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The history of the promotional merchandise industry

Like a fine wine: it gets better with age

For the team at Bright Ideas Promotional Products are a standard part of our daily lives. We source them, we manufacture them, and we brand them. We also talk about them incessantly.

It should come as no surprise that we are all familiar with the origins of promotional products. It's actually quite an interesting tale so we thought we'd provide you with a brief insight into why this industry has been in existence for centuries and why it continues to play such an important role, on a global scale.

The first promotional product wasn’t a pen, a stress ball or a key ring. When George Washington became the first President of the newly formed United States of America in 1789, commemorative buttons were produced to celebrate the momentous occasion. So the first U.S. President was in part responsible for producing the first promotional product!

During the early 19th century, there were some advertising calendars, rulers, and wooden specialties, but there was no organized industry for the creation and distribution of promotional items until 1886.

That distinction went to an Ohio newspaper man named Jasper Meek. In 1886, Meek approached a local shoe store owner with an idea: instead of letting his printing machinery go idle between editions of the newspaper, Meek realised he could use it to print a message advertising the shoe store onto bags which would be given away with every shoe purchase. That way, he reasoned, when kids used the bags to carry their school books, they would also advertise the store. Does that sound like a familiar approach?

Henry Beach, another Ohio based printer and a competitor of Meek, picked up on the idea, and soon the two men were selling and printing marble bags, buggy whips, card cases, fans, calendars, cloth caps, aprons, and even hats for horses.

By 1904 representatives of 12 promotional product companies had gathered to form the PPAI, an American trade association which is still in existence today. Promotional Products Association International currently has more than 10,000 global members.

That is how this wonderful industry began but it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that corporate marketing, using promotional products, began in Britain. That was the beginning of this industry as we know it today.

UK & Ireland

The UK and Ireland promotional merchandise industry formally emerged as corporate marketing became more sophisticated during the late 1950s. Before this companies may have provided occasional gifts, but there was no recognised promotional merchandise industry. The real explosion in the growth of the promotional merchandise industry took place in the 1970s. At this time an ever increasing number of corporate companies recognised the benefits gained from promoting their corporate identity, brand or product, with the use of gifts featuring their own logo.

Market Mechanics

In the USA, Canada, the UK and Ireland, companies and corporations mainly purchase their merchandise through promotional merchandise distributor companies. Nowadays, almost anything can be branded with a company’s name or logo and used for promotion. Common items include clothing, caps, notebooks, key rings, bags, pens, mugs, technology products and gadgets as well as a whole host of eco-friendly promotional products such as those created from recycled materials.

Promotional merchandise is rarely bought directly by corporate companies from the actual manufacturers of the promotional products. A manufacturer's expertise lies in the physical production of the products, but getting a product in front of potential customers is a completely different skill set and a complex process.

Within the UK & Ireland promotional merchandise industry a comprehensive network of promotional merchandise distributor companies exist and Bright Ideas is one of the leading exponents, being a Charter Member of the British Promotional Merchandise Association (BPMA). We are experts at making things run smoothly, managing the artwork application and printing processes. In addition to this we also provide full support in processing orders, proofing, progress chasing, storage & delivery of promotional products from multiple manufacturing sources.

The UK Market

According to recent research completed in 2015 the UK and Ireland promotional merchandise industry has an overall value of circa £850m. Published research suggests that the top 10 promotional merchandise products are promotional pens, bags, clothing, notebooks, plastic items, USB memory sticks, mugs, leather items, polyurethane conference folders, and umbrellas.

This might not be the biggest industry in the world but it’s certainly got history and, if the present day is anything to go by, it will continue to play a major part in promoting businesses and organisations of every size and nationality, for the foreseeable future and beyond.

Bright Ideas Promotional
We are Promotional Merchandise experts. If you’d like some assistance regarding any of your merchandising requirements then simply call us on 0800 644 4858 or drop us a line at info@brightideaspromotional.co.uk