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Who can say no to free!?

By Karissa Bursch

Over spring break, I attended the music festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. According to the website, the SXSW conferences and festivals “offer the unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.” In other words, it’s a chance for a music-lover like myself to go wild on an overload of free and amazing shows for almost 24 hours a day. Thousands of Austin residents and outside visitors flood the city for the event. Needless to say, it’s a great PR opportunity for companies across the nation to connect to distinct, dense audiences all in one location.

PR professionals definitely took advantage of this opportunity. Along with the usual means of promotion, such as flyers, stands and billboards, I saw a very interesting collection of promotional items and hand-outs throughout the day, such as sunglasses, stickers, pins, drinks, cups and more, as a part of many companies’ and organizations’ PR plans.

The PR side of my brain started working as soon as I saw those free promotional items. People were just throwing them at me out on the street. As they shoved pairs of sunglasses into my hands, they would should shout,“You can’t say no to free!”

Many times I felt no recognition when I viewed the logo and was unsure of what product the brand was associated with. This lack of connection brought to my attention a major flaw in the idea of throwing free promotional items at the public. Many times these items lack connection to the brand and one of an organization’s main goals should be brand recognition with its publics.

I think PR practitioners have to make an effort to not rely on the idea that “any promotion is good promotion.” There still needs to be effort behind it with the driving goal of making the public understand where the free item is coming from, what the brand offers and why they should care.

Free promotional items can, in fact, be very successful. For example, in PR Couture’s Blog “Diary of a Fashion PR Intern: Streetwear Fashion Tips”, guest blogger Hadiyah Daché wrote that free promotional items were one of the main reasons for the success of her first client, Plush .357.

“Ironically, promotional items such as stickers and buttons played a large part in the PR success as well,” Daché wrote. “It got to the point where stickers and t-shirts became collectibles.”

Near the end of her blog she gave advice about the use of free promotional items and encouraged PR practitioners to make those free items personal with the help of word-of-mouth.

“Stickers, buttons, free shirts, graffiti, pens, hats, heck anything considered a “promotional item” is definitely your friend,” Daché wrote. “Give the public a memento and encourage them to pass it along to their friends. These items keep your name in the public and makes your brand easy to recognize!”

Free promotional items are great. I’ve never had to spend much money on pens, notepads, stress balls or USB drives because of it. Still, remember that there is a message and purpose behind these free items. Make sure your audience knows the brand that is imprinted on the item and understands the message behind the brand and the gesture of a free item. Meanwhile, keep on enjoying all of those free handouts!

Originally posted on PROpenMic.


  1. Post comment

    I really like this post. It made me reflect on all of the times I received free items so I could act as a walking advertisement. Living in an all girls dorm, I receive a lot of promotional advertisement for off campus housing. I think it is a great idea for them to give out cups and T-shirts with the brand name. Many girls involved in Greek organizations on campus rely on T-shirts as class appropriate wardrobe. University of Alabama tailgates contain students, alumni and fans that need cups to carry their drinks. The Woodlands apartment complexes give out gestures like these on sunny days. College students are always willing to receive free favors since they are on a strict budget. I think when you are trying to give out promotional goods for an apartment complex it is easy. The communities can use anything home related, from clothes to cookware. It is especially helpful for college students living on campus that are tired of dorm life. When wearing or using promotional items it is a constant reminder of the organization. It is ironic when you receive a free promotional item that has nothing to do with the business or industry. However, it has been awhile since I remember a time where I have received something like that. The brand recognition that I have encountered while attending the University of Alabama has been consistent on all free giveaways. During finals time, housing gave out stress balls, hot chocolates, breakfast bars and SunChips to residents. There were also pencils and pens in the care package. I thought the University did a good job promoting healthy study treats and tools. Since I have been at the University, I have received shirts, cups, pens, flash drives and lanyards, all with the schools name. I love anything free and I think brand awareness on free giveaways is a great PR move in the right location with the right products.

  2. Post comment

    I like the points that you made about being purposeful in promoting the brand. I agree with you that clarity is critical if promotional materials are to constitute worthwhile and effective communication with the public.

    I think Daché makes two excellent points in the “Deliver quality, not quantity.” section. Providing quality promotional items is important. Even beyond being clear with the message, avoiding cheap items decreases the chance that the public will simply dispose of the materials. I also like Daché’s advice to preserve an element of “exclusivity” in the materials you distribute. I agree with the idea that over saturating an event with materials cheapens the effort and makes the materials less effective. I also think it’s important to consider the possibility that publics may feel that undesirable, cheap and over distributed materials are intrusive.

  3. Post comment

    During my Spring break I visited Florida and Texas. Unfortunately, I did not make it out to Austin. It sounds like you had a wonderful time at the festival. For the first half of the week I went to Panama City Beach, FL with five of my friends. Needless to say, there were thousands of other people there, especially college students. As I walked down the beach I was constantly handed free stuff. The promoters said the same thing to me, “you can’t say no to free stuff.” At one point I was even handed a popsicle. It had no logo or name on it, just a random popsicle.

    When I got back to Tuscaloosa and opened my free bag of goodies. I pulled out at least 15 to 20 things. I had a Victoria Secret bathing suit, tons of packets of different tanning lotion, pens, coupons, two popsicle sticks, a picture from Geico and a bunch of other miscellaneous things. Of all the stuff I was handed, I could only really pick out a few things that I actually recognized. Victoria Secret and Geico do a great job of using their logos and showing brand recognition. As for the rest, as much as I appreciate their efforts and the free stuff, they are going to have to step it up if they want to compete with the other companies handing out free stuff! In what ways do you think these companies can improve on brand recognition?

  4. Post comment

    I totally agree with you! Before studying PR, I rarely thought about the promotional efforts behind the free items. The number of pens, t-shirts and cups I have received as promotional items are used almost daily, yet I had no idea of what some of the brand sells or what kind of services it provides. However, after learning the importance of brand recognition, I hope that others who pick up free stuff will look up the brand that is named on the promotional item and promote its cause.

  5. Post comment

    I currently faced a similar situation regarding promotional material. As a student at The University of Alabama, one of the campus buildings a most often frequent, excepting academic halls, is the Student Recreation Center. Yesterday afternoon, as I entered the rec, I was drawn to a table set up by Delta Gamma, a sorority that will be returning to campus in the fall. I immediately felt a connection because one of my best friends is a member of Delta Gamma at another university. I walked over to the table to grab a “DG Loves the Tide” pin for her. I was then greeted by the organization’s representatives, who invited me to take an extra lip balm or two to give to friends. I thought that such items represented a good use of promotional material. On a college campus, it is no challenge to get students to take anything free; however, I thought this particular location and the items being given away were particularly “PR smart.” I took the goods, will gladly give them to my friend and I am actually excited to have some of the new products left for myself. Because the group set up its station at the rec, they are likely to have heavy traffic.
    I agree with your idea that not all promotion is good promotion, but I thought this usage was particularly successful.

  6. Post comment

    First, I want to say that I love this post. It is extremely true on all angles. There have been many times that I have been given a free promotional item and had no idea what organization or product was actually being promoted. I do believe that if you are given out free samples of a product it helps bring people to buy more of that product after the trial. The effectiveness of free promotional items is very dependent on what the item being promoted is.


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