Promo vs Premium: Why High Value Brand Gear is Replacing Cheap Promo Products

By: John D’Angola / 1 April 2019


Over a century ago, a creative entrepreneur had the brilliant idea of printing messages onto tote bags to promote a local shoe store. It worked, and the promotional products industry was born. Since then, businesses have been printing their names onto everything with a solid surface.



Indeed, promo products are quite amazing in their diversity and creativity, but one common thread unites them all: they are all cheap. Which makes sense, right? If the primary purpose of the product is to convey a message, and it is likely to be given away for free, then product quality is not and should not be the primary concern.

But times have changed! We live in the 21st century now. Increasingly eco-conscious consumers now look at cheap, disposable plastic chotchkies with disdain. Not only that, but digital media now provides superior, more cost effective means to promote a message. Perhaps it is time we reassess how businesses ought to use gear to market their brands.



“Here, you throw this away.”

In this day and age, is it socially responsible and acceptable to flood the market with unnecessary plastic products? Products that are sure to end up in the trash after a single use, and then ultimately littering our oceans? Of course not!



“Promo” is now synonymous with “cheap”, but is it really?


On the production side, manufacturers now use the term “promo” as a euphemism to describe their cheapest option. The word has come to mean the opposite of premium.

At the consumer level, wave after wave of cheap plastic promo products have forged the same equivalency within consumers’ minds. Clearly, promo is now synonymous with cheap.


* Calculated as average of top performing promo products, i.e. bags, writing utensils, calendars, shirts and office accessories.  Source: Ad Specialty Institute


But assume you are fine with your brand being associated with “cheap” stuff, you must then ask is it really cheap? If the purpose of promo products is to communicate a message, i.e. drive impressions, is it the most cost-effective means to do so?

They used to be, but not any more! Businesses now possess near limitless ways to digitally communicate with targeted audiences. And despite the cost of digital advertising trending upwards, at a couple USD per thousand impressions digital ads are still significantly cheaper than even the cheapest piece of plastic coming out of Asia.


“Promo product” is all about impressions; “Premium merch” is all about experiences.


Thanks to modern advancements in digital marketing, there is no shortage of methods to generate impressions at very low cost. Content marketing, targeted advertisements and social media are all exceptionally powerful tools, which when used correctly can deliver huge volumes of impressions and ultimately conversions.

But one domain where digital marketing falls short: brand experiences. Human experience extends beyond the visual; we rely on all of our senses to connect with the world. This is where premium merch makes a huge difference.



Well conceived and properly manufactured brand gear has a far greater chance of being adopted by the user for regular use. Whereas cheap promo products quickly end up in the garbage can, a nicely executed piece of brand merch is more likely to become a part of a user’s life. The former delivers a quick impression, whereas the latter creates a brand experience which can last months or years.

Consider the PDI Leather Wallet. Made with Italian vegetable tanned leather, it is more costly than chrome-tanned and imitation leather. But it looks, feels and smells amazing because it is manufactured the traditional way without harmful chemicals. Gift one of these to your VIP customers, and they are likely to use it everyday for the next decade.


Cost Benefit Analysis

Indeed a premium merch product may cost several times more than an equivalent promo product. But if that product is used 100 times more often, which is building more brand value?  Which is better for the environment? If one comes across as tacky and superfluous, while the other feels impressive and valuable, which is delivering a better return?

Founder & CEO of Premium Direct Imports. John is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, former beach patrol lifeguard and semi-professional poker player. A graduate of Georgetown University (MSB '10), John was born in raised in New Jersey, which despite its reputation is actually a very nice place.