Tangible Tactics and the Future of Marketing

By Tara Milburn, President & CEO, Ethical Swag Inc.

Dive into any discussion on cutting-edge marketing strategies, and you’ll be met with a barrage of buzzwords and acronyms. From the dizzying heights of pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns to the intricate dance of search engine optimization (SEO), not to mention the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI) and the steadfast allure of email marketing, to name only a few – it’s clear we’re in an era of endless options.

The goal? To get noticed and spur our audience into action.

In a world filled with digital strategies, there’s a common thread: they all play out in a realm of pixels and algorithms. But here’s the reality check—our customers aren’t collections of data points wandering through a digital landscape. They’re flesh and blood, with heartbeats that sync to the tangible, not just the virtual.

The narrative is shifting, and it’s time to shine a light on an emerging story. Armed with fresh data and a renewed focus on sustainability and positive impact, promotional products are a powerful tactic, because let’s face it – they work!

Promotional products are undeniably a useful marketing tool.  A recent study reveals that promotional products can cost as little as 1/10 of a penny per impression, offering unparalleled cost-effectiveness compared to other advertising mediums. Moreover, these products boast an 85% recall rate worldwide, with apparel achieving the highest recall among all categories. Notably, promotional products remain the most favored form of advertising among U.S. consumers, outperforming traditional mediums like radio, newspaper, TV, magazine, and even digital formats like mobile and internet ads.

Let’s dive into the transformative power of branded merchandise, exploring how a thoughtful approach can turn these tangible products into key players in your marketing mix.

In an era where consumer values are rapidly shifting towards sustainability, promotional products are undergoing a significant transformation. The landscape of marketing and advertising is evolving, and with it, the approach to swag. Forward thinking marketers are forgoing disposable, forgettable giveaways.  Why? Because today’s consumers, especially Gen Z, demand products that not only capture their attention but also align with their values of environmental responsibility and social impact.

With 89% of Gen Z consumers prioritizing sustainability, and approximately 82% considering the environmental impact of promotional products (source: PPAI 2024 research), it’s clear that the future of promotional marketing must be green. This demographic isn’t just spending; they’re investing in brands that demonstrate a commitment to making a positive impact on the planet.

To navigate this shift and capitalize on the power of promotional products, here are five actionable steps for integrating branded merch and sustainability into your marketing mix:

Prioritize Eco-Friendly Products and Practices

Choose promotional items made from sustainable, recycled, or upcycled materials. This goes beyond the product itself to include packaging and the overall lifecycle. Choose ground shipping over air – which means don’t leave choices to the last minute!  Plan your swag like you plan your campaign, with the time required to do it right.

By selecting eco-friendly options, you address the 82% of Gen Zers who weigh the environmental footprint of their promotional products.

Navigating the search for a product supplier demands diligence. At Ethical Swag, our B Corp certification stands as a testament to our adherence to the most rigorous global sustainability standards. While the industry hosts many great distributors, the onus is on you to thoroughly vet your choices. The specter of greenwashing looms large, with some distributors making misleading claims about their eco-credentials. As emphasized in a recent Forbes article, it’s crucial to sidestep the pitfalls of greenwashing by partnering with a supplier whose integrity and commitment to sustainability are clear.

Enhance Brand Recall with Meaningful Items

Leverage the high recall rate of promotional products by offering items that are not only useful but meaningful.  At Ethical Swag, you can sort products by cause.  For example, choose products that have automatic donations to ocean projects or consider a product where your purchase triggers a tree planted. We have socks that are give one/get one – meaning for every pair purchased, a pair is donated to a homeless shelter of your choice.

Our industry often grapples with the challenge of cheap, mass-distributed items. We advocate for a more intentional selection, embracing the principle that less is indeed more. Avoid the trap of countless low-quality giveaways; they do little for your brand and much to burden our landfills.

These strategies tap into the powerful statistic that promo products are the most preferred form of advertising, ensuring your brand stands out in a crowded marketplace for all the right reasons.

Educate and Engage

Use promotional products as a platform to educate your audience about your sustainability efforts and the importance of environmental stewardship. Items that embody a story of positive impact or that directly contribute to environmental conservation can deepen consumer engagement and loyalty. This approach is vital in a market where the next generation values transparency and action from the brands they support.

Harness the power of storytelling in choosing your products. Your campaign can address broader issues while achieving your goals, crafting a compelling narrative for your marketing strategy.

Similar to sponsorships, where organizations support causes and events reflecting their values, promotional products serve the same purpose—symbolizing what a brand stands for, often at a lower cost than high-profile sponsorships.

Focus on Utility and Longevity

Move away from the traditional “throwaway” culture by choosing promotional products that are not only practical but also designed to last. Products that solve a problem or fulfill a genuine need in a consumer’s life are more likely to be kept and used, amplifying your brand’s visibility and reinforcing its commitment to sustainability.

Our products and slogans work hand in hand to convey impactful marketing messages. Take, for instance, our Ethical Swag socks featuring the tagline, “Helping you think about your footprint,” or our lip balm, labeled “Protecting your lips, and your brand.” These items are not only practical for the recipient but also communicate our identity clearly and effectively, all while being simple and cost-effective.

Measure and Share Your Impact

Finally, it’s essential to quantify the environmental benefits of your sustainable promotional products and share these achievements with your audience. Transparency about your brand’s efforts and successes in sustainability can foster trust and admiration from consumers, particularly those among Gen Z who prioritize authenticity and impact in their purchasing decisions.

A simple first step is to collaborate with a supplier who shoulders the burden. Ethical Swag offers impact reports on the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) facets of your purchases, enabling you to share your story confidently.

A Final Word

In summary, promotional products remain a potent tool in the marketing mix, thanks to their unmatched reach and cost-effectiveness. However, as consumer expectations evolve, so too must the strategies surrounding these products. By embracing sustainability and focusing on promotional items that capture a feeling, solve a problem, and gift with meaning, brands can not only meet the demands of the next generation of consumers but also drive meaningful change in the process. This shift towards conscious consumerism is more than a trend; it’s the future of marketing, where the value of a promotional product is measured not just in impressions, but in its contribution to a better world.

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