Do I Need Company Swag for Trade Shows?

by Matt, on 31 Aug 2021

Many people and places are gradually coming to terms with doing business while the COVID pandemic persists. This includes a return to in-person industry events, such as conferences and trade shows.

Whether trade shows will ever return to their former glory as a cornerstone of B2B business development strategy remains to be seen, but it’s safe to assume that some physical exhibitions will continue.

If your company decides that it makes sense to include exhibiting at trade shows in your marketing mix, there are several things to consider:

  • How many events will you attend and of what size?
  • What size and complexity of exhibit will you use?
  • How will your exhibit be branded? What will it feature?
  • Who from your team will participate?

Each of those will require a business-specific discussion in the context of your market, your customer understanding, and other elements of your marketing strategy.

With those macro decisions made, the next thing that clients are asking us about is what swag they should take with them.

In today’s post we’ll address:

  • What is swag?
  • What makes effective swag?
  • Is swag essential?
  • Our swag secrets.

What is Swag?

Swag literally means the goods taken by a thief or burglar.

In trade show parlance, swag refers to the (usually branded) promotional goodies that exhibitors leave out for booth visitors to take away with them.

(Some will argue that it’s an abbreviation for “stuff we all get”, but I find the similarity between a conference-goers carrier bag full of brochures, pens, and trinkets and a burglar’s sack of loot much more compelling).

The idea is to create a lasting memory of the visit, while securing some free advertising long after the show is over.

Examples include clothing (t-shirts, hats, masks), consumables (candy, mints), useful accessories (pens, notebooks, measuring tapes, mugs, koozies, knives, bottle openers), and toys (silly putty, bouncy balls, mini games).

To say that promotional goods manufacturers have a creative streak would be a major understatement. If there’s a way to print, etch, or stitch a logo on it, they’ve probably got one in their catalog – in colors close enough to match your brand.

trade show swag cartoon

What Makes Effective Swag

The effectiveness of swag must be measured against your objectives.

Do you want your brand to be seen all over the exhibit hall (give them something they will wear or use immediately) or once delegates get back to their office (give them something they will use every day at work)?

Are you bothered if a lot of your goodies end up at delegate’s homes, in the hands of their children?

Are you trying to make a statement about product features and quality (give away related, high-quality items) or just create mass brand awareness (give away lots of lower cost, eye-catching things)?

Do you want to be remembered for giving away something different from everyone else, or just avoid visitors leaving empty-handed?

It’s perhaps easier to say what makes ineffective swag – typically things that:

  • End up in the trash because they serve no useful purpose
  • Are picked up by irrelevant delegates hunting stuff for their kids (we like to call them “trick-or-treaters”)
  • Are of such poor quality that people don’t even take them (cheap pens and tacky t-shirts)
  • Confuse visitors as to what they do or why they should want one
  • Can’t be easily taken home in hand luggage (think: knives through airports)
  • Have been given away by so many companies that nobody wants more of them (mugs, pens, notebooks, and tote bags are on my Do Not Pick Up list)
  • Fail to align with your brand (wrong color, inconsistent with brand personality)
  • Fail to say who they’re from (no logo, web address, or product name)

As our client, Scott Nguyen, CEO at Bodhi, told me: “Make me something I want to use or wear, and pay for higher quality!” (emphasis his).

Is Swag Essential?

Can you exhibit and not give away swag? Absolutely.

Are you missing a trick if your visitors leave empty handed? Probably.

You will have paid a significant amount to exhibit, including the floor space, booth construction or rental, graphics, on site services, and staff time, travel, and expenses.

Your return on that investment will be predicated on achieving the marketing goals that drove you to exhibit in the first place – usually a combination of building brand awareness, engaging with prospective buyers, generating leads, and reinforcing relationships with existing customers.

Giving the right swag to the right people can positively impact any of those objectives.

Moreover, not giving away swag might negatively impact some of them – especially if your direct competitors are wooing your prospects with impressive stuff.

At a minimum, we recommend giving away a limited quantity of nicer swag in exchange for contact information – or, if you’re feeling particularly frugal, in return for a signed contract!

Swag Secrets

Invest time in coming up with swag designs that are relevant to your business. What specific gadgets do your customers use? How do they spend their time and what would they use most frequently that they don’t already have a dozen of?

Look at what other companies in your space are doing, but don’t copy. Try to be different and better-aligned with your brand than they are with theirs.

Be clear about how, where, when, and how often you expect recipients to use your swag. Consider having one item that’s a bit of fun but gets lots of attention on the show floor – sending other delegates your way to get themselves one – and another that’s designed to be taken back to their workplaces and used later.

Spend a little more to get higher-quality items and pay a designer to make them look great (especially if you customize them with graphics). Test design ideas with friends and family beforehand to confirm they would want/like/use/wear them.

If you wouldn’t be proud to have your swag lying around your home and office, you probably shouldn’t be associating it with your brand on the trade show booth.

Make prospects set foot on your carpet (please, always pay for carpet or another premium flooring option) to reach the swag. Don’t just pile it on a table at the front of the booth where passers-by can snatch it up without slowing down or making eye contact!

Unless it expires at the end of the show (e.g. dated or specifically themed items), take unclaimed swag home with you. Don’t throw it at anyone who will take it just to avoid the hassle or shipping fees. While it’s heartwarming to see the local homeless population decked out in your t-shirts, those branded items were manufactured for a reason and the marketing team should repurpose them at a future event.

What’s the most effective piece of swag you’ve ever produced or received? Please share your ideas and success stories in the comments!


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Topics:Marketing StrategyBrand