The first known promotional products in the United States were commemorative buttons dating back to the election of George Washington in 1789. 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 later in the 19th century.
Jasper Meek, a printer in Coshocton, Ohio, is considered by many to be the originator of the industry when he convinced a local shoe store to supply book bags imprinted with the store name to local schools. Henry Beach, another Coshocton 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.
In 1904, 12 manufacturers of promotional items got together to found the first trade association for the industry. That organization is now known as the Promotional Products Association International or PPAI, which currently has more than 10,000 global members. PPAI represents the promotional products industry of more than 22,000 distributors and approximately 4,800 manufacturers.
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. In the early years, the range of products available were limited; however, in the early 1980s demand grew from distributors for a generic promotional product catalogue they could brand as their own and then leave with to their corporate customers.
In later years these catalogues could be over-branded to reflect a distributor’s corporate image; distributors could then give them to their end user customers as their own. In the early years, promotional merchandise catalogues were very much sales tools and customers would buy the products offered on the pages.
In the 1990s, new catalogue services emerged for distributors from various sources. The nineties also saw the emergence of ‘Catalogue Groups’ – groups who offered a unique catalogue to a limited geographical group of promotional merchandise distributor companies. Membership of a Catalogue Group could also offer improved buying terms, a network of fellow distributor companies, and provide other support services. Examples of Catalogue Groups include Trade Only Spectrum Catalogue, Page Group and the Envoy Group, offering discounted products to a select group of distributors who have all been in the industry for over three years. Members of the Envoy Group have regional exclusivity as one of their perks providing some protection to the low entry barrier of the market
Up until the 1990s, the industry had a peak season in which the majority of promotional products were sold. The season featured around Christmas and the giving of gifts. This changed significantly in the early 1990s as Christmas gifts became less appropriate in a multicultural Britain. Corporate companies were also becoming more inventive in their marketing and were now using promotional merchandise throughout the year to support the promotion of brands, products & events. In the early 21st century the role of a promotional merchandise catalogue started to change, as it could no longer fully represent the vast range of products in the market place. By 2007, catalogues were being mailed to targeted customer lists, rather than the blanket postal mailings that had taken place before. The catalogue had now become seen more as a ‘business card’ demonstrating the concept of what a company did, rather than a critical sales tool. In 2009 published results from research involving a representative group of distributor companies, which indicated the usage of hard copy catalogues was expected to fall up to 25% in 2010.
Distributor companies are experts in sourcing creative promotional products. Traditionally, to ensure that they had an effective manufacturer network, they kept themselves aware of the trade product ranges available from mailings received from manufacturers themselves and by attending trade exhibitions across the world, for example the Trade Only National Show in the UK, the Promotional Product Service Institute (PSI) show in Europe and the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) Show in Las Vegas, NV.
In 2004, the way the trade sourced promotional products began to change with the launch an online trade sourcing service, which united distributors with manufacturers worldwide. This service is purely for vetted trade promotional merchandise distributor companies and is not available to corporate end user companies.
By 2008 almost every distributor had a website demonstrating a range of available promotional products. Very few offer the ability to order products online mainly due to the complexities surrounding the processes to brand the promotional products required.
In the United States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and NZ, companies and corporations mainly purchase their merchandise through promotional merchandise distributor companies. These distributors are called “Promotional Consultants” or “promotional product distributors”.
Promotional products by definition are custom printed with a logo, company name or message usually in specific PMS colors. Distributors help end-users gather artwork in the correct format, and in some cases also create artwork for end-users. Distributors then request the artwork from the manufacturers, printers or suppliers.
Many distributors operate on the internet and/or in person. Many suppliers wish not to invest in the staffing to service end-users’ needs, which is the purpose of merchandise distributor companies.