Do Ad Specialties (“Swag”) Really Make an Impression?

Do Ad Specialties (“Swag”) Really Make an Impression?

As I start to pack for my annual pilgrimage to SEMA, I’m thinking about all those overloaded shopping bags carried through the exhibit halls bulging with what we know in the business as the advertising specialty.

Anything emblazoned with your company’s name: pens, scratch pads, key chains, calendars, baseball caps, mugs, bags, foam footballs, clocks, and bottle openers—is called an ad specialty. Although some simply know them as “swag” or “chotchke,” other people call them “things that sit around my office.” I’m guilty of enabling my hoarding tendencies this way. We’re so used to seeing them that it may be a surprise to learn that the automotive industry is by far the largest user of these promotional items.

Some people (including me) delight in collecting pens and baseball caps while others argue that most ad specialties end up in the roundfile and then the landfill. What will future civilzations think about us when in the year of 2220, archeologists dig up tons of coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets that say “Bill’s Body Shop” or “Tom’s Auto Collision”? Will they laugh and point out ad specialties as a token of our society’s eventual demise?

Many companies use them as an effective form of branding and advertising, particulaly for businesses that have infrequent contact with their customers, like body shops. If you’re a body shop and spending a significant amount of money on ad specialties, you should always ask yourself ‘are they a good use of my advertising money?’ Have you ever encountered a customer who actually said, “I saw your name on a desk pad and that’s why I brought my car here.”

The Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI) is the largest media, marketing and education organization serving the $19.4 billion promotional products industry, with a network of over 25,000 distributors and suppliers throughout North America.

ASI’s CEO is Tim Andrews and I had a chance to talk to him recently about the power of the ad specialty and how automotive repair businesses can benefit from using them.

“For impressions, ad specialties are by far the most cost-effective form of advertising out there,” Andrews explained. “Every time someone sees your name on a pen or a key chain, that’s called an impression. During lean economic times, ad specialties are an ideal solution for smaller companies that need to get their names out there, but they can’t afford other forms of conventional advertising. Ad specialties are remembered and kept and many of them are used by people for many years, based on our research.”

Getting a high-quality ad specialty and personalizing it for your current customers is also a great way to further strengthen your position with your customer base, Andrews says.

“For your return customers or top influencers in your community, personalization is a unique way to really connect even more with your most-prized contacts. If someone has a t-shirt or a pen with their own name on it, they will logically keep it for a much longer period of time. It creates additional value and the impressions derived from a personalized ad specialty can be ten times higher, in some cases.”

Also, instead of buying 2,000 cheap plastic pens, for example, maybe purchase a smaller number of higher-quality pens, in order to keep them in the hands of your customers longer.

“The more they use that pen, your brand name and logo will remain further in the top of their minds, which means your efforts will grow exponentially,” Andrews said. “An inexpensive pen or key chain might get discarded after limited use, but if the end-user values it and sees it as being special, it will remain on their desk and in their possession for a much longer period of time. It just makes sense.”

The products that leave the most positive impressions and those that recipients keep longer are: outerwear, shirts, recognition items (awards, plaques), caps/headwear, flash drives, health and safety products, desk/office accessories, and bags, according to Andrews.

ASI provided several statistics that are worth noting when making decisions on promotional products.
● Nearly nine in ten (87%) recipients of promotional merchandise can identify the advertiser on the item.
● Over one-half (52%) of the time, ad specialties leave a more favorable impression of the advertiser.
● Promotional products deliver the same or a better ROI than other forms of media.
● 81% of product recipients indicated that an item’s usefulness is the primary reason to keep it.
● There are nearly 8,000 different automotive-related promotional products currently in ASI’s database.
● The automotive industry buys more promotional items than all of other consumer product companies combined nationwide.
● Study results show that most people own approximately 10 ad specialty items on an on-going basis and hold on to them for an average of six months, a far longer time period than any other traditional form of advertising.

What’s your ultimate goal in giving a pen, hat or key chain away? Who’s your target audience? Are you trying to reach out to prospective customers? Or, are you staying in touch with your VIP clients, those who seem to get into more accidents or have higher-end vehicles? Are you doing a campaign targeting your vendors, insurance agents, local community leaders or organizations?

It all comes down to finding your target market and continually branding. Many automotive-related businesses use ad specialties as one of their main forms of marketing. For example, glass replacement companies often distribute scratch pads, desk calendars, and other items to auto body shops. Since most body shops frequently work with several glass replacement companies, it’s a good idea for them to keep their name and phone number in front of them. Car dealers often provide license plate brackets to their customers with the dealer’s name and logo—nine times out of ten the customer never thinks about it again, but the dealership is being advertised to everyone who sees that new car and thinks about buying that model for themselves.

So, as I run around at SEMA, loading up on pens, hats, key chains, scratch pads and any else I can get my hands on, I will be thinking about the power of the ad specialty.  Ad specialties are a useful form of branding and that’s why they’ll continue to be an integral part of the marketing and advertising efforts of almost every body shop in this country today.

Recently, for example, a company that manufactures and sells these items sent me a nice little key chain flashlight with my name and company printed on it. It’s something I might actually use, if I can find room on my already overloaded key chain.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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