coffee_cup_your_business_hereDo people know your brand?  Often branding is something that business owners overlook, but it’s something that can make a big difference in the long run.  Today I’m going to talk about one method of promoting your brand:  using promotional products that you can give away to customers or potential customers.

Promoting your brand is different than advertising in general.  When you advertise, you might be promoting a certain product or service you offer, or a special you’re running.  When you promote your brand, though, you’re really promoting the image that you want people to have of your business.  You’re promoting your business as a whole.  You’re also putting your name out there in as many places as possible to raise awareness of your business.  Online you can find many tools for branding.  For instance, there are companies that print your logo and marketing message on promotional products such as pens, t-shirts, frisbees, stress balls, you name it.

For instance, here’s a company that will make all kinds of stuff for you: (they do much more than just pens)

How to not have your promotional items end up in the trash…

We’ve all received free stuff with someone’s business logo on it.  Do things like that actually work?

They can work, if you think it through, but there are several things to consider.  For instance, before having 5,000 mouse pads made, ask yourself how many of your target customers use mouse pads.  If most use laptops (with a built-in touch pad) or maybe a tablet like an iPad, then what’s going to happen to those mouse pads?  They’ll probably end up in the trash, in the bottom of someone’s closet, or in a box of free stuff at a yard sale.  Not to say that you shouldn’t use mouse pads, but I’m just saying think about your target customers and whether they’re likely to use whatever it is you’re giving them.

The same with t-shirts, they can be effective if people are proud of your product/service and glad to promote it, or if the shirt says something clever or funny.  The idea is nice:  have people wear a t-shirt with your marketing message and they’re like a walking billboard, promoting your business everywhere they go.  But if you’ve ever looked through t-shirts at Goodwill, you’ll know the racks are full of promotional t-shirts that people have gotten rid of because they don’t wear them.  Often they’re plain, boring shirts that most people don’t actually want to wear and even Goodwill can’t get rid of them.  Again, t-shirts could be effective if you put some thought into it, but if you just order a bunch of plain t-shirts with your logo on them and don’t put some thought into it, they’ll never make it out of the closet and into the public where people will see your message.

One other caution:  Before ordering a ton of a particular item, get a sample or a small order and test it out yourself.  You want to make sure the product serves whatever purpose it’s supposed to serve.  For instance, we’ve all received free pens with people’s logo and phone number.  But how often do those pens actually work?  Most of the ones I’ve received don’t write half the time so I throw them out.  How frustrating is it having a pen that doesn’t write?  You don’t want people to see your logo and think “frustration”.  If the product doesn’t work, no one is going to use it.  Get a sample and make sure it works as intended.

A true story about why you should get a sample before placing a big order

I learned this lesson the hard way.  I wanted to order some promotional products to give out to my customers to help generate future business.  But I didn’t want to get the typical stuff you see all the time – pens, calendars, etc.  I wanted something unique that my customers would actually use and see often.  Well, I found this little product that was really cool – a USB-powered coffee warmer.  It’s a small device that plugs into the USB port on your computer and it’s basically like a little hot plate, like the area on the bottom of a typical coffee maker that keeps the bottom of the coffee pot warm.  I thought the idea was really cool.  Lots of people enjoy sitting down at the computer with a cup of coffee, but as your coffee starts to cool off, it’s just not as enjoyable.  So being able to keep it hot was appealing.  It seemed simple, unique, and useful.  I knew it was something I would use myself, which is a good sign.

I was envisioning my customers sitting down to their computer, plugging in their little coffee warmer, and enjoying their cup of coffee and mentally thanking me for providing it each time they use it.  And, it’s perfect because I was providing a web-based service, and they’d have this little device next to their computer, so they’d see it every time they’re at their computer.  If they needed something I could help them with, I’d be the first one they’d think of.  And even if they didn’t need something specific, I’d have my website address on the coffee warmer, and maybe they’d even pull up my site periodically out of curiosity to see what’s new.

Well, it sounded nice in my head.  So I ordered about 100 of the little coffee warmers at about $3 each.  I was so excited when they arrived.  I had to open one right away to see if it really worked.  I opened the package, plugged it into my computer and turned it on, and sure enough, it got hot.  But then the next morning, I sat down with my coffee, looking forward to having it stay warm all morning, but something was wrong…  The little device got hot, but my coffee still got cold.  What was the problem?

Well, think about how coffee cups are designed.  They always have a little lip at the bottom.  The actual bottom of the cup is just slightly raised.  I’m guessing it’s partially to keep the heat from the coffee from damaging something you may set your coffee cup on, and maybe partially to keep your coffee warmer longer.  Whatever the case, the surface of the bottom of the cup didn’t come into contact with the coffee warmer.  I went to the cupboard to see if I had a different type of cup, but they’re all made that way.  A coffee warmer that doesn’t warm your coffee is not very useful.  I couldn’t send them out to customers because they would think they were defective.  In reality they weren’t, but the design was flawed.  The last thing you want is to have your customers associate you with the words “defective”, “flawed”, or “poor quality”.

In the end I ended up donating them to Goodwill, a $300 lesson learned:  Test the product before having a lot made, and of course before sending them to your customers.

However, despite the mistake I made, hopefully you can see how if you avoid a few common pitfalls and put some thought into your promotional items, you can effectively promote your brand.  If you give people something they will actually use and be glad to receive, they’ll be reminded of your business every time they see and use the item, and when they have a need for the product/service you offer, you’ll be the first one they think of.

Be generous with handing out the promotional items.

Ideally, you want them primarily in the hands of people who are most likely to become (or remain) your customers.  But don’t be stingy either.  Even if the person taking the item doesn’t become your customer, maybe someone in their house, or someone they come in contact with will need what you provide.  Maybe they will see your promotional item, or maybe they’ll ask their friend if they know anyone who provides what you do, and they’ll think of you.

Last summer I went to an outdoor festival and a company had a tent set up with lots of promotional items, mostly koozies and frisbees, tons and tons of them.  Well, I actually wanted a frisbee so I went up and asked if I could have one.  After talking with the girl I realized she was just a volunteer working at the festival and not any kind of representative from the company.  Apparently the promotional items were supposed to be prizes for winning these little games like where you toss a beanbag into a target.  So I thought, fine, I’ll play the game.  So I did, and I tossed the beanbag into the target a few times and went back to see if I could get a frisbee.  Well, the girl didn’t want to give me one.

It was obvious that she wasn’t given very clear instructions about her purpose in working at the booth.  She seemed to think her purpose was to guard these giant piles of koozies and frisbees, but I’m sure the company had in mind giving away as many as possible.  I’m sure the games were just an excuse to give them away and to attract attention.  In the end, I finally talked the volunteers into giving me a frisbee, but it wasn’t easy.  At the end of the day, I’m sure the company giving away the promotional items was confused about why no one took them.  Anyway, the point is, be generous with your promotional items.  You never know where they may end up or who may see them.

Giving promotional items to existing customers can help generate repeat business, and giving them to potential customers can generate new business.

How do you give out the items?

If you have a physical store, you could give the items away there.  If you have an online business, you can mail them out, either to people who have done business with you in the past, or if someone places a new order with you, send it out to them then.  If you’re selling physical products already, just toss the promotional item in the box with whatever they ordered.  If you go to any kind of trade shows or other places where lots of people from your industry are gathered together, that’s a great place to give out these items.  A lot of it depends on what kind of business you’re in, but get creative with it.

People love free stuff, especially if it’s something useful.  So giving out promotional products with your brand on it is a great way to help your business grow.

Ready to get started?

Visit a site like and browse through the different categories.  You’ll find some cool stuff and get some ideas for creative ways to promote your business.