On Christmas Eve last year, my wife treated me to a fancy dinner – a Feast of the Seven Fishes – where we sat at a large round table next to strangers. When we weren’t raving about the hamachi crudo or the wine, we made the usual small talk.

“Are you from here originally? What do you do for a living?”

At this point, I had just joined PPAI Media and our industry. I began to describe promotional products in the stumbling, over-explanatory way you do when you’re only three weeks into it. Luckily, people got the gist.

“Oh!” The woman to my right, a business owner, finally said. “You do swag. I love our swag guy!”

I was new to the game then, but was already aware that some in our industry viewed this as a derogatory term. And I’ve been reminded a few times in the year since, by a lot of smart people devoted to our shared goals.

This summer, after Fast Company published another article critical of our industry, with its headline targeting “cheap, disposable conference swag,” PPAI President and CEO Dale Denham, MAS+, responded. Among a handful of passionate comments to Dale’s article was one from a predecessor of his, Steve Slagle, who argued that PPAI itself should stop using the term.

All due respect to Steve and others who have well-formed opinions over many years of service to the industry, but swag is not the word doing damage in those headlines. It’s the cheap, disposable bit we have to guard against.

I’m sure Steve and some others will not be excited to hear the news that, as of December 16, publicly traded distributor Stran & Company (PPAI 161542, D10), has switched its NASDAQ ticker symbol from STRN to SWAG in an effort to be synonymous with the industry itself.
“Our mission is to drive brand awareness and affect behavior through visual, creative and technology solutions for our customers,” Stran CEO Andy Shape said. “We do that by using promotional products and branded merchandise – which is also informally referred to as swag. The SWAG ticker symbol is memorable, relevant, and a better reflection of the products we sell and industry where we strive to be a leader.”

As someone who was outside the tent not that long ago, I am comfortable with swag because I think a lot of consumers equate the term with the slangy shorthand for swagger. And almost no one outside our industry has ever known it as an acronym for Stuff We All Get.

It’s fine to call it swag.

But there’s an even better, more relatable and modern term: merch. 

Google data bears this out. Twenty years ago, the terms promotional products, swag and merch were on relatively equal footing in the public consciousness. Ten years ago, swag was a dominant phrase, likely more so in teen vernacular than in reference to the work of our distributors and suppliers. But it has since gone the way of slang from my own childhood, like tight, hella or crunk, and the tide turned pretty definitively around 2016.

All this said, SWAG is a pretty cool stock symbol, and MRCH was already taken. So no slight at Stran intended. But, according to Google, the term merch has been searched more than seven times as much as swag this month. (And about 90 times more than promotional products, which actually isn’t ideal for some of us who worry about SEO content.)

People who have been in this business for a long time may tend to draw a line in what defines a promotional product as compared to branded merchandise. Perhaps you’ve thought of a promotional product as something received for free, and branded merchandise as something an end user pays for.

But it’s the same people – all of you – making the products a reality no matter what you call them.

Even if client companies sell the T-shirt or tumbler to individuals, these products still serve as advertising and marketing. That people want to pay for the products is great validation for the efforts and imagination of the people creating them.

The rise of the term merch in the lexicon is a testament to the fact that – whatever you, I, or the day traders buying and selling SWAG call them – promotional products work.

As you prepare to put a wrap on 2022, I hope that you, like me, are as proud of what you do for a living as ever. Over the last few years especially, you’ve most likely worked harder than ever. So happy holidays. Enjoy a bit of time to rest.

You earned it.