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What Are Promotional Products? Plus, How to Use Them

What Are Promotional Products? Plus, How to Use Them

Red water bottles with silver metallic caps in rows isolated on

Take a look around, and you are likely to see a promotional product—or several—within close proximity. These marketing products are extremely common in modern society, providing brands with an opportunity to gain valuable impressions at a relatively reasonable cost. These promotional items are often extremely effective, at least partly because there is no cost to the consumer or similar recipient.

The commercial history of promotional products in the United States dates back to the late 1800s. That is when the first company to manufacture these products opened the door to leveraging promotional products as a marketing and advertising tool.

Fast forward to present, and the promotional products industry has grown exponentially. At this point, this industry rakes in more than $23 billion in annual sales, according to Promotional Products Association International (PPAI). Modern businesses and other organizations have discovered how to use promotional items effectively to realize significant gains in marketing, sales and retention.


What Are Promotional Products?

Promotional products are essentially customized items that companies can brand and offer to customers and other parties. From apparel to office products and kitchenware, promotional items have become a staple in modern business. These products can help provide latent impressions over time, familiarizing potential customers with a company’s brand and offerings.

Examples of them exist just about everywhere in today’s society. At live events for sports or entertainment, t-shirt cannons propel marketing products to the audience. New employees will sometimes receive a “swag bag” with company-branded items like a notebook, water bottle or hat. Trade-show sponsors may provide attendees with a drawstring bag or a USB charger. Prospective students on a campus visit may receive a t-shirt or writing instrument with the institution’s brand.

Taken as a whole, there are countless examples of how organizations can leverage promotional and marketing products. Furthermore, businesses have a high degree of control over how to employ promotional items as a strategy for corporate growth.

How Do Organizations Obtain Promotional Products?

Encompassing thousands of suppliers and distributors, the promotional products industry serves companies of all shapes and sizes. Within the promotional products industry, there are essentially two different players:

  • Suppliers — These companies manufacture and customize promotional products, based on customer needs and wants received from distributors.
  • Distributors — These companies advertise and distribute promotional products, transmitting customer needs and wants to the distributors.

Companies seeking to purchase promotional products typically engage with a distributor at the onset. After deciding on the type of product and degree of customization, companies place an order with the distributor. Once the supplier creates the products in question, the distributor then sends the finished product to the customer. And then the customer can offer promotional products to increase brand awareness and drive sales revenue.

What Are the Most Popular Promotional Products?

They come in many different forms. Depending on the organization’s needs, industry and customer base, certain promotional items may be more useful than others. But in terms of overall popularity and effectiveness, there are certain promotional products that rise above the rest.

Promotional products are typically measured through impressions over the lifetime of the item. In other words, impressions attempt to measure the number of times someone will view or be exposed to the promotional product and its branding. The lifetime of a promotional product is often tied to its usefulness and longevity—ending when the item deteriorates or is discarded.

According to PPAI, the following promotional products are the most popular and effective, based on estimated lifetime impressions:

  • Outerwear — Jackets, rain slickers, and windbreakers can achieve an estimated 6,100 lifetime impressions.
  • T-Shirts — Items like t-shirts can achieve an estimated 3,400 lifetime impressions.
  • Headwear — Marketing products like hats, visors, and similar headgear achieve an estimated 3,400 lifetime impressions.
  • Bags — Backpacks, tote bags, and drawstring bags can achieve an estimated 3,300 lifetime impressions.
  • Writing Instruments — Marketing products like pens, notebooks and pencils can achieve an estimated 3,000 lifetime impressions.
  • Polo Shirts — Promotional items like polo shirts can achieve an estimated 2,300 lifetime impressions.
  • Desk Accessories — Trays, bookends and organizers can achieve an estimated 1,450 lifetime impressions.
  • Drinkware — Marketing products like coffee mugs, water bottles and glassware can achieve an estimated 1,400 lifetime impressions.
  • Umbrellas — Promotional items like umbrellas can achieve an estimated 1,100 lifetime impressions.
  • Power Banks — Power banks for charging electronic devices can achieve an estimated 900 lifetime impressions.
  • Calendars — Promotional products like calendars can achieve an estimated 850 lifetime impressions.
  • USB Drives — Marketing products like USB flash drives can achieve an estimated 700 lifetime impressions.

On a related note, personal protective equipment (PPE) is an emerging and extremely popular category of promotional products. Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, branded PPE has become commonplace, including masks, hand sanitizer, bandanas, and face shields.

What Is the Expected Lifetime of Promotional Products?

As noted in the previous section, the effectiveness of promotional products can be traced to the number of lifetime impressions. Accordingly, it is important to evaluate how long promotional and marketing items will last. If a person keeps and continues to use a promotional product for a long time, it can maximize the number of lifetime impressions and potential organizational gains.

According to a PPAI consumer study, promotional or marketing products generally have the following lifetime expectancies:

  • Less than one year — Approximately 18 percent of consumers keep them for less than one year.
  • Between one and five years — Approximately 41 percent of consumers keep them for one to five years.
  • Between six and 10 years — Approximately 22 percent of consumers keep them for six to 10 years.
  • More than 10 years — Approximately 18 percent of consumers keep them for more than 10 years.

Parsing out the data above, approximately 81 percent of consumers keep promotional products for more than 12 months. This means that promotional items can achieve a long-lasting approach to branding, marketing and advertising, maximizing the number of impressions over the lifetime of the product in question.

How Do Organizations Use Them?

Given the vast array of available options, not to mention to levels of potential customization, there are limitless applications for promotional products. Commercial businesses, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and government agencies can all leverage the power of promotional and marketing products, externally and internally.

From an external perspective, organizations can employ promotional products to recognize a variety of potential gains. Current and prospective customers may receive marketing products to drive sales and referrals. Businesses may give away promotional items to celebrate a new product launch. Organizations may promote branded items in an effort to incentivize or modify certain behaviors.

From an internal perspective, organizations can leverage marketing products to improve relationships with key stakeholders, such as employees, investors or partners. By demonstrating appreciation through promotional items, organizations can help secure long-time contributions from these actors.

Broadly, organizations most commonly use promotional products for:

  • Brand Awareness & Recognition
  • Corporate Culture & Identity
  • Customer Appreciation & Retention
  • Employee Appreciation & Retention
  • Incentive Programs & Behavior Modification
  • Product Awareness & Recognition
  • Public & Investor Relations
  • Sales & Referral Generation

Are Promotional Products an Effective Marketing Tool?

Promotional products can be a highly effective marketing tool. But any organization intending to use promotional products must consider their objectives carefully. When promotional items are beneficial to the user—while also communicating an organization’s brand and message appropriately—it can help an organization achieve numerous goals.

To illustrate the effective of promotional products as a marketing tool, consider the following PPAI statistics:

  • Almost 100% of consumers indicate a willingness to take action to obtain a promotional product.
  • Approximately 96% of consumers would like advance notice when an organization is planning to give away promotional items.
  • Approximately 80% of consumers react immediately to promotional and marketing products, even if they have never heard of the brand.
  • Approximately 72% of consumers make a connection between a company’s reputation and the quality of its promotional products.
  • Approximately 70% of brands rank promotional items as a highly effective method for satisfying marketing goals.

In addition, promotional products are ranked as the most effective form of advertising and marketing to spur action across multiple consumer generations. From the Silent Generation to the baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials, marketing products were the highest rated method to prompt consumer action. Across these vastly different generations, promotional products outranked other marketing and advertising methods, including online, broadcast, print, and mobile. Overall, promotional products are an extremely popular and effective marketing tool. Businesses can broadcast culture, advertising, and other messaging in a way that sticks with customers, prospects and even employees. It is this sense of stickiness that separates promotional products from other marketing and advertising methods.

Which Are Best for My Organization?

The key to choosing the best promotional products rests with the industry, organization, and intended recipient. Entities of all shapes and sizes should strive to align promotional marketing products with their strategy, brand, and commercial approach. It is vital to remember that well-executed promotional products can leave an impression for a long time after the consumer receives the item in question.

As noted above, apparel and other wearables make up the majority of extremely popular and effective promotional products. Part of the appeal likely stems from the fact that any business, in any industry, can benefit from these promotional items. Anything that a consumer can wear—from backpacks and bags to headgear and apparel, such as hats, t-shirts and jackets—tends to perform highly from a lifetime impressions standpoint.

Beyond a far-reaching category like apparel and wearables, there are practically unlimited promotional items that organizations can consider using. In order to choose the best option for a particular organization, it can be helpful to evaluate the factors below:

  • Mission/Vision — The mission or vision of an organization can help dictate the usefulness of promotional items. For example, a sustainability focused company will likely avoid marketing products that could hurt the environment or contribute to undue waste.
  • Existing Offerings — Organizations should consider their existing product or service offerings before choosing promotional or marketing products. To maintain product awareness and recognition, it is generally advisable to avoid cross-pollination between actual product or service offerings and promotional items.
  • Brand/Strategy — The established brand or intended strategy of an organization can also shed light on the potential effectiveness of various marketing products. At a minimum promotional items should align with and reflect the organization’s brand or strategy.

To speed up the evaluation process for promotional products, organizations can lean on surveys to provide valuable insights. By surveying the group of recipients intended to receive a marketing product, organizations might be able to avoid pitfalls and deliver useful promotional items.

Want to Learn More About Promotional Products and Marketing Strategy?

If you are interested in sharpening your skills in using promotional products or other marketing strategies, it can be exceedingly helpful to become a member of the American Marketing Association (AMA). The AMA provides its community with countless membership benefits, including marketing certifications and publications as well as networking opportunities. If this sounds beneficial to you, join AMA today!