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Promotional Products That Are Hot... or Not

Updated on February 15, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is the author of "SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business."


Being in the promotional products industry, I often get asked, "What are hot promotional products right now?" I can tell them what are best sellers this year. But that's no guarantee it will be hot next year... or even hot for recipients in the target market.

Let's look at some examples...

A Hot-to-Not Gallery of Promotional Products

What do the following promotional products have in common?

  1. Ashtrays with logo.
  2. Phone accessories such as rotary phone dialers, phone rests and index cards.
  3. Promotional polycarbonate water bottles.
  4. Custom CDs or floppy disks.
  5. Plastic rain bonnets in an imprinted carrying pouch to fit in a purse.

They were all "hot" promotional products at one time. Today, they are "not" promotional products. Why?

  1. Smoking is becoming more taboo—or even illegal—in many public places. So ashtrays and other smoking paraphernalia sporting a logo lost appeal as promotions for many markets.
  2. Telephone technology has advanced dramatically within only a few decades. Rotary dial and handset phones are now usually found in antique stores or trash and recycling streams. Plus, today's phones now include address book functions, negating the need for phone index cards and storage containers.
  3. When the potential health risks of BPA (bisphenol-A)—a chemical component in polycarbonate material—became news, consumers were less interested in polycarbonate water bottles, in spite of the products' desirable unbreakable qualities and that the health risks of BPA were still being debated.
  4. Many who remember the early days of the Internet may also remember receiving a custom promotional CD or floppy disk to get AOL or other Internet access software. (They may also remember the screeching dialup modem needed to get online.) Custom CDs and USB drives are still being used quite effectively today for digital distribution of education, productivity and entertainment products and promotions. However, downloads from the web (for both desktop and mobile) are becoming more and more common.
  5. Ladies, still need a plastic bonnet to protect that beehive hairdo? I'm guessing no.

What Can Turn a Hot Product to Not?

As illustrated from the examples, there can be several reasons why a promotional product slips from hot to not, including:

  • Economy. This is primarily the case when the product is an expensive one. If the economy rebounds and/or cheaper versions of the product can be offered, a product can go back from not to hot if it still has relevance for the market.
  • New Laws and Standards. As seen with the BPA water bottle issue, new regulations or safety standards can wipe out a product in a hurry.
  • New Technology. Nowhere is this more of an issue than with computer or telecommunications promotions. Today's handy, "gotta have" promotional accessory can become tomorrow's trash.
  • New Attitudes, Tastes and Concerns. Can a promotional rain bonnet from the 60s still be useful? Sure! But today, ladies' hairstyles are less structured and rarely require that kind of protection. Plus, it looks out of place with today's clothing styles.

Hot-to-Not Case Study: When Green Got Lean

What's hot in promotional products can also be an entire category, as opposed to one particular item. These categories can come and go almost as fast as individual products. Here's an example...

Around 2008 or so, green promotional items were hot. Trade shows for the industry had entire green pavilions. Reusable bags and water bottles were everywhere. And everyone was touting how green they were, even if it was only in small way.

I was jumping on that green bandwagon, too, not only because it was hot, but because I believe in corporate social responsibility and green values. Built one entire shopsite and a blog around greener products and how to use them. I was even getting a queen of green reputation.

Then, the silence.

Recessionary times hit and buyers were quickly shifting their green eco values for green cash values, especially since many eco friendly products were more expensive back then. Had one client even tell me that if there was a 5 cent difference between an eco friendly product and a standard offering, she'd go with the standard product every time. Others were less honest in explaining their budget cutting, using the excuse that they were not buying because they were trying to go green. Sorry, I can see right through that one, although there were some legitimate "reduce" efforts.

So within a short period of time, the green scene went from hot to not due to economic pressures.

But the green trend didn't die. In fact, it got reframed. Promo suppliers (and me, too!) shifted from promoting eco value to economic value. Reducing consumption meant buyers could purchase less. Reusability justified purchasing less items with higher quality and price. Using recycled materials—which many manufacturers had been doing forever anyway by collecting scrap and repurposing it to save costs—became an easy built-in green feature to promote for some suppliers.

The Only Hot Promotional Product You Should Ever Buy

There is really only one hot promotional product: The one that is appropriate for YOUR market segment.

I serve several customers that have more traditional tastes when it comes to promotional items. Pens, custom hats, calendars... items that are so not considered hot in the marketplace. They order these items year after year and their customers sometimes come in asking for replacements when the current ones get worn out or used up. Those sound like hot items to me, if hot is described as what works for the target market demographic.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


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