The one about the swag

by Susan Getgood on August 20, 2013 · 2 comments

in Blogging,BlogHer,Marketing

Disclosure: I am Vice President, Influencer Marketing at BlogHer. While I work on digital and social marketing programs with many of the brands that sponsor our conference, I am not directly involved in the event side of our business and experience the Expo Floor much as any other attendee would. Except I can’t enter any of the sweepstakes 🙂 In my past life, however, I was in charge of event and channel marketing for multiple employers.

Other writers have already done an excellent job of sharing the attendee perspective on the brands at BlogHer and their promotional offerings.

I want to focus on the brand side of the equation. Whether you call it swag (PG version: stuff we all get), schwag (an alternative spelling) or trinkets and trash (a personal favorite), companies make the investment because it helps them achieve their marketing goals. Ultimately, the marketer wants the target consumer to buy her product, and she uses a variety of strategies and tactics to bring potential customers through the purchasing funnel of Awareness to Interest to Consideration to Purchase.

And marketers have been doing it for a VERY long time. For example this Coca-Cola coupon found on  Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia: Believed to be the first coupon ever, this ticket for a free glass of Coca-Cola was first distributed in 1888 to help promote the drink. By 1913, the company had redeemed 8.5 million tickets.

There are two kinds of swag — promotional items of varying utility (and price points) imprinted with the company name or other branding, and actual product, often but not always in sample sizes.

A defining characeristic of swag is that it is broadly distributed — at a conference, an event, as a product premium, on box, at the cash register etc etc. The intent is to reach large numbers of consumers. It is not deliberate seeding of product with known influencers, although with social media, the two tend to conflate, and there is more of an expectation that consumers are also influencers.

So, back to our two kinds of swag – promotional items (trinkets and trash) and actual product. CPG brands (food, cosmetics, household products) can more easily give away samples of their products than consumer durables like electronics, furnishings, and automobiles, but even they often offer promotional items, either instead of or in addition to product sampllng or coupons.

Promotional items

Why give away promotional items? In a word, awareness.

The more useful the trinket, the better the chance that awareness will lead to consideration. When I was an independent consultant, I gave away lens cleaning cloths in a little plastic case. People held onto them for years. At BlogHer 2008, I picked up a 3-outlet extender from Topix that I still use.

Utility doesn’t have to be longterm. Bottled water, personal fans and sunglasses may not make it home from the outdoor concert, but you can bet they will be well used during. It also doesn’t necessarily mean used by the consumer herself. Many trade show trinkets end up in the “look what I got you on my trip” bag that parents bring home to their kids, and that was just as true at the computer industry events I attended in my previous life as it is for blogging conferences. At BlogHer this year, I picked up pair of green sunglasses at the Turning Leaf booth, and my son wore them throughout BlogHer and our post-BlogHer vacation in Chicago.

Doug in Chicago, note green Turning Leaf sunglasses. (c) Susan Getgood 2013

In addition to utility, another factor to consider when selecting promo items is alignment with brand messaging. Fitness items align with wellness messaging, makeup accessories with cosmetics brands, cooking tools with food brands, and so on. Years ago, I worked for a company that made software for tire dealers, and we gave away tire gauges.

Finally, cost. Promotional items do not have to be cheap trinkets and trash. Luxury brands use promo items too, but their distribution is usually more limited than what we are discussing here, the use of promo items in a mass consumer marketing strategy. Generally, the cost of a promo item for mass distribution should be commensurate with the cost of the actual products as well as your overall trade show budget. Bottom line, don’t spend a lot but don’t default to the cheapest item in the catalog either.

Product samples

Product samples make their appearance at events in all sorts of guises — from sampling on site (usually supported by generous coupons and/or a promo item) to free product in trial or full sizes. Regardless of size or form, their role is to encourage trial. in other words, to jump the consumer right to the consideration stage. At BlogHer and other social media events that attract influencers, the brands want to connect with the consumer on two levels, as both a customer and an influencer of other customers (hopefully with some scale!)

Food and many beauty products lend themselves very well to onsite sampling, while others (shampoo, body wash, household cleaning as examples) work better as trial or full size “take-home” products.

The key is to integrate the promo item or sample into your marketing strategy, with a clear objective and desired result. In other words, don’t just give stuff out because everyone else is. Understanding the ROI of your swag can turn it from a cost item in your event budget to an investment in your brand.

All the exhibitors at BlogHer this year did a good job with their booths and swag. I didn’t really see anything that didn’t work for its intended consumer — and keep in mind that not every attendee at BlogHer was the consumer for every brand. That’s why there’s a Swag Swap set up for people to drop off the stuff they don’t want. Whatever is left at the end is donated to local charities.

That said, I do want to call out a few that are great examples of my points above.

Topix outlet from BlogHer 2008 and AloMune waterproof pouch from 2013

Starting with two very small items in the official conference swag bag. Verizon had a USB car charger plug that scores on all my promo item criteria – useful and reinforces Verizon’s branding as a mobile solution provider at a reasonable price point. Immune supplement manufacturer AloMune distributed samples of its product in a very useful cell phone sized waterproof pouch. Neither item was terribly expensive, but almost every attendee probably could find a use for them. Or knows someone who could. And bonus: small and packable so likely to make it home, even with attendees who were not checking luggage or shipping stuff home.

CVS was a sponsor at BlogHer and another conference I attended earlier this summer, Reviewer’s Retreat. At both events, it took the surprising, generous (and not cheap) approach of handing out swag bags of full size products. Not just one or two items — I didn’t count, but it was about what might fit in the hand basket you’d grab when you’d run into the store for a few things. At both conferences, it also was a wide variety — cosmetics, bandages, a first aid kit, cookies and other snack items, hand creme, sunblock and so on. Some of the items were CVS-brand, others were well-known (and not inexpensive) brands like Lubriderm, Roc and Aveeno.

Now, I don’t have first-hand visibility into the brand’s marketing strategy, but I’m guessing one objective is to increase the average basket size (purchase), and that is the goal supported by the generous swag bag. It’s a bold and noticeable move to reinforce the brand messaging — that CVS carries a wide range of merchandise, including food and snack items, at a variety of price points. It isn’t limited to prescriptions, toothpaste and OTC medicines.

I also really hope that the number of items isn’t a coincidence — that someone really did think about how many (as well as what) to include, to mimic that basket size.

Using my focus group of one, I’d say it works. A few days before we left for BlogHer, I had to pick up a prescription ($20) and while I was there, I picked up make-up remover wipes, vitamins, shampoo for my son and a bunch of other stuff, about $50 worth. I know I considered and purchased some of the CVS-brand items as a direct result of the Reviewer’s Retreat swag bag.

So, next time you hear someone bemoaning the swag and promotional items at conferences and events, remind them that swag is an important element in the event marketing mix, brands rely on it to achieve their marketing objectives and consumers welcome it.

And if you don’t want it, just don’t take it. It’s that easy.


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1 Natasha @ Houseful Of Nicholes August 20, 2013 at 11:08 pm

*And if you don’t want it, don’t take it.”

Truer words have never been spoken. Great job!

2 Average Jane August 21, 2013 at 7:15 am

Just last night I took advantage of the CVS first aid kit that I got at BlogHer a couple of years ago. It had been sitting in my medicine cabinet unused all this time until I cut my finger yesterday. Now I’m actively thinking about CVS, as they intended!

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