Promotional products are a $26 billion industry, and retail brands are in increasing demand

Along with their corporate logos, companies want merch to have the logos of trendy brands, too.
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Ads from WD-40 and Icemule in the March issue of PPAI Magazine promoting the brands as worthy promotional merch. PPAI Magazine

· 5 min read

Whatever you do, don’t call them “tchotchkes.”

“Or even worse, ‘trinkets,’” Andrew Spellman, chair of the board of the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), a not-for-profit trade group founded in 1903, told Retail Brew. “We don’t mind ‘swag,’ but right now we’re pushing the nomenclature ‘merch.’ We want ‘merch’ to be the word.”

Still, among the more than 15,000 member companies that comprise the organization, plenty sell the cheap your-logo-here stress balls, pens, and bottle openers cluttering drawers worldwide. But it’s a broad category that also includes coveted brands like Yeti (“Yeti has crushed it within the promotional space,” Spellman said) and Stanley, which may not be products a company gives away by the thousands on a trade show floor, but rather to sales prospects or beloved office managers on Administrative Professionals Day (on April 24).

Spellman has been in the industry for 24 years, first working for International Merchandise Concepts, a distributor representing brands in the channel, then on the brand side at Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife and backpack company. Currently, he’s VP of corporate markets at Therabody, which is best known for its Theragun massager.

Spellman’s got a message for brands that have yet to dip their toe in the merch pool: Come in. The water’s warm. And companies want promotional products from established brands.

“The buyers are getting so much more educated,” Spellman said. “They don’t want a knockoff $5 piece of drinkware—they want a Yeti or a Corkcicle or Stanley.”

Swagriculture: The international sales volume of promotional products was $26.1 billion in 2023, exceeding the pre-pandemic total of $24.2 billion in 2019, according to data from PPAI and Relevant Insights.

The most popular category is apparel, with 26.1% of sales volume, followed by drinkware (10.3%), bags/travel (7.9%), and caps/hats (7.2%).

More expensive items have their place, as Spellman—whose employer sells massagers for as much as $600 (and a mini version for $200)—well knows. While no sane company is going to hand out Theraguns with their logo willy-nilly at a conference, they may give out several as a drawing for conventioneers who put their business card in a fishbowl, he noted.

Spellman pitches Therabody products as perks like employee end-of-year holiday gifts. He eschews greeting-card holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, and asks, “What are reasons that company would give away something to their employees?”

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For wellness-related products like his, companies may gift them during awareness months focused on subjects like sleep, he said. (Whether employees like seeing the logo of the employer that caused them stress as they’re trying to relieve that stress is an open question.)

The promotional products channel can be a significant revenue stream, representing as much as 15% of the total revenues at Victrinox while he worked there (from 2003 to 2017), said Spellman, who declined to reveal the portion of Therabody’s sales that are promotional products but did say it’s in the top five sales verticals for the brand.

Get promotivated: So how do brands throw their logo-emblazoned hat into the ring?

Spellman advises that this is not a sampling program where you get exposure for a brand, but rather one where having recognition or buzz is the starting point.

“You need to build up either your own e-comm or get into traditional retail first so that you’ll have the benefit of being able to leverage that in the promo space,” Spellman said.

It doesn’t require staffing up, because there are distributors who represent brands who do much of the pitching, and established vendors who handle work like embroidering or applying logos to products.

“Typically [for] a newer company that’s exploring it, there are a certain number of partners that can help them do it very economically,” Spellman said. “They maybe would hire one person.”=

A magazine published by PPAI, with the catchy name PPAI Magazine, includes advertising from brands that are on the swag bandwagon (swagwagon? swagon?), like bag maker Timbuk2 and WD-40, whose ad features a lubricating pen with the logo for—here’s synergy for brands targeting the handy—Caterpillar.

Another way to get up to speed is by attending PPAI’s annual expo, like this year’s in January, which drew more than 16,000 people to Las Vegas. There you’ll meet characters like Bill Petrie, an industry veteran who’s the founder and creative director of Brandivate, an outsourcing company that focuses on the promotional products industry.

“When I got into this industry, the word was that it was founded on complete paranoia and mild alcoholism,” Petrie told a gathering at a networking lunch. “There’s some truth to that, but I’m backing off on the paranoia part. We used to be so worried about competition, but now I see far more collaboration.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.