Rethinking swag

Oct 16, 2022

If it doesn’t support the mission of your firm, enhance your brand story, and provide relatable value to the recipient, it might be time to rethink spending money on it at all.

Swag – stuff we all get. Notebooks and mugs and pens, oh my. We all get it, and put our logos on it, but do we all know what it is, by definition?

According to, “Swag is branded promotional merchandise used to promote businesses/brands. Swag is usually given away as ‘freebies’ to the public, leads, customers, and employees. Marketing swag is tangible, tactile, and useful to the recipient.”

This is a great description, yet it carries a different meaning this side of March of 2020.

The way it was. In the past, swag could be pretty much anything. From stress balls of all shapes and sizes and forms to the ubiquitous pens, with or without novelty features, and a variety of consumable treats.

For many firms, the approach was to:

  • Buy in bulk so per-impression costs were low
  • Use the same items for all events – for every customer market, at every stage of the pipeline
  • Pass them out to staff for some brand reinforcement too

Present challenges for swag. We have a chocolate factory in our town. And we have a few conferences that we have attended for many years. People who frequent these conferences generally know us and look forward to the chocolate we bring. A nice big bowl with a spoon and small cups where people can help themselves throughout the day. Of course, that was before March of 2020.

Now, anything that isn’t pre-packaged and necessitates multiple hands reaching into the same bowl may be suspect. Those entertaining stress balls, that someone else may have touched before you, might still elicit a smile, but may also be left behind.

We need to address a basic question: What are people willing to touch? Going further, what are people willing to take?

Sustainability is another global concern with related impact. In an industry that designs green buildings and employs LEED professionals, does your swag support the reduce/reuse/recycle mantra and/or your firm-wide sustainability position?

And then there’s the competition for employees, nationwide but specifically for AEC employees. If you are using your conference swag as a token for your employees, what message are you sending along with that?

A better way. When rethinking swag, keep these checkpoints in mind:

  • Consider your recipients. The one-size-fits-all approach rarely works. Think about your audience – are they conference attendees or staff? For conferences, consider the market as well as the roles of attendees in their own organizations.
  • Deliver value. One of the biggest ah-ha moments of my career happened when someone was prepared to pay me for our swag at a conference. They saw real value in what we were giving away. It was collateral, but it was also a book. Not a sales piece, but a resource.
    Instead of telling people you are an expert in your field, let your swag demonstrate it. Your ability to deliver value should permeate everything you do. This holds true, even for your giveaways.
  • Do the math. With smaller numbers of in-person attendees, hybrid events, and some fully online conferences, bulk purchases may not be the great deal they once were. The changing landscape of conferences means more specialized approaches. Perhaps smaller quantities or fewer items selected with a specific, planned target is a better approach than stuff we all get.
  • Be original. If you’ve seen someone in your market offer it, rethink using it yourself. Equip your team with something of value versus leaning into the latest promotional fad. Overall, avoid swag for swag’s sake.

From Seth Godin’s The Practice, “Everything has a function. Every element of the bridge or the spaceship is there for a reason, even if the reason is decorative. When NASA engineers put together the payload for an Apollo rocket, they had total clarity about tradeoffs. Everything weighs something, everything takes up space. Nothing goes on a lunar module unless there’s a really good reason. Intentional action demands a really good reason … You can’t find a good reason until you know what you’re trying to accomplish.”

What are you trying to accomplish with your swag? If it doesn’t support the mission of your firm, enhance your brand story, and provide relatable value to the recipient, it might be time to rethink spending money on it at all.  

Jane Lawler Smith, MBA, is the marketing manager at Derck & Edson, LLC. She can be reached at

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