Contrary to popular belief, the very first promotional products appeared thousands of years ago, with items being offered for people to visit regions and other small “bribes” to perform actions. In the US, the first promotional products date back to 1789, with commemorative buttons for the George Washington election. Rulers, wooden specialties and calendars appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
In the year 1904, 12 promotional items manufacturers formed the first ever trade association in the industry. Nowadays, that organization includes over 10,000 members from all around the world. The Promotional Products Association International (commonly referred to as PPAI) includes around 4,800 manufacturers and 22,000 distributors.
The evolution of promotional products appeared way before marketing was a term that was defined. People were naturally using products in order to promote events, services and products. Eventually, with the evolution of various forms of marketing, everything changed and now we have a really well developed industry that manages to incorporate various elements, techniques and customization options.
Almost anything can be used as promotional products but in most cases the items that are offered are set by law to be lower in value than a specific amount that is defined by law. Values vary drastically from one country to the next.
Today, custom promotional items are considered one of the best low cost marketing solutions that a business could use to increase its exposure and attract new customers. They can be used to reach wide audiences, make a nice gesture to a loyal client and generally increase your brand’s visibility. If you have ever wondered when people began imprinting their logos on different products in order to boost sales, we have made a short overview of their history.
Even though there were some examples of ideas quite similar to what we know today as promotional products, they weren’t exactly used in the same way that they are now until the second half of the 19th century.
The first mass production of promotional products was started by a newspaper owner from Ohio, Jasper Freemont Meek. Namely, as was the practice in most papers at the time, when they weren’t printing papers, they tried to find other work for their presses. On one occasion, Meek got the idea to print advertisements on school bags when he saw a girl dropping her books. He approached an acquaintance of his, Mr. Cantwell, who owned a shoe shop at the time, with the interesting business proposition. Cantwell was to have a number of school bags imprinted with an ad for his store and then hand them out to children. This resulted in the whole town being exposed to the ad’s message, and Cantwell’s business prospered.
Meek took the initial idea and applied it to another product, horse covers, which were also easy to print on, and seen by just about anyone in their city, making them a suitable carrier for the promotional message. This second success prompted him to open a company specialized for the creation of such products, Tuscarora Advertising Co.
His business ran with practically no competition until 1889, when Henry D. Beach, from the same city, opened a similar company and started trailing Meek’s every accomplishment. Both of them tried to expend the range of products that they could imprint with different logos, and it wasn’t long after that they got interested in printing on metal and other materials. Even though Beach was the first to succeed in doing this, Meek followed closely, and their businesses continued to flourish.
Soon after, one of the most widely used promotional products was born – art calendars. They have also been a brainchild of newspaper owners, Edward Burke Osborne and Thomas D. Murphy from Iowa. They also needed something to keep their presses occupied when not printing papers, and art calendars were simply perfect for this. They expended their business by buying interesting photos and paintings from various artists, and soon a new marketing medium was born. In 1894, Murphy sold his part of the shares to Osborne, who continued developing the company.
By the beginning of the 20th century this industry was so developed that a number of manufacturers of these products decided to join together and form a trade association. They did so in 1904, and have been rapidly growing ever since.