What is swag?
Simply put, swag is any branded freebie that you get from a vendor, and it’s been used for marketing at tech industry events and showcases since the 1970s. Some common types of swag include stickers, mugs, water bottles, pins, luggage tags, plushies, squishies, t-shirts, socks, hats, tote bags, throw blankets, lanyards, sunglasses, lip balm, custom Lego sets, branded card/board games, journals/notebooks, sticky notes, phone stands, USB power banks, cables/accessories, USB thumb drives, and Bluetooth thingy’s. Branded items you receive from your own organization could also be called swag, but since they are often more expensive and targeted towards employee retention, I’ll omit them entirely in this blog post.
Why does it work?
People like free things. A free hotdog is nice, but there’s really nothing to show for it after it’s been consumed. With swag, you have something - no matter how useless - that you can use, wear, display on your desk, or stick to your laptop. And if that something has a logo on it, you are constantly reminded of the associated organization or technology, and often synthesize a more positive view of it over time.
Because of this, swag has tremendous benefits for tech companies. If done right, it’s essentially a way for these companies to get brand visibility for a relatively low cost, as well as procure sales and sales leads. You’re more likely to consider adopting a tech product if you’re wearing the t-shirt already. And if you’ve never heard of the brand before, you’re more likely to Google it and check them out. You might even sign up for a free trial or share their product on social media if you think it’s novel.
What makes good swag?
Not all swag is effective. In general:
Good swag should not be cheap.
A flimsy $0.20 pen that looks like it’ll break after a bit of use is probably going to be thrown into a drawer and forgotten. But a sturdy $1 shiny metal corporate-style pen will likely be used frequently and shown to others.
Good swag should be something that people will actually want to use and have room for.
A pair of branded Bluetooth earbuds from China that costs about $10 isn’t going to be used at all if you have something better (and everyone has something better ;-). But t-shirts or socks certainly will, as will light-up rubber bounce balls or canvas tote bags. Similarly, most people already have a cupboard full of mugs they’ll probably never use but will likely appreciate a travel thermos or protein shaker cup.
Good swag should have some sort of cool visuals or humour to be displayed.
A sticker with some corporate logo isn’t likely going to make it to someone’s laptop unless the brand is considered cool in nerd circles (e.g., Red Hat). But a sticker that has a cheeky slogan (e.g., It’s always DNS) or cool visuals (e.g., a cat riding a fire-breathing unicorn into battle carrying a Microsoft flag) probably will. Similarly, a stuffed robot that looks like it came out of a vending machine won’t likely be displayed on your desk, but something like the Ansible stress squishy shown here probably will for the pun value alone (it’s an Ansi-bull). Sometimes, swag that displays the name or logo of an event you have fond memories of (e.g., Kubecon) will make you want to display it to revisit those memories.
So what happens to bad swag?
What happens to bad swag depends on the type of swag itself:
Stickers get stuck somewhere not as visible (e.g., on the side of a book shelf or desk).
Cheap/flimsy stuff usually gets pitched right away (bad for environment).
Swag that could be useful later (e.g., branded luggage tags) often get put into a drawer and forgotten.
Non-useful swag usually gets given away, donated to Goodwill, put into a drawer, or pitched (unless the recipient is a swag hoarder, of course).
In short, swag is an effective marketing tactic that can be a lot of fun for the recipient if done properly. But if done poorly, swag can just end up in the trash. For most of us in the tech industry, however, swag is an important part of our wardrobe and laptop decor that helps tech organizations build brand recognition and sales.