Here’s the first installment of my column at MediaPost. Please add your favorite examples of smart schwag with the comment button at the bottom of this post.
SCHWAG. IT SOUNDS YIDDISH. THE word actually traces back to 14th century Norwegian, but schwag’s potential for beauty, lyricism and the power to move people is as forgotten as the Yiddish language’s potential for the very same. Some of the most poignant and funny poems, novels and jokes were once written in Yiddish. Today the language is reduced to tired one-liners–like “I’m so verklempt.” Same with schwag. Despite some mesmerizing moments in promotional products “advertising,” most schwag (think pen with logo) is shlekht (that actually is Yiddish, and it means crap). Unlike Yiddish, schwag (or swag, which sounds British) has the power to be understood universally. So, why does a type of advertising on which corporations spend close to $17.5 billion a year (according to the Promotional Products Association International–that’s more than one-third of what’s spent on TV) get such short creative shrift?
The question is particularly relevant today, when advertisers are seeking alternative media channels that touch a larger part of consumers’ everyday lives than TV spots or print ads. Done right, schwag could have many of the characteristics brand-builders are seeking. Promotional items are tangible, handheld “commercials” that people take the trouble to fly home with, display, use, and share. So, why are these “commercials” hardly ever designed to make people laugh, think or even cry like great TV or print advertising? Why isn’t there more smart schwag that induces a meaningful, lasting brand experience, that:
- is really useful,
- gives joy,
- is surprising and unique,
- fits into the day and life of the recipient,
- is affordable,
- represents a brand’s core?
Here are a few examples of smart schwag.
- The substantial bar of oatmeal soap the then-new Sundance Channel placed in hotel bathrooms at cable TV conferences about a decade ago. For me the soap fit perfectly into my day, smelled far better than the perfumed hotel soap, and represented the brand. Oatmeal soap is a little bit country–in that Sundance way. It’s not smooth and dense and urban. It’s cityfolk-heading-to-the country-for-the-weekend. In fact today, whenever I use oatmeal soap, I still experience Sundance.
- The single-channel Bloomberg-brand transistor radio tunable only to Bloomberg 1130 (WBBR-AM). Surprising. Original. Useful.
- The Crispin-Porter Flop-Flips (“‘Why not make a sandal that goes flop-flip?’ …. ‘It can’t be done,’ they said. ‘A sandal should go flip-flop not flop-flip.’ … After years of research and millions … in development costs we’ve given the flip-flop a new sound. Introducing the Flop-Flip”). Useful (at least in Miami). Original. And highly representative of the brand.
It’s about money, and something much more valuable: consumers’ time. If the industry is spending $17.5 billion on anything, doesn’t it warrant more creative thought than printing a logo on a golf shirt? More importantly, if a consumer is giving an advertiser–you–so much of his or her precious time and attention, by taking a promo item home or to the office, displaying it, and sharing it with friends and family, shouldn’t brands be making the very most of this, and thinking hard about how to incite a true brand experience?
There is a Yiddish renaissance occurring on some college campuses and in not-quite popular culture (for example, the Knitting Factory’s JAM record label). Isn’t it time for a schwag renaissance? Do you have a favorite piece of “smart schwag” that you have seen or created? Add your examples by commenting below.
Shoutouts to takeourword.com for the etymology of schwag and to the PPAI for the stats.