What the promotional products industry is most known for is providing tangible, customized items that recipients can experience taciturnly, and sometimes with all five senses. With coronavirus and related precautions having thwarted event schedules like trade shows and conferences last year, and resulting in widespread office closures, companies that would normally hand-distribute gifts in these environments were temporarily unable to do so. With subsequent pivots made to send recipients’ gifts directly to their homes, permitting wider opportunities to experiment with personalized products, gifting-as-a-service has emerged as a new option that allows recipients to choose the gift they’d like to receive prior to its arrival.

Also referred to as “pick your own swag,” gift management services propose a benefit that’s two-fold. First, the service allows recipients to choose a gift they’d like to receive, which is more likely to be something they want and thus will use, yielding greater brand exposure. Next, it also works to reduce waste associated with unused products. The difference between this service and standard gifting lies in the ability for recipients to select between a pre-chosen gift, or to peruse additional offerings from a selection of other available items, if they wish. Here’s an example: a particular concert hall typically sends a gift with purchase to high-price ticketholders. A gift management program would allow these recipients to be asked in advance, via email or the web, about the gift they’d like to receive, giving them the ability to choose between a standard, upgraded concert swag bag and, for instance, a pair of branded earbuds or sunglasses.

In identifying if and where gifting-as-a-service fits into the promotional products industry, PPB spoke with a few industry professionals to gather their insights. 

Charity Gibson, national accounts coordinator with Newark, New Jersey, supplier Peerless Umbrella, says that she believes gift management and branded gifting both have a place in the industry, but there’s a right way to do it. “I’ve experienced both the branded gift and the choose-your-own gift options,” she says. “When people put their logo as big as possible on a nice product and call it a gift, I believe it diminishes the perceived value and reduces the usability of said product. As promotional products professionals, we sometimes forget the biggest value we bring to our clients is our knowledge and expertise, and we let clients decide what they want to do without advising them on what they think would be best to do.”

She adds, “A gift is a gift. It sends a message, but which message it sends depends on how we use the product and imprint area on it. I’d much rather choose something from a website of well-curated items and having a gifting experience than receive a one-product-is-supposed-to-fit-all promotional product with a company’s logo all over it. Our clients and prospects are people, too, so I have to believe they feel similarly. When more of us as professionals learn to understand that a logo is not the same as a brand, these types of companies will become even less competitive in our space. Until then? The model has merit and, if we’re smart, we’ll learn from it and apply what works to our medium.”

Because gift management allows companies to interact with recipients before they receive the gift, it also allows for custom options. Some platforms offer virtual gift-wrapping experiences and interactive games to engage the recipient, such as a virtual scratch-off ticket that reveals their gift. Others allow recipients the option to donate the cost of their gift to a charity of their choice, as well as customize the sizing and color options for t-shirts, sweatshirts and other apparel gifts.

Dawn Ruler, MAS, sales manager for Lewiston, Maine, distributor Geiger, agrees that gift management would be beneficial for promotional products businesses to incorporate details such as sizing options, but she feels the virtual component can’t and shouldn’t replace the in-person experience. “As a receiver of promo, I am often irritated when I receive a men’s extra-large t-shirt, especially at an industry event. We are in the business. Why can’t we do this right? We are selling experiences now, not just a promo item. This is a great way to improve what we bring to our clients.” Regarding the option to choose, Ruler says “it would be a nice touch with apparel,” but that “people still love getting a gift and promo acts as a gift to them,” suggesting that gift management strategies can be considered as a way to improve the client experience but shouldn’t replace the traditional act of giving a promo item in person.

One of the factors shared by Ruler that Mark Abels, MAS, CEO of Tulsa, Oklahoma, supplier Selco, also mentions, is the importance of preserving the concept of handing promo items to recipients in person. “I do not think there is any truth to the thought that people do not want giveaways or that seeing them at an event hurts the company giving them,” he says. “Having promotional sunglasses at an outdoor event is smart. If you do not need it, don’t take it. Well thought-out promotions will work. Poorly thought-out promotions will appear as waste.” 

Rama Beerfas, MAS, owner of San Diego, California, distributor Lev Promotions, agrees, though she also believes that gifting-as-a-service isn’t something that can truly enhance the in-person promo experience. “A well-chosen promotional product that is handed to the recipient in the moment, or one that is sent to them from you as a ‘gift,’ can have far greater impact than going online to pick something,” she says. “There’s a far more personal touch to it than handing someone a code and, in effect, saying ‘go shopping.’ Last I checked, gift cards have about a 20-percent non-redemption rate. In these gift-on-demand services, at least they state that the company doesn’t pay unless there’s a redemption. Of course, no redemption means no marketing impact.”

Beerfas adds, “These types of services have been around for decades. My husband and I have both been recipients of these redemption-code-type gifts, and I can tell you that, most of the time, I end up choosing something that I feel is just settling for something, so I don’t have to waste it. I end up either choosing something that sits in a drawer until I give it away, give it to one of my kids or use it as a gift for someone else. Not really sure how this differs from what many people say about ‘traditional’ promotional products. Yes, there will probably be more ineffectual and wasted promotional products out there as long as people choose from a catalog (online or printed) without thought to their larger market, goals and messaging. The difference isn’t in ‘traditional’ versus gift-as-a-service options. It’s between having someone who can guide you through a process of choosing the best possible product(s) for your needs and advise you on where, what and if to import it. That applies at any budget level and any form of distribution.”   


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.