Why The Word ‘Swag’ Isn’t Helping Our Industry

I am tired of those within our industry using the word “swag.” If it is “stuff we all get,” then where is its value?

When we call our medium swag, trinkets and trash, or worse, all we are doing is devaluing what we do for a living.

We work with a tangible medium that does a remarkable job of helping recipients recall brand value and stimulate calls to action for brands. Our medium is there to “talk” about clients’ brands, their companies and their message when they are not there to do so themselves. Our products are essential reminders of what our clients do, what distinguishes them in their marketplace and why their clients should buy from them.

When we continue to use the word swag, and ignore or condone it when others do, we are hurting our industry. Using this word implies that our medium is less valuable than other advertising media or of no value at all. Promotional products, instead, have a reach and recall no other advertising media can match. Research shows that 88 percent of recipients recall the advertiser on a promotional product and 83 percent of people like receiving them. What other advertising media can say that?

Why are we torpedoing ourselves by using the word swag? Why are we giving others ammunition to sell effectively against us? Why are we putting ourselves in a position where people perceive our industry as simply stuff that gets thrown in the garbage the night after the trade show?

Because we let them!

We, as an industry, are not taking the time to learn how to speak the language of our own business, to educate our customers or create value for our media in the minds of others. We need to learn to speak in terms of brand, message, market, value and vision. We need to demonstrate how promotional marketing, when used correctly, allows a brand to demonstrate its uniqueness and differentiate itself in the crowded space it occupies. We need to speak the language of our clients and understand how they want their clients to feel about them. We need to ask what emotions they are trying to evoke, and how they want to be considered as a brand through their marketing.

Our goal should be to demonstrate the uniqueness of each and every client. To understand what they do, why they do it, what differentiates them in a crowded market, what their story is and why their clients care. If we are just selling them swag, we are doing none of this. We are just selling stuff. Is that what we want to be as an industry? I hope not.

When you are talking with your clients, use language that speaks of ideas, return on investment, measurable results and brand awareness. Those are the words, concepts and ideas customers want to hear. Those are the phrases they will relate to. By rethinking your approach, and the words you use, you can drive revenue and build your business without having to discount every order. Be a promotional consultant, not a purveyor of swag.

Ben Baker is president of Your Brand Marketing, a strategic engagement marketing firm. He consults, teaches and speaks on brand, message, market, value and culture. Reach him at ben@yourbrandmarketing.com.

filed under November 2017 | Viewpoint
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Comments (10)
March 26, 2020
Hi Ben, do you have an idea of when we started calling company merchandise “swag”? Was it before or after rappers started using the word in the early to mid-20’s? What was it called before?
Jackie Marsolais
December 4, 2017
Wow, I guess perception and how we market our own brand tells a lot . I love the word swag and at all costs try not to use the term promotional products.(pp) Maybe it's a generational thing. But when I use the term pp, me and my clients think cheap plastic stuff. My clients love the term swag. So much so that I've rebranded my company name utilizing the word swag. And it works. In my industry, it's the complete opposite. My clients think, cool stuff and quality is a given. They know exactly what I sell and because of the way I market my company, they know that I will be suggesting and selling them a bit of swagger to go along with their branded logo products.
Chris Wachowiak
December 4, 2017
I honestly couldn't care less what they call it as long as they are calling us to have a dialog. From there we can direct the conversation to create clearer understanding and opportunities to what I call "investing opportunities in their brand and business." Once we've had the conversation, the terms begin to take on new meaning or understanding or they just "reframe" the words to match their thoughts because now we all know better.
Mark Shinn, MAS
November 28, 2017
From your first question, Ben in your first line, Where is it's Value? When I was in Washington D.C. for L.E.A.D. a couple years ago, I thanked a team of purple-shirt wearing, purple-bag toting, bright lanyard and lapel pin wearing, Volunteers, proudly showing support for pancreatic cancer awareness and care. They loved the SWAG they all had (they used the term), and knew all well the value that they invested in it, to push forward their cause. When my brother's Mechanical Contactor company team, recieves a new fashion fleece, to promote safety awareness in their daily work, they appreciate the Stuff that they all got. Know my brother pretty well, he knows his team appreciates their SWAG, to promote safety. When the most trendy of tech Millennials, proudly sport their new backpacks, having just received them at an International Mobile Conference, they love their SWAG. To each their own, but I'm going to simply smile and support any of our customer's, customers or all the recipients, who choose to use the word SWAG, as they clearly see the value in receiving them. I truly believe we are not "torpedoing" ourselves, by using a term that these folks are very appreciative of. They do not always think of the term Swag as deminishing a brand associated with it, but rather appreciate the items that enhance the brand. To each their own, and there is plenty of room for other opinions . . I'll stick with what works from what I've seen recently. Happy Selling.
sam brown
November 14, 2017
Fellow pros, this is the term used by today's buyer. If you see it as derogatory, consider why you give the term SWAG a negative connotation. The current generation likes to give, buy and get 'swag'. Would it help if you thought of the origin being 'to have swagger'. Shouldn't everything we create for our clients represent their corporate persona and carry that same vibe? In other words, it has swag. Think Denzel Washington- he has swagger - so too should the gifts and momentos we create. Perhaps it just about perspective...
November 14, 2017
I respectfully disagree. If we want to continue to be successful and relevant we need to speak the language of our customers, not try to convert them into speaking ours. With so many battles to fight, the terminology we used to classify what we do should be the last thing on our minds. Quite frankly, the actions that devalue branded merchandise do not revolve around what term we give to the products themselves, but instead to a widespread lack of understanding of how to use these products as part of a integrated marketing strategy to help brands tell their unique story and provide them measurable returns on their investment. We fight each other to the bottom to have the lowest price, we chase high-quality retail brands out of the industry with "But they sell direct!" fear based mentality and are reducing ourselves to selling nothing but cheap plastic commodity items. We tout that we can help people differentiate, but them continue to push the same boring products and to add insult to injury, very fery few of us actually use promotional products to grow our own businesses, while we boldly proclaim to our clients that promo is the best way for them to build their brand. You see, a rose by any other name is still a rose and if our clients see swag as something of value, as many of them do, than swag by any other name is still swag. Call it what you want, let our clients call it what they want, but make sure that whatever it is you choose to call it, it serves the purpose of solving a problem, spreading a message, and building a business. Otherwise, no matter what you call it, it will end up in the landfill with a new name...garbage.
Jae M. Rang, MAS
November 10, 2017
It is a derogatory term that just proves we still have work to do. When people ask for "SWAG" or ask if I'm in the 'SWAG" business, I respond with a smile, "I prefer to call it SENSORY MEDIA" which immediately starts a discussion. Yes, I've trademarked that term and written a book about and will continue to expand on it to help enlighten all buyers, everyone's buyers. The book has my name on it but I wrote it for everyone. Sometimes people will ask if they have offended me using "swag" or other terms (which reminds me that I need to be careful to never sound defensive) and I assure them that they did not, that what my clients pay me to do is ask the right questions and appropriately position SENSORY MEDIA to ensure that it's an investment for them, not an expense. I believe in what we do and understand the power of our media and if they're a serious buyer they appreciate when we take a results-oriented, business approach.
November 9, 2017
Stacy and Dave, thanks for taking the time to respond. YES, it is an uphill battle, but one we need to fight if we, as an industry, want to be taken seriously by both clients and the advertising and marketing worlds. Using any term like SWAG, Cheap and Chearful, Trinkets and Trash or whatever, insinuates that all we sell is STUFF. That we are a commodity and a necessary evil. That what we do is the cheap stuff the admin person is told to order and get to the trade show or the event by a certain date. There is no talk about why they are ordering a certain thing, what the connection is to their brand, what the value is to their customers or why they are giving anything away in the first place. It is just cheap stuff that is an expense on a GL and if the CFO can stop people from spending money on it, they will, because they see no value in it. Our job is to show value. To tell the story of how promotional marketing enhances a brand, helps to tell the right story and can be seen as valuable by those receiving it. It is a tool to help build relationships and trust and allow for conversations to happen that may not have happened otherwise. Fight the fight. Use words and ideas to your advantage! Do not settle for people outside the industry, or in it, marginalizing what you do and the value you provide. You do not just sell STUFF! Don't act or talk like you do!
Stacy Weiss
November 7, 2017
It's an uphill battle, Ben. I've been trying for years to change people's perception of promotional products. As soon as you think they get it, they use the "s" word with the next colleague of theirs to walk in the room. (sigh...)
Dave Bruce
November 7, 2017
I could not agree with you more. I hate the word SWAG. It has always bothered me and takes the value of what we do and sell. I have had some clients say to me, that they have items that they would receive only to bring home and give to their kids. I quickly tell them, that the item is not a good fit or whoever gave it to you, did not understand the reason or point of giving it out.
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