Almost anything can be branded with a company’s name or logo and used for promotion. Common items include t-shirts, caps, keychains, bumper stickers, pens, mugs or mouse pads. The largest product category for promotional products is wearable items, which make up more than 30% of the total.
Most promotional items are relatively small and inexpensive, but can range to higher-end items; for example celebrities at film festivals and award shows are often given expensive promotional items such as expensive perfumes, leather goods, and electronics items. Companies that provide expensive gifts for celebrity attendees often ask that the celebrities allow a photo to be taken of them with the gift item, which can be used by the company for promotional purposes. Other companies provide luxury gifts such as handbags or scarves to celebrity attendees in the hopes that the celebrities will wear these items in public, thus garnering publicity for the company's brand name and product.
Business gifts used to foster customer goodwill and retention are the most common use for promotional items at 18.5%. Other objectives that marketers use promotional items to facilitate include tradeshow traffic-building, brand awareness, public relations, employee relations and events, dealer and distributor programs, new customer generation, not-for-profit programs, employee service awards, new product introductions, internal incentive programs, safety education, customer referrals and marketing research.
Promotional items are also used in politics to promote candidates and causes. Promotional items as a tool for non-commercial organizations, such as schools and charities are often used as a part of fund raising and awareness-raising campaigns. A prominent example was the livestrong wristband, used to promote cancer awareness and raise funds to support cancer survivorship programs and research.
The first known promotional products in the United States are commemorative buttons dating back to the election of George Washington in 1789. During the early 1800s there were some advertising calendars, rulers and wooden specialties, but there wasn’t an organized industry for the creation and distribution of promotional items until later in the 19th century.
Jasper Meeks, a printer in Coshocton, Ohio, is considered by many to be the originator of the industry when he convinced a local shoe store to supply book bags imprinted with the store name to local schools. Henry Beach, another Coshochton printer and a competitor of Meeks picked up on the idea and soon the two men were selling and printing bags for marbles, buggy whips, card cases, fans, calendars, cloth caps, aprons and even hats for horses.
In 1904, twelve manufacturers of promotional items got together to found the first trade association for the industry. That organization is now known as the Advertising Specialty Institute, which currently has more than 7,500 global members.
At one time, the use of promotional products was limited to random give-aways and not as a part of an integrated marketing effort. Today, many more promotional products are distributed by businesses and organizations, sometimes with the assistance of a promotional consultant, to specific target markets to generate specific and measurable results.
2006 US sales of promotional products totaled $18.6 billion dollars, up from $17.8 billion in 2005. The industry is growing at a faster rate than newspaper or radio advertising and is larger than Internet advertising ($16.8 billion), cable television ($16.9 billion), Yellow Pages advertising ($14.4 billion) and outdoor advertising ($6.8 billion).
The industry is made up of supplier companies who manufacture or import the products, inventory them and decorate them on demand. There are approximately 2,000 supplier companies and 18,000 distributors in the United States. Distributors buy from the supplier companies and sell them to the marketers who are termed "end buyers." The industry is made up of many small and entrepreneurial individuals and companies with 95% of distributor companies selling less than $2.5 million per year.
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