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How to Choose Promotional Buttons

Updated on September 27, 2015
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Heidi Thorne is a promotional products expert and author of SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business.

Helping to Make History

Particularly in the United States, promotional buttons have helped some of our greatest leaders in their political campaigns. George Washington is said to have used commemorative buttons during his election, which is also one of the earliest documented uses of promotional giveaways. Abraham Lincoln is noted as the first to use photographic images on campaign buttons. The commonly used celluloid buttons (described below) began mass production with William McKinley's 1896 campaign. (Wikipedia)

Due to their historical significance, some buttons can become collectibles.

One of the most memorable recent uses of buttons was in the 1999 Mike Judge movie Office Space where Joanna (played by Jennifer Aniston) was required to wear pieces of flair at her restaurant job, a slam to restaurants with high energy servers decked out with dozens of promotional buttons. (Watch the video movie trailer at about the 37 second mark.)

Examples of celluloid (cello) promotional buttons.
Examples of celluloid (cello) promotional buttons. | Source
Examples of litho buttons, showing lock and straight pin attachments.
Examples of litho buttons, showing lock and straight pin attachments. | Source
Example of plastic custom shape promotional button used for a fast service restaurant.
Example of plastic custom shape promotional button used for a fast service restaurant. | Source
Examples of light up buttons. Left is shown lit, right is shown in off position. Lights are red LEDs that blink quickly to gain viewers' attention.
Examples of light up buttons. Left is shown lit, right is shown in off position. Lights are red LEDs that blink quickly to gain viewers' attention. | Source
Safety pin button attachment example.
Safety pin button attachment example. | Source

Types of Promotional Buttons

Buttons have remained largely unchanged since the early 20th century, except for the capability to create ever more colorful images and additional features such as mini lights.

There are several types of promotional buttons including:

  • Celluloid. Also known as "cello" buttons. This is the most common button type, featuring a metal button form over which a paper with the marketing message and a sheet of clear plastic are affixed. The paper and plastic are secured to the button when a backing piece is pressed into the back of the form. The backing features an attachment, such as a safety pin, to attach to the wearer's clothing.
  • Litho. These are also metal buttons. However, the graphics are printed directly onto the metal form. They can feature a safety pin or straight pin lock attachment. Another type of litho button does not have a pin attachment, but features a tab that is folded over a collar or pocket to attach to clothing. Tabbed styles are somewhat less popular due to the potential for the tab to break off after repeated use.
  • Plastic. There are two primary types of plastic buttons. One type is cut from thin plastic into standard shapes or completely custom forms. Another plastic button is molded from lightweight plastic. Both types feature safety pin attachments.
  • Blinking or Light Up Buttons. These buttons are designed to get attention! They feature small LED lights that stay on or blink. Some cello buttons offer lights as an option.
  • Stickers. Though not technically a "button," adhesive stickers have replaced metal or plastic buttons in many applications due to budget restraints.

In addition to the type and construction, marketers have options to choose from when ordering buttons, including:

  • Size. About the smallest size available is about 1 inch up to giant buttons that are about 6 inches. For most comfortable wearing that does not distort clothing, but that still gains attention, about 2 to 3 inches is a maximum recommended size.
  • Shape. Most common shapes are round, square, rectangle, triangle, oval and star. Custom shapes are available for most types, limited only by manufacturing capabilities and marketing budget.
  • Attachments. Instead of safety pin backings, a bulldog clip (similar to those found on badge holders), magnet or jewelry type clutch pin can often be used for an additional cost. These options can often be less damaging to clothing. Some also have a full magnet back so the button can be used as a refrigerator magnet.
  • Full Color. With today's expanded digital printing capabilities, full color buttons are becoming the norm instead of the exception. However, on litho and plastic molded buttons, there still may be imprint color limitations.

Buttons Help Spread the Word

Promotional buttons are most effective when used where they have high public visibility. They can be used to promote a variety of programs, special offers and causes. Their purpose is to get the word out there!

Some of the most common uses for buttons are:

  • Political Campaigns. As discussed above, buttons have been used for election campaigns throughout America's history.
  • Retail. Cashier and customer service personnel can wear buttons to promote sales and rewards programs.
  • Restaurants. Like retail, buttons worn by servers can promote featured menu items, beverages and rewards programs.
  • Trade Shows. Booth personnel can wear buttons that generate curiosity of show attendees such as, "Ask me about..."
  • Unions. Union members wear buttons to identify themselves with particular local labor organizations as a show of solidarity and to encourage membership. Usually buttons that have been union imprinted and include a union bug are required! Click here to learn what is a union bug.
  • Schools and Colleges. High school and college sports and extracurricular programs can use them to promote games and events or as part of fan and alumni activities.
  • Sports. Similar to colleges, sports teams at all levels can be promoted by fans wearing buttons.
  • Non Profits. Displaying support for a non profit with a button can help draw others to the cause.
  • Movies. Ticket and concessions sellers that have direct contact with movie goers can be great "salesmen" for upcoming releases.
  • Museums and Tourist Attractions. Customer service personnel and guides can help promote coming attractions and tours when wearing attention-getting buttons.

As noted earlier, today many organizations are ditching metal or plastic buttons in favor of adhesive stickers due to cost considerations. Stickers can be an effective replacement if they will be worn for a day or less. However, if the button has the potential to be worn for a longer period of time, a sturdier, standard metal or plastic button is still the best choice.

Disclaimer: Any examples used are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest affiliation or endorsement. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2013 Heidi Thorne

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    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 4 years ago from Chicago Area

      Thanks, Carolina, for the link & your comments! I leave the button making to my awesome suppliers, but it is a fun hobby for sure. BTW, just connected with you on Twitter, too (my main social media "home"). Cheers!

    • ccdursina profile image

      Carolina Dursina 4 years ago from Spring Green WI

      Thanks you for this informational hub; great pictures too! Wanna make your own buttons? use this link and design your own - http://www.zazzle.com/ccdursina?rf=238502940043079...

      I have a lot of fun doing that in my spare time!

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 4 years ago from Chicago Area

      Thanks, Gail, for the kind support! Yep, I was surprised, too, to read that Washington and Lincoln used promotional products. Appears they were leaders in marketing, too. :)

    • Gail Meyers profile image

      Gail Meyers 4 years ago from United States

      I have never stopped to think about promotional buttons. The history is interesting. I would never have guessed Washington used commemorative buttons or that Lincoln used photographic images on promotional buttons in their campaigns. Voted up and interesting.