I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years. That means I got plenty of ill-fitting sunglasses, ugly plastic water bottles, and useless stress balls. Not surprisingly, 99% of it ended up in the garbage. Most of the time, I only accepted the gifts to make the person at the expo booth feel good. (Full disclosure: I got a pizza cutter once and it came in incredibly handy whenever I cooked a frozen pizza—but other than that, the swag was junk.)
Why is the Stuff We All Get so forgettable? It’s not due to a lack of money. In fact, the promotional products industry saw revenues of $18 billion in 2019, with annual growth of 2.7% since 2014. And companies seem all too eager to budget for promotional materials — yet conference goers are left with notebooks, pens, and thumb drives that they’ll never use.
What if a conference exhibitor gave you something you actually want? What if they created a photo op you’re sure to post to Instagram? What if they stopped giving out tote bags to upper-middle class attendees and bought winter coats for the homeless? What if—shocker—the swag actually connected back to the brand they’re promoting?
“Nobody is being strategic about any of this stuff. If people spent a minute thinking about it, they wouldn’t do it,” said David Adler, CEO and founder of BizBash, a resource site for meeting and events professionals.
Not only does most conference swag miss the mark from a promotional angle, it’s an environmental nightmare, filling our landfills and oceans with tons of discarded plastic. If someone doesn’t want the object in the first place, and throws it away within minutes—what’s the point of it even existing?
“Our industry is really bad on the sustainability front,” said Adler. That will only change, he said, if attendees press conference organizers to be less wasteful.
“Soon, we’re going to vote with our feet and force the vendors and organizers to get better at what they do,” he said. “Until people vote with their consciousness, I don’t think it’ll change.”
But the swag paradigm is already shifting. There’s a new groundswell of exhibitors offering exciting, delicious, and oh so Instagrammable offerings that are sure to make you forget about cheap conference swag once and for all. Here are four great alternatives:
Branded fruit. Yes, it’s a thing—and it’s quickly becoming one of the buzziest giveaways at conferences and events. Danielle Baskin, the founder of Branded Fruit, has been emblazoning corporate logos on everything from avocados to coconuts. Using a non-toxic film that doesn’t harm the fruit, she’s gained a who’s who of clients. Lyft has purchased avocados branded with their logo. Microsoft chose branded clementines. AT&T picked pineapples. Slack went with a mix of watermelons, mangos, coconuts, pineapples, limes and oranges.
“Even though it’s an ephemeral thing that you eat, so many people take photos of the fruit and put it on Instagram,” said Baskin. “How many people are going to put a water bottle on Instagram?”
Like many conference go-ers, Baskin is sick of getting the same things from every expo booth. After successfully printing a company logo on a few avocados for a friend’s birthday party she had her lightbulb moment.
“I hate getting yet another T-shirt I’ll never wear,” said Baskin. “Every conference needs something to give away. It’s a requirement. You don’t want to be the company giving away no swag. So pop your logo on a piece of fruit—the novelty definitely hasn’t worn off yet.”
Donate your swag budget to charity, and watch the incredible impact it creates. Giving to charity makes a much bigger statement than handing people hunks of plastic. Tech company Okta bypassed conference swag and instead gave out more than 13,000 school supply items. Organizers of the DevopsdaysNYC conference realized that T-shirts would cost $2,500 to produce, so they instead gave the money to Lotus Outreach who built a water well providing clean, safe drinking water to 200 rural villagers in Cambodia. VMWare stuffed 300 backpacks with school supplies and donated them to Las Vegas schools rather than giving bags to conference goers.
“If you have a brand that stands for something, stand for something,” said Adler. “Ultimately, people want to see the values behind what they’re doing and this is a great way to show that.”
Offer experiences not junk. Get a yoga teacher to conduct a 15-minute class. Organize a quick Zumba session to get the blood flowing. Set up an “escape room” game with fun prizes (and most importantly an Instagrammable photo op at the end). People will remember those experiences far more than some lame giveaway.
Jazz up the traditional photo booth. While photo booths have been around forever, social media culture has given them a jolt of energy. With backgrounds, costumes, and borders, the images from photo booths are seriously Instagrammable—meaning they actually serve the intended purpose of creating buzz for your company. Plus, many of today’s photo booths are digital, letting you upload pics directly to Instagram or send pictures instantly to your phone or email.
“Photo booths are not going anywhere,” said Adler. “But people keep changing the types of photo booths they’re doing. We did a Carpool Karaoke photo booth where people sing and send people your voice and picture together. That was a good one.”