“We should make a t-shirt that says MERCH > SWAG.”
This idea came from Kristin Kenny, a Territory Manager at SanMar, near the end of a lively conversation with several SanMar salespeople. The concept was an immediate hit. My response was along the lines of “I’d wear it!” and everyone else on the call had similar things to say.
The discussion that led up to this had been centered around the difference between branded merch and swag. Isn’t it just the same sort of stuff we’re talking about? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
When I think of “merch,” I remember the first time I heard that word used in a sentence. It was well over 10 years ago at a small music venue in Seattle, and I still have both the CD and the t-shirt I bought that night. They’re reminders of a memorable evening, the beginning of a story about seeing one of my favorite musicians play live, less than 50 feet away from me.
Contrast this with the last time you received some sort of swag. Where is that swag now? If you’re like me, it’s probably stuck in a drawer or a box somewhere, or maybe gathering dust on your desk. That’s assuming you still have it at all.
This is the difference that is shifting the promotional products industry. The conversation with Kristin and the others explores why, and what it means for us as we look ahead.
Spinning a Common Thread
“To me, the driving force behind merch is community,” says Chris Clark, another Territory Manager at SanMar. “If I want a shirt from you, it’s because I’m supporting you.”
This was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. “When it became clear that restrictions weren’t going to be lifted anytime soon,” explains Daniel Rodgers of Not In Paris, “copping a t-shirt from your favorite spot became a way to support them through the crisis, and tap into a real-life sense of community that we all craved.”
SanMar Strategic Account Manager Fred Hickman agrees. “We wear the gear because we’re proud of it,” he says. “Merch creates a common thread. The word ‘merch’ has an ecosystem of kindness, charitability and tribalism.”
These threads come together in story after story over the last two years, from Brist MFG’s We Got This campaign to Tiny Little Monster creating a whole new way of doing business with the Here For Good movement. Even community efforts that weren’t directly related to the pandemic found new forward momentum, like Jackie and Ben Moore’s Summer Shirt Project.
When people want to show their support and do something positive, merch is one way they can do that. But this isn’t just something you do to feel good about yourself (though it does feel good to do it!) — it’s also better business.
Our Future World
“A lot has changed about our world,” says Bobby Lehew, Chief Content Officer at commonsku while introducing his recent webinar The Future World of Branded Merch. “Branded merch is no longer about simply advertising. Merch is the new press release, the new instigator, the new provocateur.”
We’re talking about more than just getting your logo out there now — we’re talking about telling your story in meaningful, memorable ways. Branded merch can generate buzz and excitement for an upcoming event, whether it’s a highly-anticipated new book release or introducing a thirst-murdering brand of canned water to the world. It brings your existing and potential customers into the storytelling process.
“Merch is a curated collection,” says Kristin Kenny. “It’s not just one thing, it’s a whole package with a fully-completed look.” One of her customers achieved this by letting employees be a part of the uniform selection process, taking their feedback at an in-house pop-up shop. This resulted in a uniforming program which tells a story that resonates with employees.
Mark Robinson, a Senior Strategic Account Manager at SanMar, says that this in-person aspect is important, likening it to what we see at music venues. “People are going to concerts for a reason,” he says. “Millennials especially want the experience of getting in line to get their merch. It’s a way to meet like-minded people.”
It comes down to expectations. “Customers want to extend their brand. Promo companies better have a well-prepared merch program to support this,” says Mark.
But Wait — No More Swag?
Swag has a long history in America, dating back to the inauguration of our first President. From those commemorative buttons to branded USB thumb drives, there will always be a place for the stuff we all get. As SanMar Strategic Account Manager Monty Mims says, “Swag continues to be used to win over new prospects or for thanking them.”
But it’s important to remember that swag is now part of a larger landscape of promotional materials. “Swag has become so overused,” says Fred Hickman. “These days it kind of leaves a bad taste in the mouth just to say the word.”
Chris Clark agrees. “Swag means ‘see me,’” he explains. “It’s a cheap way for a brand to get their logo into someone’s hands.” But he also points out that younger generations see it as wasteful, because people don’t feel always comfortable taking things they didn’t ask for. “If someone gets a swag bag at an event, sometimes they don’t even open it.”
This brings to mind another common theme: wasting less is on everyone’s mind. “Swag cheapens the product,” Kristin says, while movements to “Buy Better” and “Buy Less” have been gaining steam for years, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fred sees this take shape in our new understanding of the supply chain and how customers are thinking about promotional materials. “There’s a value in finding a really good piece of product that will last. Instead of going back for another t-shirt, I can extend the life of what I’ve got.”
While there will always be uses for swag, this is another way merch makes a difference. By putting together cohesive packages that people want to keep and wear, it extends the life of not just the apparel, but also the story you’re telling through it. As Fred summarizes, “People don’t want the bargain basement stuff, they want the Cadillac.”
More Than Just Stuff
A recent ad from Expedia asks one of the most relevant questions of our time: do we remember the stuff we buy, or the experiences that make it memorable?
This is the difference between swag and merch. This is why I still own that t-shirt from a little music show in Seattle years ago. As SanMar’s trend expert Vicki Ostrom says, “having the merch shows that you were at the event or support the cause.” It’s how you become a part of that community Chris Clark was talking about.
Fred says that for him, it comes down to inspiration. “I’m inspired by what people are wearing. I’m inspired by cool graphics. Pay attention and remember that there’s an artist or a cause behind that shirt you’re looking at.”
If you’re looking for inspiration, there’s plenty out there to be found. Kristin looks to the many customer stories on A Canvas For Good for examples of how organizations use merch to bring people together. Chris is inspired by Three Nails and how their product drives a community-driven cause. Vicki sees a powerful alchemy of optimism and action in the work of Céline Semaan, founder of Slow Factory.
One of Mark’s go-to examples is Maryland Print House, a two-person shop he describes as “taking over the neighborhood” with elevated apparel options and a showroom set up for telling stories through the merch they provide. Monty Mims shares a story about a recent Dunkin merch drop: “I nearly purchased a very loud Dunkin Donuts shirt…a colorful statement piece, which I tend to fancy. I had no idea that I caught this launch very early, so within minutes of deciding, it was already sold out.”
We all crave these stories. We want to be a part of them, to be a part of something bigger that excites or inspires us. We want to display the causes we support and the events we’re proud to have taken part in.
This is why a t-shirt is not just a t-shirt — it’s how we show where our passions lie and what we care about. Creating that feeling is work. It takes effort and intention. But as your customers seek new ways to tell their story more meaningfully, that work is worth it.
As we re-imagine the world of promotional products, it’s time to think beyond the stuff we all get. It’s time to tell our stories in ways that will last.
And that’s why, if we ever make that “MERCH > SWAG” shirt? I’ll be wearing the hell out of it. I have a feeling that I’m not the only one.