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Promotional products are Everywhere: A History of Branding & Advertisement


These days, promotional products are ubiquitous. I am wearing a T-shirt promoting a band, while drinking out of a coffee cup emblazoned with the name of a well-known coffee shop. On the table alongside me are a scratch pad and pen, both bearing the logo of the hotel where I am currently staying. However, promotional products have been around since the time of George Washington. 

The first recognised promotional products were the commemorative buttons produced for George Washington’s 1789 presidential election. The title of ‘originator of the industry’ goes to Joseph Meeks, who partnered with a local bookstore to produce book bags for schoolchildren. Appropriate really, given the large market a century later for jute and cotton bags bearing promotional messages. Local competition led to the establishment of an industry in printing numerous other items appropriate for the time, including buggy whip bags, hats for horses and card cases.

Trade Association

The official trade association for promotional products has been active for over a century now but saw a boom in membership in the 1980s when the idea of overprinting items with brand logos or promotional messages for sales purposes became commonplace. I remember seeing stickers promoting the 1982 film ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ in a local newsagents’ about that time, and at about the same time, lunchboxes depicting children’s TV characters were on sale in some kind of promotional tie up. That said, the first lunch box featuring a licenced character was produced in 1935. Who was that character? None other than Mickey Mouse. Disney, like Coca-Cola and McDonalds, has always been adept at spotting a promotional opportunity and was one of the first brands to work on creating promotional merchandising lines to add value to its films.


These days you can’t move for branded products – sportswear manufacturers have diversified into leisure clothing, training shoes sell for £80 upwards just on the power of the logo on their side, firms produce mugs, lanyards, mouse mats and calendars in their corporate colours while recruitment agencies shower potential clients with free pens, coasters and other desk essentials. Every major film release is tied in with promotional merchandise. At the House of Mouse that means presently Frozen reigns supreme, alongside Mickey, Minnie, Snow White, Winnie-the-Pooh and Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. From the UK television world, Dora the Explorer, Peppa Pig and Ben 10 are frequent sights on supermarket shelves, alongside the evergreen Star Wars and Transformers merchandise and the Marvel Comics characters. Promotion by association, even if the youngsters don’t recognise it like that.

Sports Marketing

Most, if not all, major sports events are now sponsored, many using title sponsors or major brands to carpet their stadiums with advertisements and logos. The Olympic Games only accepts payment by one named brand of credit or debit card, for instance, while the players at Wimbledon tennis championships quaff a particular kind of fruit squash between sets. Professional sportspeople can amass vast fortunes being sponsored by a particular product, and gain valuable publicity by being required to undertake promotional events associated with that brand (think Lewis Hamilton with the Santander advertisements or Shakira with Crest toothpaste. That’s promotional branding taken to a new level, with not just objects bearing brand logos being sold but musicians and sportspeople who are themselves brands being asked to verbally and visually promote another brand.

Hotel Chains and Promotion

These days it is not unusual to find that large hotel chains have partnered with luxury brands to sell their merchandise to the hotel’s guests. Of course, hotels themselves are major players in the promotional game, and offer a range of branded products as part of the typical stay. All the major chains have loyalty cards or points schemes, which can be cashed in for goods branded with the hotel’s logo. 

Some places will reward loyal customers with random goodie boxes of branded goods, others will run competitions to win free stays or limited edition branded items. Others will give their senior staff free reign over the promotional catalogue, allowing them to order items such as calculators, umbrellas and pens to promote their company on official business.

Promos of all sizes

Even those people who proclaim they are not brand or promotion conscious have admitted to having brands in their possession, even if it is only the ubiquitous promotional pen. It’s difficult to escape the pervasive influence of brand promotion these days, especially as I look round the hotel room and see branded hotel stationery and a pen, sports shoes, T-shirts and coffee mugs. All these items are promotional products, and since humans are a naturally social species, we are attuned to notice what other people are saying, wearing and talking about. If that something happens to be a brand, human nature decrees that we will take notice. 

From pens to the items luxury goods manufacturers give to celebrities to wear on the red carpet, the idea behind promotional items is to get other people talking. Versace managed it with THAT dress worn by Liz Hurley to the premiere of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ in 1994. I’m not sure that a branded pen has quite reached those dizzying heights as yet, but we can but hope. Merchandisers and marketers for promotional products are always coming up with good ideas, and if just one celebrity of note is seen with a promotional pen, that could be the next big thing.