Last year, just before Thanksgiving, there was a special delivery to the 14th floor of MediaVest's midtown-Manhattan offices-more than 50 stuffed, life-size pandas courtesy of Discovery Network, which was promoting a coming feature program on the animal.
"Picture the floor full of 50-plus stuffed pandas-we were outnumbered," said James Kiernan, VP-associate director at MediaVest Digital Connections.
While the volume delivered to Mr. Kiernan's office might have been unusual, the gesture wasn't. Indeed, whether it's pandas for a TV special, baskets of cheese and gourmet food at the holidays, or a bottle of scotch to recognize a promotion, swag or grist-to use the industry vernacular-is a typical part of corporate life, especially in a business that's largely built and maintained through relationships. And as the calendar rolls around to the biggest gift-giving time of year, there's the nagging question of what to do with it.
At MediaVest last year, the pandas sat around for a couple weeks. The office termed the situation "pandamonium" and had some fun holding mock meetings with the stuffed bears. But eventually it got to where the pandas were taking over the space and had to go somewhere, anywhere. The lucky recipient was a children's hospital in lower Manhattan.
"We thought, 'Sure, they could sit around our office, but obviously there'd be someone out there who'd be much more appreciative of them this time of year,' " Mr. Kiernan said. After the logistical challenge of transporting them- let's just say it involved lots of taxis-the pandas were out of Media-Vest's offices and into the hands of children who were likely to cherish them more than the digital-buying execs.
Americans, of course, are no strangers to re-gifting such items. According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, more than half of American adults copped to re-gifting, and 78% thought it was OK to do so. Occasionally, though, agency execs come up with more creative ways to use their swag.
Connie Kwok, a media planner at FCBi, said she and a colleague once brainstormed a "swag party," where attendees would wear all swag-logo-filled T-shirts and hats-and bring swag to exchange.
"We thought we should do a sponsored party," she said. "We could play the demo CDs they give us, wear the T-shirts we get, the hats with the brands across it."
Still, everybody wants to give something that gets kept and treasured-a visual reminder of that relationship all year long. Sheila Schechtman is president of Giftcorp, which supplies corporate gifts to dozens of major media companies and brand marketers. Her group also designs the food-stuffed gift boxes that dot the shelves at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's-suffice to say she knows a thing or two about corporate gift-giving.
"Our goal is to have people fight over the gift rather than think about re-gifting," she said. And the trick to that is to not be too overt in the branding of the gift, especially in the fourth quarter. "Most people don't market to their customers around the holidays; it's a time for customer appreciation," she said. "Packaging that's a brand color is soft branding." A few examples: Recently she created a gift for UPS that included a chocolate-brown, faux-leather box that doubled as a CD and DVD case (see sidebar). Bank of America, meanwhile, is doing a faux-leather collection with Bank of America in its trademark red ribbon, and Lehman Bros. is doing a similar gift in dark green.
"It's subtle and effective," Ms. Schechtman said. "And people will use the container afterward, whereas if it were branded more blatantly, you wouldn't bring it home for decor use."
Of course, not every company is hoping its swag doubles as home decor. For instance, PointRoll is known for its quirky, offbeat branded swag-probably nothing anyone would use at home. You wouldn't expect anything less from the Gannett subsidiary whose rich-media services include "Fat Boy Expandable," a mouse-over, activated expandable banner-ad format. It's all about a quick shot of "Hey, remember us"-a way to stay top of mind. This year's Halloween basket, for example, included ingredients for wreaking havoc around the holiday-toilet paper with PointRoll's logo and plastic eggs for terrorizing yards.
"We like to think about it that we're marketing to the best marketers in the world," said Catherine Spurway, director-marketing at PointRoll. "We found a lot of the things we do generate buzz." A recent gift turned up on a YouTube video of someone playing with it. "Like any of our clients, there's definitely an emphasis on the ROI," she said. Around the major holidays, sales reps will send more individualized gifts based on relationships, but as a rule her company sends gifts at least once a quarter.
And why not? Added Mr. Kiernan: "It's the common media principle of frequency."