From Tote Bags to Tablets: The Evolution of Swag

April 25, 2018

From Tote Bags to Tablets: The Evolution of Swag

You don’t need to be in sales to know that people love free stuff. It’s just one of the reasons promotional products remain an effective marketing strategy in our digital world.

Despite the resilience of the promotional products industry, it isn’t impervious to change. New technologies, trends and changes in consumer behavior have significantly influenced the world of swag over the years.

To keep up with the latest trends, it’s important to look back at the evolution of swag. By peeking into the past, you can begin to spot patterns and get a better grasp on where the promotional products industry is headed.

From tote bags to tablets, here is a closer look at how branded merchandise has evolved and what we can learn from these changes:

1886 – An Industry is Born

tote bag

The promotional products industry as we know it today is believed to have started in Coshocton, Ohio in 1886. Jasper Freemont Meek, editor of the Coshocton Age, wanted to keep his printing press and workforce busy in between newspaper issues, and he approached his friend, the owner of Cantwell Shoes, with a fortuitous idea.

It is said that when Meek saw a child drop his school books into the mud, he came up with the idea to use his press to print company advertisements on burlap bags and sell them to merchants. During his inaugural run, he printed “Buy Cantwell Shoes” on the bags and handed them out to every child who entered his store.

The children carried them as book bags, and the Cantwell Shoes message was seen all over town. Shortly after, other newspaper owners began to take notice of Meek’s idea and followed suit. Thus, Meek became known as the father of promotional products.

Takeaway:  Meek’s clever idea worked because he solved a common problem with his promotional items. This still holds true today — for advertisers to get the best ROI, their branded swag must be relevant, useful and unique.

1890s – A Savvy Entrepreneur and His Branded Corkscrews

Adolphus Busch, the German-born co-founder of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association in St. Louis, Missouri, was another early innovator of promotional products. Busch was an adept salesman who believed generating buzz about his beer was the key to its success.

He was right. When the entrepreneur sold Busch products to tavern owners, he also gave them branded corkscrews use in their establishments or to give to bar patrons. Although this branded item wasn’t the sole reason for the enormous success of the brewing company, it did play a role in the expansion of Busch’s customer base.

Takeaway:  Busch wasn’t worried about the cost of giving away corkscrews because he knew that he would receive something far more valuable — brand awareness. His branded corkscrews paid for themselves a thousand times over because he chose the right promotional product for his audience.

1930s – 1980s The Birth of Stress Relievers

Many Americans did not have extra money to spend on advertisements and promotions in the early 1900s. Still, they say that necessity is the mother of innovation — and World Wars I and II spurred plenty of creativity and innovation. In 1937, during the Second World War, researchers developed a substitute for rubber called polyurethane, a foam-like substance that would be used in modern-day stress balls.

Alex Carswell is credited with creating the modern stress ball in 1988. This couldn’t have come at a better time, considering how research on anxiety was prolific during the 1980s. It’s no surprise that marketers decided to use the stress ball as a promotional product.

Takeaway:  Timeliness is critical in any promotional products strategy. The 1980s was the decade when anxiety disorders became recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, thus, making stress balls a welcome product — branded or not.

Our anxiety has continued to grow each year. It’s not surprising that branded fidget spinners became so popular in 2017!

1990s - 2000s Wristbands, Mousepads, Apparel


The 1990s was a good era for the promotional products industry. The economic boom in the ‘90s gave advertisers larger budgets, allowing them to spend more on items such as branded apparel and computer-related items.

With advances in internet technology and the increased use of home computers, advertisers began branding mouse pads and modern desk accessories. These early tech items were the beginning of the hottest category in the promotional products industry today.

Another popular promotional item was the wristband, made popular in 2004 by Lance Armstrong’s iconic “Live Strong” wristband. A major symbol of cancer awareness, the promotional wristband fell in popularity after Armstrong’s doping scandal in 2012.

Takeaway:  We can finally see an inkling of what’s to come during the 1990s. During this time, advertisers were just beginning to become more sophisticated with both their promotional items and their targeting methods.

With the internet giving consumers more choices, advertisers began performing market research to create more targeted promotions and marketing campaigns. By focusing their promotions on specific groups, advertisers realized that they could achieve a far better return-on-investment than their one-size-fits-all marketing approach.

2010 – 2018 The Digital Age and Domination of Tech

USB cable

Finally, we reach the current age of branded swag. It’s safe to say that we have come a long way from branded burlap sacks.

However, it should be noted that tote bags are still one of the most popular promotional items used today. The only difference is that these tote bags are designed to align with a brand’s audience, and they are eco-friendly, reusable — and most importantly, filled with trendy branded swag.

Technology is one of the hottest categories for branded swag and giveaways. Wearable technology, tablet cases, USB hubs and other branded tech items now present companies with powerful branding opportunities.

Takeaway:  Social media, smartphones and other digital technologies have enabled brands to reach consumers at the right time and place. These days, giving away swag without a real strategy is an unnecessary waste of a promotional budget.

With so much data at our fingertips, we no longer need to guess when it comes to our target audience. Now, our promotional products can become more personalized, allowing us to form better connections to our customers.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, branded swag has grown increasingly sophisticated over the years. However, the promotional items mentioned here were huge successes in their time because they all provided the user with value.

To get the best return-on-investment, your company swag must not only align with your marketing objectives, but it must also meet your audience’s needs. With unique and useful swag items, you can meet your marketing goals and tell an amazing brand story everywhere you go.