Here's the thing about that piece on swag by Elizabeth Segran in Fast Company: she's right.


The $24 billion dollar promotional products industry is up in arms over the Fast Company article by Elizabeth Segran, It’s time to stop spending billions on cheap conference swag. [Full disclosure: we provide the software that powers over $500 million in sales in this industry. It’s an industry we’re proud to not only support, but an industry in which we have -not just customers- but so many dear friends who have given their lives to this business].

But Elizabeth was right about a few things:

  1. She did her homework enough to know product category percentages, dollar volume, industries who buy, she researched key players, uncovered resources, tapped into supply chain logistics, she painted a broad picture of the industry and did a decent job capturing its breadth.

  2. She’s right (of course) about the impact of landfill on the environment and the contribution of swag to these landfills. Everyone in this industry knows she’s right to rail against the harmfulness to our environment as many of us feel exactly the same way.

  3. She’s right that many products are not well-designed and well-engineered and therefore are not functional or beautiful enough to keep.

  4. She’s right about clients: “The companies buying these things are looking to get them out to as many people as possible, while maximizing their marketing budget.”
And she was right about one thing above all.

That, when used appropriately, -for all its baggage- (ahem), swag is shockingly effective.Elizabeth began her article with, "I confess that I canceled and re-subscribed to the New Yorker just so that I could get a new version of the tote that comes with membership." That statement alone is what the professionals in this business accomplish on behalf of their customers (literally) every day. Her statement proved that swag:

  1. Directly drove sales: she re-subscribed. The New Yorker’s total paid circulation rose 12.3% last year to $1.2 million (according to Digiday) and over 500,000 people received that bag.

  2. Her statement proved that the right swag is about creating an emotional connection to the brands we love, which never ends up in a landfill. The New Yorker bag is a simple bag with a functional and elegant design, those who created the bag knew their audience, knew they were building a practical piece that would serve a purpose. And Elizabeth’s bag will now be around for years, avoiding the landfills. Elizabeth bought a subscription to The New Yorker just so she could receive the tote bag, identifying herself as a proud member of the tribe and making an emotional and financial investment in a brand she loves.

  3. Swag is tribal and therefore ubiquitous. Because Elizabeth is proud to own her bag, she’ll carry it more often. She might use it for groceries, maybe for carrying things back and forth on her commute. The mileage of advertising from one simple bag is pennies on the dollar for the New Yorker, better than any other advertising medium, it’s a walking billboard on the arms of their raving fans, a tactile referral in motion. Dwayne Sheppard, VP of consumer marketing for the New Yorker commented on its ubiquitousness, “I’ve been traveling a lot personally, and my new game is, ‘How long will it be before I see a tote bag?’ In Berlin, it was day three. In Dublin, it was 24 hours. No matter where I go, I tend to see at least one.'”

  4. And customer retention? Because swag is reminder advertising, it lives in our homes and in our offices as visual influencers. What's the lifetime value of a New Yorker subscriber? I’m a subscriber and I paid $120 for my renewed subscription this past year, and I’ll likely be a subscriber for years to come, but let’s just say I’m a subscriber for only ten years, that's $1,200, and a tote bag at 500,000 pieces would be approximately $1-$2. That’s about 1% of my ten-year subscription and that doesn’t include the advertising I’ll provide for The New Yorker as I carry my bag nor the money I’ll spend with those who advertise in the magazine and on the website.

Sure, Elizabeth got some things wrong. “They’re all competing with one another to sell products at rock bottom prices;” it's simply not true but you would have to be inside the industry to understand. And Elizabeth avoided Sturgeon’s law that states that 90% of everything is crap (think: books, movies, music) and that can surely be said for the promotional products industry as well. (Being in the business, I’m less inclined to think it’s as high as 90%, but my opinion is subjective).

What Elizabeth’s research didn’t uncover was that there are contrarians (a host of them) who are driving a revolution in this business. People like Fairware who are passionate about sustainability and John Borg with ecoimprints. And brilliant companies who design beautiful, functional products for their clients every day like Brand+Aid, TwelveNYC, Juice Marketing, Axis Promotions, Anthem Branding (and on and on and on).

What Elizabeth’s research also didn’t reveal was the strides taken by many manufacturers (just one of many is Redwood Classics) to become more sustainable, and there’s even a certification arm within the industry (Quality Certification Alliance) that promotes product safety, social responsibility, supply chain security, and environmental impact.

What Elizabeth argued was what the true pros in this business preach all the time: make it useful, make it memorable, make it meaningful, design for elegance, plan ethically (for perpetuity), and for fuck’s sake make it matter. My favorite line in the article The Story Behind That Tote Bag was from the buyer and originator of the bag, Dwayne Sheppard, who said, “It’s a nice perk, but I don’t think people are coming to the New Yorker to subscribe just for the tote bag.” Well, they might not subscribe only for the tote bag but they would willingly unsubscribe and then resubscribe just to get their hands on one so, in one sense you could say they are coming back .... just for the tote bag.

 Image credit: Creative, a promotional product distributor who proudly displays that anti-landfill sign in their showroom to greet each and every customer.

commonsku is an effortless business management platform that empowers you to process more orders and handle more business. Learn more at