History of Promotional Products

History of Promotional Pens

Today promotional products are ubiquitous.  I am wearing a cap promoting a band, drinking out of a mug emblazoned with the name of a well-known coffee shop, while simultaneously charging my phone on a portable power bank gifted by a software services provider. And on the table alongside me are a scratch pad and pen, both bearing the logo of the hotel where I am currently staying.

When you see a branded t-shirt or a pen with a custom printed logo on it,, you no longer think about why they exist or where they came from. You just recognize and remember the brand because you see it over and over. This is what makes promotional products one of the most effective marketing tools available.

Worth $20 billion a year globally, promotional products have in fact been around for hundreds of years and started from very humble beginnings.

The First Promotional Products

The history of promotional products dates almost as far back as the beginning of the United States. In 1789, commemorative buttons were used to mark the event of the election of then President George Washington. Throughout his campaign certain wooden promotional products like almanacs, calendars, rulers also became popular.

mount vernon inaugural button
Inaugural Buttons – Source: mountvernon.org

Commercialisation of Promotional Products – Advertising

For around 100 years after the first commemorative George Washington Buttons, promotional products did not become widespread. Real commercialization value was only realised by a newspaper salesman named Jasper meek in 1886, who wanted to run his printing press during slow times.

One day he was randomly wandering on the streets and an incident proved to be a “Eureka” moment for him. He saw a child walking home from school drop her books on the road. While she was picking those up, he got an idea – he thought he could use his press to print advertisements on bags. He distributed such bags to his friend and shoe store owner Mr. Cantwell, who would give these bags to children who came to his store for free. Eventually, the town was inundated with the message “Buy Cantwell Shoes” on bags.  How prescient his foresight was, as today promotional screen or digitally printed tote,  jute and eco-bags bearing marketing messages remain one of the biggest categories among promotional items

Meek enjoyed a monopoly until 1889, when another newspaper salesman, Henry D. Beach started printing messages on anything that could run through the press. He printed the messages on apron, caps, hats for horses, bags for marbles, buggy whips, card cases, calendars and fans. He was the one who unlocked the potential of promotional products as marketing gifts. Henry Beach was also the first person to print metal signs and promotional metal trays, which were used by brands such as Coca-Cola. Today, these items are collectables.

Promotional Products Used for Corporate Branding

Eventually, the use of promotional products expanded from pure advertising giveaways and into the bigger field of corporate branding. Anheuser-Busch sent their salesmen with corporate logo branded items like corkscrew and pocket knives to gift their existing and potential customers. This not only enhanced their brand recognition but also helped them increase sales.

Anheuser-Busch Pocket Knives
Anheuser-Busch Pocket Knives – Source: www.stanhopemicroworks.com

The Formation of an Industry Association

In the year 1904, as the popularity of promotional products increased, representatives of 12 such companies came together to form the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), an industry trade association that would allow them to address various issues such as pricing, new ideas and business operating procedures and guidelines.

The PPAI still exists today and acts as the industry’s advocate and educator, helping foster the growth of the promotional products industry through its member companies. From its first rade show in 1914, the PPAI Expo held yearly in Las Vegas continues to be the industry’s premier tradeshow event annually.

Big Brands Joined the Party

The game changed from there and big brands started realising the power of such promotional giveaways. Some iconic promotional branding products are listed below

1920’s – New York Knicks basketball team created the first bobblehead with its brand and logo.
1935 – Mickey Mouse featured on lunch boxes, with Disney licensing out this character
1936 – Chevrolet sent a photographic postcard to its prospects.

New York Knicks Bobblehead
New York Knicks Bobblehead – Source: Antina Promotions

The Invention of Plastic Boosted The Promotional Products Industry

Another significant development in the field of promotional products was the invention of plastic during the start of the 20th century that proved to be the game-changer in promotional products. Plastic provided low-cost options that were easy to be manufactured. Many popular promotional items available today were introduced after the invention of plastic.

It also resulted in the use of plastics derivative materials as promotional products.  For instance, as an antecedent of plastic, Polyurethane was developed during 1937, which is now used in the production of stress balls, shapes and related promotional products.

Development of Modern Promotional Products Industry

The Great Depression took a toll on the promotional products industry, but by 1947, the industry recorded sales of over $100 million. Today, promotional products are a $20 billion dollar industry and continue to grow.

Statistics show that promotional products are one of the most cost-effective options for businesses to promote their brands, with an average cost per impression of $0.005. Consumers keep promotional products for an average of six months, the most popular of which are wearables, writing instruments, bags and drinkware.

Below are some key promotional products industry development timeline:

  • 1979 – McDonald’s took branding to the next level by offering toys in their Happy Meals, such as the McWrist Wallet, and then Hot Wheels cars in 1983.  They used these as cross-promotional materials for popular toy products, TV shows, and movies.
  • 1982 – Rally towels became a popular item to use at sporting events. The very first logged towel called the Terrible Towel and inspired by Vancouver Canucks coach Roger Neilson who got angry over a call and waved a white towel at the referee.
  • 1990s – Promotional t-shirts were the rage for everyone from cigarette companies to grocery stores. Hard Rock Café reserved stock of promotional tees on their shelves for each of their locations.
  • 1996 – Swedish furniture store known as IKEA produced huge sized iconic bags for its shoppers. Because of their eco-friendly design, custom totes were also famous at Whole Foods, Target, and Trader Joes
  • 2004 – Nike introduced the rubber “Livestrong” bracelet, which became a symbol for cancer awareness and resulted in over 80 million sold in the country. The simple design has been simulated for other charities, community events, and social causes.
  • 2017 – Fidget spinners exploded across the world and came in all different colours and styles. The custom fiddle spinner made the top 25 most popular promotional products of the year.

Promotional Products Industry in Australia

The promotional products industry in Australia is worth $1.34billion and in New Zealand worth $144 million.  The industry is represented by the Australasian Promotional Products Association (APPA).


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