, stickers bundled with your online order and branded tote bags you can reuse for future shopping trips.

So, what are promotional products? They’re items that businesses use for promotional purposes and typically feature a logo, company name or other brand messaging, such as brand colors or slogans. Businesses of all sizes use promotional items as part of their marketing strategies, and small businesses, in particular, can see a huge return on their investment.

Table of contents

What are promotional products?

Branded giveaways are one type of promotional product, but they’re far from the only type. Promotional items also include one-of-a-kind prizes for raffles and contests, branded apparel like T-shirts and hats, toys that commemorate important dates and limited edition items designed to build hype and drive sales. 

Promotional product: T-shirt design with cool illustration
Bright coloured water bottle promotional product
Promotional product tote bag with colourful logo design
Stunning illustration for hoodie

Source: custom apparel, bags and water bottles via VistaPrint

Promotional products are nothing new. As long as merchants have existed, free samples and giveaways to valued customers and collaborating businesses have been offered. One early example is the commemorative buttons given to George Washington’s supporters during the 1788-89 U.S. election. In the decades that followed, promotional products like printed rulers and calendars became popular with businesses. 

In a recent survey we conducted, we found the top promotional products this year include:

  • Apparel—T-shirts, hoodies, hats
  • Drinkware—Mugs, water bottles, travel cups
  • Tote bags & backpacks
  • Tech products—power banks, USB drives
  • Office items—pens, calendars

In fact, 61% agreed that promotional products help build brand awareness, and 54% said they regularly use promo products in their daily lives. Many brands come up with inspiring company swag ideas that showcase creativity and innovation to help engage with their audiences and grow their business.

Examples of promotional products

Drinkware

Drinkware is a broad category that includes water bottles, glasses, tumblers, ceramic mugs and insulated cups. Promotional drinkware can be a great option for a variety of brands, like companies whose workforce is largely remote or breweries whose customers drink beer at home.

promotional products: branded travel mugs

Source: branded travel mugs via VistaPrint

Stickers

Stickers are a popular choice because they’re inexpensive to print, easy to store and mail, and, of course, super fun! A sticker can be a simple logo or it can incorporate your brand imagery in a creative way, using a website graphic or product image. Stickers have a wide appeal but tend to be especially popular with brands with a younger audience, as this demographic is more likely to stick them on laptops, phone cases and water bottles, carrying their branding with them wherever they go.

Colorful and fun sticker designer

Source: bright and fun stickers via VistaPrint

Apparel

This category includes everything customers can wear, from bucket hats and beanies to hoodies, fleeces, tank tops and socks. Branded apparel is great for just about any kind of business or organization, specifically those whose customers have a specific lifestyle, such as fitness fans, outdoorsy clients and beachgoers.

Simon’s Peking Duck branded T-shirt

Source: custom branded T-shirts via VistaPrint

Bags

Promotional bags come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. Examples include backpacks, zip pouches, tote bags, laptop cases and even items like coolers and luggage. Bags are valuable because everybody uses them and can double as packaging for your product.

promotional bag with logo design

Source: custom bag with logo design via VistaPrint

Tech products

Promotional items like chargers, power banks, cable organizers, mouse pads, USBs, phone cases and headphones are popular because most of us have found ourselves needing them. Tech-related product orders can be a bit more expensive than other promotional items, but because of the value they deliver, they’re a unique opportunity to make a lasting impression.

Promotional products for tech products like a mouse pad and USB stick

Source: Custom tech products like a branded mouse pad and USB stick via VistaPrint

Unique promotional products

Although these categories are popular, don’t limit yourself to them. Some of the most memorable promotional products are unique items, like branded lip balms, incense, candy, pocket mirrors, desk lamps and bicycle helmets, just to name a few. Be creative and think outside the box: what kinds of promotional items would you want to receive?

What to print on promotional products

As you design promotional products, remember why you decided to make them part of your marketing strategy. Your business goal, whether to drive sales or increase brand engagement, will help you to decide which promotional products to use and what to print on them. Include your logo, brand name and brand colors on the item to promote your business. If the promotional product is to commemorate a specific event, include the event’s name and date too.

What you can print on promotional products:

  • Logo or brand name
  • Company slogan, tagline or hashtag
  • The year your business was established
  • Website URL or social handles
  • Location, specific address or general location so customers know where to find you
  • Contact details, such as phone number or email address
  • Event details (if used to promote an event)
  • Commemorative date or launch date
  • Fun graphic in your brand colors

Don’t include too many of these to avoid your promotional item becoming overcrowded with information. Remember, sometimes less is more. A simple logo can be very effective, while an eye-catching artwork that subtly aligns with your brand identity can create intrigue.

custom pens for promotional products to hand out at an event
custom sticker design for promotional products to hand out at an event

Source: custom pens and stickers are great promotional products to hand out at events via VistaPrint

Why use promotional products?

There are lots of reasons to use promotional products. While we’ve touched on customer-related purposes like brand awareness, engagement and sales, there’s a whole other category of benefits for promotional products: in-house benefits!

By giving employees and strategic partners promotional products, you can achieve the following:

  • Promote brand engagement
  • Make employees feel appreciated
  • Cultivate a strong company culture
  • Promote positive public and investor relations

An added benefit of in-house promotional products is promoting brand awareness among the general public—think of employees’ friends seeing (and maybe snagging!) their branded umbrellas on rainy days. 

How to use promotional products

At the fundamental level, brands and organizations use promotional products to promote their business. They employ a variety of strategies to achieve this goal, including: 

  • Gifting promotional items to employees, partners and important clients
  • Giving away promotional products at industry events and trade shows
  • Working with influencers to promote the brand through products
  • Offering promotional products as raffle and contest prizes
  • Selling merchandise
giving away promotional products at a trade event

Source: custom promotional products via VistaPrint

Here are two great examples of successful promotional products:

DoorDash created red-colored branded water bottles, which work because hydration is key for delivery drivers out for hours on end. Dashers drink water that stays cold for a long time in this insulated bottle featuring a simple yet bold design.

Adobe also stocks a variety of creative promotional items, like these joggers featuring a checkered grid pattern. Graphic designers—one of Adobe’s main customer demographics—know this grid well.

Tip

As you design promotional items, play with references and inside jokes that your clients will understand. These fun callouts make them feel like they get your brand and your brand gets them, forming a closer relationship.

Take note of how your customers or employees use products. Then, offer promotional products that fit their needs and solve the challenges they face. Provide branded tape measures for engineering teams or wireless headphones for programmers. Apply this same principle to designing products for your customers—like waste bag dispensers that clip onto leashes for dog owners or beanies for customers who have an outdoor lifestyle.

How to pick promotional items for your business

If you’ve decided to make promotional products part of your marketing strategy, choose products that:

  • Make sense for your brand
  • Are valuable to your clients

When customers consider items as valuable, they keep them for longer and develop more positive opinions of the brand. Keep this in mind as you choose and design promotional products, answering questions like, “How will clients use this item?” and “How will this item benefit clients?”

A few examples of promotional items that are good fits for their brands include:

  • Water bottles and small towels for gyms and other fitness brands
  • Collars and bandanas for pet brands
  • Bottle openers and corkscrews for alcohol brands, bars and caterers
  • Tote bags for grocery and bookstores
  • Scented candles for wellness or yoga brands
  • Outdoor apparel for adventure or tourism companies
branded t-shirt and tote bag

Source: branded T-shirt and tote bags via VistaPrint

Think about what qualities your audience values in the items they buy, like sustainably sourced materials. Even if you’re fairly certain about what your customers value, conduct research to ensure your promotional products are aligned with their priorities.

As you conduct this research, keep your goals in mind. For example, branded merchandise might be the best option if your goal is to increase sales. Whereas if your goal is to add more customers to the top of your funnel by driving them to your website, giveaways like business card holders and power banks could be more effective.

Are promotional products an effective marketing tool?

In a word, yes. Promotional items are a great marketing tool. These stats from the American Marketing Association (AMA) back that up: 

  • 81% of consumers keep promotional products for more than one year, with 41% keeping them for up to five years. 
  • Almost 100% of consumers are willing to take action to obtain a promotional product.
  • 72% of consumers connect a company’s reputation with the quality of its promotional products.
  • 70% of brands rank promotional items as a highly effective method for satisfying marketing goals.

In a recent survey we conducted on the top promotion product trends, we learned that getting swag can change how consumers feel about a brand:

  • 66% say they’re more likely to view a brand positively after getting swag
  • 49% are more likely to remember the brand
  • 43% are more likely to recommend the brand to others
custom mug as a promotional product for your business

Source: custom mug via VistaPrint

How to design effective promotional products

Don’t limit yourself to plastering your name or logo on generic products. We actually suggest you don’t do that; the most memorable, effective promotional products have unique designs. In fact, our most recent promotional product trends survey showed that 49% of people prefer promotional products with eye-catching designs, and 47% prefer a unique or unusual design, such as an illustration or graphic.

Get creative with ways to incorporate your brand elements, like your color palette, typography or imagery, into your designs. If you don’t have the design chops yourself (or in-house), collaborate with a professional designer to craft a promotional design that speaks to who you are as a brand.

Fun illustration on custom T-shirt

Source: custom illustration on a T-shirt via VistaPrint

Before you make a print order, get feedback on the design from your team or your audience via social media. A fun way to do this could be to show two design options in an Instagram story and ask followers to vote on the one they like better. To encourage participation, you can even tie the item into the poll, like entering every respondent into a raffle for the first run of the promotional product.

Need some ideas? Check out these inspiring company swag ideas from other small businesses.

Order promotional products and reap the benefits

Promotional products are one of the most effective ways to promote a business, both inside and out. A thoughtfully designed promotional item can leave a lasting impression on a valued partner, team member, client, customer or fan.

Years from now, your promotional tote bag might be someone’s well-worn shopping bag. Or your branded bottle opener might be used for a special occasion. While they might not consciously think of your brand every time they use the product, it will become a continuous part of their lives.