The Case Against Schwag Schwag

schwag (US informal)

  1. noun. products given away free, typically for promotional purposes
  2. adj. term to describe anything that is low grade.

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Tell me if this has happened to you.

You go to a conference and return with, let’s say, three types of bag clips, seven pens, a plastic piggie bank, and an umbrella. It never rains in California anymore, everything’s online, and you typically wear a backpack – but it was free, so now it’s yours.

I’ll be honest; that list isn’t random. It’s just a few of the things I walked away with when participating in a Women in Business conference a few years ago. In addition to the things I did want – or thought I could use somehow – I also ended up with a stack of papers: some advertisements for some services targeted for an older demographic, some promotions for office supplies, and nothing I’d ever looked at again.

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Also spelled “swag.” Jane the Virgin agreesalmost everyone views these bags as generally useless.

What’s the problem?

What I described above is the experience of just one person at one conference. Compound that by the reportedly millions of conference-goers annually, and you end up with a lot of wasted material. As this Bartizan article notes, “When it comes to printing materials for trade shows and conferences, think about whether having a physical copy will benefit the potential customer and your brand. Will anyone read the material you’re providing? Is there a better way to present it?” To be fair, the marketing industry has come a long way in embracing and experimenting with new media, but the old standard of print-based advertising and cheap knick-knacks has deep roots – and for reasons that are pretty easy to understand.

A small gardening service, for example, might prefer to print fliers to stick on homeowners’ doors, a direct marketing tactic that allows the business to evaluate a potential customer’s need quickly by just looking at their yard. Referrals need to start somewhere, and outside of Yelp, Angie’s List, and local neighborhood message boards, it can be difficult to get visibility otherwise. However, these services are typically on a much smaller scale than, say, a well-funded startup that allocates marketing spend on glossy cardstock fliers to stick under wiper blades and branded T-shirts to hand out at hackathons. What happens to the 90% of fliers that end up on the ground or in the trash? What was the ROI on the 10% that survived?

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Does size matter?

I think I speak for everyone when I say yes, size matters. Conferences, marathons, graduations, and concerts – fertile ground for useless junk – are dangerous because of their scale. Make an error in one date, and you have to throw out thousands of brochures. Spell a name wrong, and you have to reprint hundreds of commemorative T-shirts. Think about those championship T-shirts for losing teams – I doubt there are enough ironic hipsters to buy up all of the 2016 NBA Champs paraphernalia that flooded the underground market after the Warriors (tragically) lost the Finals.

Conservation Tip #1: Follow Toyota’s example of lean manufacturing by only producing what you need at the moment. Not only will you catch mistakes faster due to smaller batch processing, but you can get iterative feedback on what works and create a continuously improved product. For printed material, that can mean keeping only one or two copies on hand and providing a link to an online version, or creating a virtual “folder” that pools all selected collateral into one set of files that’s emailed after the event. For physical material, that can mean reducing the number of schwag that’s given out and making products more generic so that they can be re-used in other circumstances. Tl;dr: Reduce, reuse.

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Who’s the audience?

Another issue at large events is a lack of understanding of what the average attendee actually needs (and doesn’t already have). For example, it’s safe to assume that basketball fans would enjoy a free door-mounted hoop, enough to ignore a little corporate branding splashed across the backboard. It’s not safe to assume that they’ll appreciate your HR company’s logo across the chest of a low-quality T-shirt, even if you give it to them for free. Why? Because they came to the game for a sports-related experience, and your shirt doesn’t fit into that narrative. Of course, many people will take whatever freebies they’re given even if they never plan to use them (I’ve been guilty of this myself), so it’s the responsibility of the ethical marketer to control the brand image and spend by ensuring that the right products end up in the right hands.

Conservation Tip #2: Do some market research to understand what products or information your target demographic would rep the most enthusiastically. Produce only high-quality material, whether it’s a well-designed interactive pamphlet or a creative customizable magnet. This must-read Brafton article summarizes it well: “Content marketing is not, as a colleague put it, an all-you-can eat buffet. But some companies treat it that way. The more-is-more mentality only works when there are enough resources and time to invest in each individual piece.”
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: you should be proud of your work. Anticipate what other vendors might be distributing, and try to make your offering unique and most importantly useful. (For instance, I’d be much more likely to use one nice ballpoint pen than ten rollerball pens, and would use that ball-point way more often. Bigger ROI for the company, more enjoyment for me, less junk for the environment.) Your company and your career will thank you.

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Who’s really in charge?

Without a steady hand on a company’s marketing budget, paid advertising can quickly balloon out of control. There are three ways of circumventing this problem: slow or stop paid campaigns, default to cheaper materials or methods, and/or find a sponsor or partner to cross-promote.

In the vein of the third option, I recently received a package of branded magnets as part of a StickerMule promotion. The magnets were of high quality, exactly as I have come to expect from StickerMule products, but I don’t have any use for them. Why would I put up a Chrome orb or a MailChimp monkey on my fridge, mailbox, or anywhere else? What am I supposed to do with these useless magnets? Most importantly, how do I recycle them?

It’s easy to understand StickerMule’s strategy – hit up existing clients with diversified brand offerings and offer goodies to both test quality and make consumers feel like they owe the company something – but there must be a way to improve it. What happens before, during, and after the user experience of engaging with these materials, and how can companies and individuals reduce their carbon footprint by eliminating or recycling these attempts? Here are a few suggestions.

Conservation Tips #3 – 5:

  • Reduce: Send one customizable magnet that users could color in or otherwise decorate themselves.
    However, if Facebook, Google, and Dribbble had indeed paid StickerMule for the promotion, there’s less financial incentive to limit the number of magnets given away for free. This is a tricky situation because StickerMule doesn’t have its own branding on these magnets (good for consumers, bad for marketing), so they only benefit when they distribute the goods themselves. Even so, sending just one or two, rather than six, would extend their available stock and expand their audience. 
  • Reuse: Provide a return envelope for any unused magnets.
    Admittedly, this would increase the amount of waste if the envelope is pre-printed, but would be a net positive for the company who could reclaim precious marketing assets. 
  • Reinvent: Include sticky sheets so recipients could tape over magnets they don’t plan to use.
    The downside of this is that cross-promoters wouldn’t be happy about consumers modifying their magnets, but users already have the ability to do much worse, so it’s literally out of the marketing manager’s hands.

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How do you change the channel?

Technology might hasten the human race’s ultimate demise, but eschewing it in favor of exploiting limited resources will have the same result. The big question is, how do we use technology to reduce the burden on the environment, and how can we rethink traditional models of communication to be more sustainable?

Most people are familiar with eco-friendly materials, like recycled paper or soy-ink printer cartridges that you can send back to the manufacturer. These are great initiatives, but in order to flip the script and combat growing deforestation and pollution, there are still several other shifts in perspective needed. Outside of reducing resource waste on products or assets that no one needs, the marketing industry needs to hold itself to higher standards, rallying mom-and-pop shops and multinational corporations alike to establish basic green guidelines.

This might take the form of agencies taking on more ethical work (or refusing to work with companies who have a proven track record of human rights violations or environmental abuse). ACT Responsible, whose vision is to “inspire, promote and federate communication on social and environmental responsibility,” is a comprehensive resource. It could result in industry leaders establishing sustainable development goals – UFI (the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry) has provided an excellent model for the conference space. Perhaps companies have to limit the types of resources used, or curtail excess when a production reaches a certain size. Maybe it’s as simple as creating a CSR department which audits and measures campaigns’ ROI and impact, so that teams are forced to think more closely about their strategies.

Clearly, there are no simple solutions, and no assurance that companies will even follow these rules. But it’s a start, and we can’t get anywhere without starting. As anyone who’s interacted with a teenager knows, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The marketing industry is well aware of this adage – now it’s time to start living by it.


Exhibit A (Schwag) Image

About A26Z: Good by Design

A26Z: Good by Design is a year-long project promoting actionable sustainability practices in various industries. I started this personal “capstone project” to commemorate turning 26, and will release a new “exhibit” every other Thursday until the 26-part series concludes the day prior to my 27th birthday.

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