During George Washington’s 1789 presidential inauguration, commemorative buttons were distributed among his supporters. With those buttons, intended to rally pride and support in the nation’s leader through a unifying marker, promotional products were born.
Today, businesses distribute promotional products at exhibitions, product launches, and other events to advertise their identities, goods, services, events, or messages to current and potential customers. The first group to recognize the advertising potential of promotional products was newspaper owners of the late 19th century, who employed promotional items to boost revenue during slow economic times. When an Ohio newspaper owner named Jasper Meeks – who took up printing in between editions to supplement his income – suggested to the owner of Cantwell Shoes, a local shoe store, that he generate more business by going to local schools and distribute burlap bags with the simple slogan “Buy Cantwell Shoes” printed on them, the idea of promotional products took off.
Cantwell offered a free bag to every child that entered the store, and the children carried the bags to and from school, just as intended – allowing the Cantwell Shoe store name to be on constant and prominent display all over town. Soon, Henry Beach, a competing printer, began suggesting the same approach for his own customers, and fans, calendars, horse hats, and card cases with business identities began showing up all over town. By imprinting their slogans and logos on practical everyday items that customers would use and therefore see frequently – such as calendars, bags, aprons, and horse blankets – businesses began ingraining their brand recognition within the minds of their target consumers. Since a significant part of the American population was illiterate during this period, the emergence of visual cues and symbolic emblems we now commonly refer to as logos made differentiation between competitors and preferred brands easier to distinguish.
By adding distinctively shaped brand names to their logos, companies were able to pair both their names and their distinguishing symbols – often along with a consistent and distinguishing color, and maybe even slogan – effectively enough that one would become automatically associated with the other. This brought about not only logo recognition but name recognition even among the lowest classes, so that distribution of free products that customers would see daily would ingrain a sense of familiarity, loyalty, and commitment that would lead them to return again and again. Beach further innovated the advertising strategy with the idea to perfect a metal printing process to print metal signs as advertising trays.
In the late 1800s, two more newspapers owners opted to bring in more revenue themselves by offering to print decorations on calendars to supplement the ad space already being sold on calendars, to make them more appealing to consumers.
By the early 20th century, the industry became more organized, with 12 promotional item manufacturers joining forces in 1904 to begin the industry’s first trade association, the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI). Having come a long way since the early 1900s, the association currents hosts over 7,000 members worldwide. The first trade shows emerged as an essential element of the industry by 1914, and are now held frequently throughout the year as opportunities for businesses and corporations to get their names seen.
The industry itself has come a very long way as well, now with approximately 22,000 competing distributors and 4,800 competing manufacturers – and still one of the fastest growing industries in America, with growth exceeding that of newspaper and radio advertising. Among today’s most common promotional products are pens, caps, t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers – and still, calendars. Technology has also affected the marketplace with items such as computer mice, usb devices and logo digital frames now available.