Blog# 18 Breaking Up With Swag: Prioritizing Substance Over Stuff

If you ever attended a birthday party as a child, I’m sure you remember the excitement of, in the end, being handed a colourful party loot bag filled with individually wrapped sweets, a mini packet of crisps or chips, and lots of little plastic toys. These were things that were ripped open, devoured, played with, and discarded as quickly as the sugar rush evaporated.

But that was then, and as adults, we’d be pretty confused if we were waved off after a get-together with a bag of candy, a sticky gecko toy, and a fidget spinner.

Except at any corporate event, that’s exactly what happens. 

Attendees walk in with arms outstretched to receive the expected branded tote bag, which they fill with freebies from sponsors. Just like the party bags, the majority of their contents are dumped.

So, what is swag?

If you’ve worked in corporate for any length of time, you’ll know all about “swag.” You might use the term “freebies,” “goodies,” or “promos,” but at the end of the day, it’s some branded item from a company.

Why does it exist?

The intended purpose of corporate promotional materials (to give them their official name once in this article so I can make fun of them for the remainder) is to give people who might be interested in a particular product or company a useful item that they’ll take home and use often. In an ideal world, they’ll think fondly of the company whenever they see the logo shining up at them from their branded pen/USB stick/notepad/ water bottle. 

And, of course, they’ll buy the product, become loyal fans for life, eagerly apply to work for the company, and wax lyrical about it to all their friends.

Yes, I’m setting this scenario up for a fall. They’re giving out pencils, not magic wands.

The swag reality

At corporate events, hundreds of companies can vie for attendees’ attention, each thrusting branded bits and bobs from behind booths. It’s overwhelming. Or at least that was the case for my friend Clare, who attended a two-day conference a few weeks ago. Clare and her sister were given so much printed paraphernalia that their haul from a single day covered an entire double bed. 

“If two people could collect that much stuff in one day, how much merch would an exhibitor need to take to give out to potentially 2,000 people across two days?” said Clare when we chatted. Clare also witnessed the tail end of the exhibition, where tired exhibitors were trying to get rid of the remaining merch. Trademarked tat was being thrust on attendees by the handful, as exhibitors simply didn’t want the hassle of taking the leftovers back to HQ. 

Companies would rather dump the stock than bother carrying it. What does that say about the value of their logoed loot? Of the value of their company brand?

The true cost of freebies

My biggest concern is always the environment. From the get-go, the swag has been environmentally expensive. It’s almost always produced in a cheaper labour market, often under poor working conditions. Then, it needs to be packaged and shipped to the company, creating emissions and plastic waste. 

It’s then repackaged (more waste) and transported to an event (more emissions). After the event, the leftovers are either dumped or shipped back. 

The majority of corporate crud taken home by event attendees is soon disposed of, too. After all, there aren’t many of us who would enjoy being a walking billboard for a company we walked past once at a trade show. Things end up in junk drawers to tidy up later shelves, and eventually, rubbish heaps. The environmental cost is enormous.

So why do we still swag?

If the wares are essentially worth less than the return shipping, and the ROI of frivolous freebies is incredibly low, organizations seem to be throwing away the budget. Budget that could be used instead for something that actually gets them front of mind for potential partners. 

The thing is, as an events industry, we have set the expectation – like harried moms at their children’s parties – that there will be take-home treats. Nobody really wants to make them, nobody really wants to use them, and the environmental cost is astronomical. But we keep creating corporate crap because it’s what we’ve always done.

Until somebody stops.

Dare to go bare(handed)

I invite you to let go of peer pressure and pull the plug on swag. It might be controversial, but our industry needs leaders of change. We need to cut the expectation of stuff and a grab-and-go mentality and instead focus on quality interactions, genuine storytelling, and human connections.

What if, instead of branded tchotchkes, you gave out digital coupons for a free trial period of your software, a guided tour of your venue or facilities, or an entry into a competition for a subscription to your magazine? We want to reward people who genuinely show interest in our company’s mission. What more impactful way to do so than with a taste of the mission itself?

I’d love to see event organizers offer a competition to win a one-on-one talk with some of their top exhibitors or speakers. It would demonstrate the value of the speakers, spread the event’s message on a totally new level, create connections, and make fans for life. And it’s totally carbon neutral. 100% ROI.

If you have any more ideas, I would love to hear from you, and I’d love it even more if you could share them on my LinkedIn so we can create a resource for other event professionals.

I know it can be nerve-racking to turn up empty-handed, but I guarantee you that you have much more to offer than corporate clutter.

On a personal note, I vetoed party bags for my daughter’s 8th birthday. They went to a ninja gym and had so much fun that nobody even noticed.