If you’ve ever been to a trade show or promotional event of any kind, you know what I’m talking about.  Schwag is that branded giveaway stuff to help entice you to remember a company.

Berthoud Chamber ribbon cuttingI had a Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting this week, a fantastic opportunity to meet other business owners in the community.  Definitely take advantage of opportunities like this when you join a Chamber!

As part of the business-to-business connection, it’s common to receive a “schwag bag” of goodies contributed by all the other businesses.  Well, I had an opportunity to look through the bag today, and it got me thinking about the nature of these giveaways.

First, I know how expensive this stuff is.  When I bought a trade show booth after starting my business, I looked through all the catalogs and discovered that a cost of $3 per item is quite common, especially if you want anything halfway decent.

I did the math.  If I was going to have 200 people pass by my booth during the day, that’s maybe $600 for stuff that people are likely to discard before they even leave the premises.  That’s more than I paid for the booth itself that year, and was top of all the stuff I needed to buy to present a professional appearance – a banner, table dressings, and other memorable items fitting in with the Small Fish brand.

The bag I received this week had about thirty items in it, not a bad haul I guess.  So I decided to see if there was anything interesting.

There were a lot of pens.  Twelve, to be exact.  Now, I use pens on a daily basis, but I really only need one at my desk and another by my chair in the living room.  As it happens, I have four at my desk (besides the piles parked away that haven’t been touched for years) but I couldn’t tell you the brand on any one of them.

Two of these pens are the kind which can be used as a stylus on a tablet.  Useful, but … I now have six of them.  It’s no longer unusual.

Let’s dig further – what else do I have?  Well, three more reusable bags within the big bag.  Great, but I have all the reusable bags I can use, and these aren’t the ones that can carry a couple of gallons of milk.  I won’t throw them away, as I’d feel guilty to do that, but they’ll just go in the pile of reusable bags in my pantry that are used maybe once a year.

What else?  Water bottles, a few pads of sticky notes, a huge pile of brochures, two bottles of hand sanitizer, fridge magnets, a frisbee ….  I don’t have time to go through it all.

What did I keep that I know I’ll use?

  • A couple of tiny LED flashlights, those will go in the car and my nightstand
  • A neat zippered bag I can use when I travel
  • A sample bag of coffees

I don’t want to beat up on people who are making these investments.  It may indeed make a difference for them.  But here’s what I notice:

  • Business people tend to get WAY too many of these things.  After a few shows, you figure out it’s not worth stuffing into your luggage to take home.  After a couple more, your kids are even bored with these “gifts” you bring home for them.
  • It’s really really really hard to stick out from the competition this way.  Under what circumstances do people actually pay attention to the brand on that item?
  • These costs really do mount up.  Imagine that you can decide to spend $600 on schwag, or $600 on a great projector which really looks sharp and travels well.  Or $600 to go to an extra couple of events this year to improve your skills and increase exposure.

What I’m finding is that STUFF doesn’t make much of an impression anymore, unless you really go all out.  Go ahead and award somebody $100 of fantastic wine, but then you can’t spread it around like candy.

Likewise, throwing more information in people’s faces isn’t that useful.  Not in a day where I can get a million times more in half a second on Google.  Now if you can give me something cool and interesting – a cartoon, a game, some good jokes – I’ll have a look.  Or a reference that I can’t just get on Google.

This is hard, folks.  It takes creativity and a thoughtful understanding of your audience.

Not buying a truckload of a million pens with your company name on them.