Are you ready to bid farewell to shit merchandise? How to adopt a good merch mindset.

Business owners and clients have been drowning in shit promotional merchandise for years. But ethical, values-aligned – and cooler – alternatives are on the rise.

If you attended a conference IRL pre-COVID, you would have left with swathes of shit merch. There’s something irresistible about branded freebies when you’re out of your natural habitat: elbowing your colleague aside for the last box of branded breath mints; bailing up a stranger to demand they tell you where to find the synthetic tote bag slung over their shoulder; loading up on USB sticks even though you use the cloud. When free stuff is up for grabs, you can’t even pretend to be interested in the hapless vendor whose logo is displayed on it. You just wanna grab that shit and RUN!

Open your top drawer right now and count all the forgotten pieces of branded promotional items you keep in there. I’ll wager a bet that you didn’t use a single one of those pens, keychains, USBs or paper weights. Guilty! So if we don’t actually use any of this stuff as consumers, why as business owners do we think our own clients are going to appreciate it so much more?

Thankfully, a new merch mindset is slowly emerging to help business owners connect more authentically with their prospects, clients and communities.

How do we define shit merch?

My partner and I recently spent a small fortune on new desks for our home office. Instead of going to IKEA, we wanted to support a local Melbourne company. Their website promised a ‘free notebook’ with every desk. Buying at this price point from a brand who values quality, longevity and local craftsmanship, I was expecting a Moleskin at the very least. Instead, I got a standard issue, mass-produced notebook that I know can be ordered from every mainstream promotional company in Australia (by way of China). Brand fail!

My partner thought it wasn’t a big deal, but the marketer in me found it jarring; and my inner eco-warrior was peeved. I hadn’t just bought a desk. I’d bought into a set of values that this business didn’t seem committed to across its whole being. I felt let down.

When does shit merch work?

My partner’s accountant sends out shit merch at the end of every financial year. This year the EOFY tagline was ‘make sure you measure up for the ATO’, delivered in the post with a ruler. Last year, it was ‘spot every little claim you can make’ accompanied by a magnifying glass.

The merch is totally useless, of course. My partner’s reading glasses work just fine, and no one has used a ruler since 1993. But it’s bang-on-brand for this old-school accountant. And because he rolls it out consistently every year, it’s become a tradition his clients expect and love.

When is great merch actually shit?

Great merch is actually shit when it doesn’t elevate your brand, your people or your clients. Take the case of a professional services firm I know of, with a great reusable coffee cup business on its books. One Christmas, they gifted every staff member a reusable coffee cup proudly branded with the firm logo – made by a competitor business. Ouch!  The merch looked great. People used it. But the social media team had to keep it on the downlow, and an opportunity was missed to celebrate a great client and support their business. 

Is digital merch really merch?

The new COVID online conference culture has spawned a whole new breed of shit merch: digital merch. In 2020, I signed up for multiple conferences, immersive events, and Zoom sessions to interact with my peers and save my sanity. In return, I was emailed items like branded ‘Canva sticker templates’ that I was encouraged to add to my personal Canva account, fill in with my achievements, then print and cut out at home. I am not ten.

Digital merch is a buzz kill. You can’t touch it, or compete for it. It therefore needs to work harder to achieve that covetable ‘wow factor’ that tangible promotional items produce. When digital merch is thoughtful, useful and adds value – like practical social media templates – it will flourish as a unique merchandise concept. The fact that it’s more environmentally friendly than its mass-produced counterpart means that it’s here to stay.

What’s good merch?

The era of giving away really shit merch is coming to a close. Public opinion is shifting, and business owners are becoming more aware of the importance of investing in valuable, meaningful merch. This is what I call the new good merch mindset.

The new good merch mindset

1. Good merch speaks to your business values

Today, clients and prospects want more than just free stuff. When they accept your promotional items, they’re looking for validation that you are who you say you are. Merch should be an expression of your business values or an elevation of your services. It can even act as a vehicle for your clients to attach those values publicly to themselves. I still carry around a London Library tote bag from 2012 because I think it makes me look smart.

2. Good merch treads lightly on the planet

A new wave of promotional product companies with excellent eco-credentials is emerging. I personally love Promo Loco, who are “creating products that respect your brand and the planet”. Founder Bronwyn Smith has experience working in mainstream promotional merch and knows how to offer a genuine, meaningful alternative to shit merch.

Well-made, locally-produced merch is often more expensive than shit merch, so think quality over quantity. Today, most new clients would appreciate one great item in their onboarding packs instead of three mediocre ones.

Bronwyn standing in front of blue door in bright coloured dress.

3. Good merch reflects the zeitgeist

Good merch thinks outside the box and taps into the ‘next big thing’. Cultural, social and environmental trends can all provide inspiration.

In 2020, the street artist Rone made jigsaw puzzles cool again. His installations have been beautifully reproduced on puzzles. With one of these at your fingertips, you’re almost happy to be locked inside when COVID restrictions hit. The jigsaw also acts as a souvenir that reminds you of seeing the installation in person (if you’re lucky enough to live in Victoria!) and is almost an art piece in its own right. Bang-on-brand for this famous street artist.

Rone Jigsaw puzzle box on table of home wrecker installation

4. Good merch gives back

When I joined the female co-working collective One Roof last year, I was sent a gorgeous gift pack welcoming me on board. It contained bath salts, a clay face mask and a calico bag from Mettle Gifts. Mettle employs, trains, and empowers survivors of domestic and family violence. There was no ‘One Roof’ branding on any of it – because it wasn’t necessary. By investing in this gift pack for new clients, One Roof quietly communicated its core values and indicated that it stood for uplifting every woman. As a new client, I’m proud to be part of a business that spends its money where it matters.

Mettle gifts sitting on bench.

5. Good merch is just plain cool

Ah, Mona (Museum of Old and New Art). Is there a cooler cultural institution anywhere in the world? Their latest piece of not-shit merch is a pair of 10th anniversary Blundstone boots emblazoned with the Mona logo (sorry, sales have just closed!). This collaboration ticked so many good merch boxes. Blundstone is a local Tasmanian brand. The boots could only be pre-ordered, meaning an exact number will be produced with no excess waste. And Blunnies are cool again.

The Blundstone-Mona boots are also a lesson in the growing imperative to create good merch. Mona actually faced criticism on social media for the collaboration. Although Blundstone is locally-owned its wares are no longer locally produced – and people were quick to point this out. Your clients may be less vocal in public, but what you give them, where it’s made, and what purpose it serves, will matter.

Take the first step to the new good merch mindset

If you want to get into the new merch mindset and stop giving your clients shit merch, the first step is to know what your business stands for, and how you want to make your clients feel. Whether you’re in the business of making people feel good, or making people a lot of money, investing in good merch is a worthwhile endeavour for your brand equity.

As a client or consumer, remember you’re also at liberty to reject shit merch that doesn’t feel right or serve your needs. Now that we no longer work in offices as often, we’re less likely to have a top desk drawer to store all that shit merch in anyway.