The History of Promotional Merchandise and Branding - Strategic Flow Management

The History of Promotional Merchandise and Branding

Published on 10th August 2021

Promotional merchandise and branding have a long history, going back thousands of years.

From ancient times up to the 21st century, history provides insight and perspective on how modern day promotional products have come to exist.

In the early to mid-1800s, there were advertising calendars, wooden specialities, and almanacs. By the late 19th century, many promotional items were created and marketed, which led to the birth of promotional merchandise as we know it today.

Promotional products in ancient times

There is historical evidence of branding in ancient times. In 1300 BC, potters from China, India, Greece and Rome used marks on pottery and porcelain, and in 2000 BC, cattle and livestock were branded. Archaeologists also found evidence of advertising among Babylonians around 3000 BC who used clay tablets and bricks.

In 79 AD, bread from Pompeii had markings to signify characteristics such as its bakery of origin, price, and intended recipient. With the spread of Christianity in 312 AD, silversmiths and metalsmiths incorporated Christian symbolism into coins and jewellery, like the cross and the Chi-Rho monogram.

In the 1200s, bread makers, silversmiths and goldsmiths in England had to put their marks on goods to insure honesty in measurement. Printers used marks, while producers of paper used watermarks to highlight their brands.

Promotional products in the 18th and 19th

The first promotional product was a commemorative button, dating back to 1789 when George Washington became the first President of the USA. The buttons were produced to celebrate the occasion. It wasn’t until a century later that people made a business out of promotional merchandise and branding.

In the early 1800s, companies that sold patented medicines and tobacco started branding their products. By the mid-to-late 1800s, consumer product companies such as Procter & Gamble started branding their products as well. Products that were used for advertising included almanacs, bookmarks, rulers, buttons, corkscrews, pocket knives, beer bottles and cups.

The birth of an industry

Jasper Meek is credited as the father of promotional products as an industry. He was the owner of a small newspaper company in Coshocton, Ohio and started to work in the printing industry. In 1886, he told his friend, Mr Cantwell, the owner of Cantwell Shoes, that he wanted to increase traffic coming into the shop.

The result was a production of burlap book bags with the words ‘Buy Cantwell Shoes’ printed on them. Cantwell gave away free bags to children who bought shoes from his store, and as they walked to school, his name would be seen by the townspeople. This promotional venture was a huge success.

Meek and Cantwell went on to develop printed horse covers, and then Meek started his own promotional products company called the Tuscarora Advertising Co. Up until 1889.

Meek’s first competitor was another small newspaper owner in Coshocton, Ohio, named Henry D. Beach. They both wanted to be the first to make new promotional products, including cloth caps, horse hats, buggy whips, calendars, aprons, bags for marbles, card cases and fans. Meek and Beach also produced metal advertising trays for small beer companies and even Coca-Cola.

Also in the late 1800s, Thomas D. Murphy and Edward Burke Osborne, who were both newspaper owners in Red Oak, Iowa, created the first art calendars. They printed a watercolour painting of the new Red Oak court house on a piece of cardboard, placed ads around the painting, and then attached a calendar pad. It was an instant success. They also placed attractive art on the calendars, which included photos and paintings from various artists. By 1894, they both printed two to three million calendars

Promotional marketing in the 20th and 21st centuries

In 1904, representatives from 12 manufacturers of promotional products formed an industry trade association called the Advertising Manufacturers Association (now known as the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI)). They addressed issues like pricing, business losses, new ideas and how to manage salesmen.

The Association’s official publication was first published in 1906 and made a great contribution to the recognition of the industry. In 1912, the Advertising Federation of America declared advertising specialities a legitimate medium, and in 1914, the Association began to include trade shows at its conventions.

By 1928, the Association accomplished uniformity in advertising terms and trade practices and established ad specialties as a legitimate advertising medium. In 1947, the promotional products industry recorded sales figures of $124 million.

In 1950, the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI) was founded and became another major player in the industry. It was originally created by Joseph Segel, a graduate student, who sold promotional products while studying at school.

Today, both PPAI and ASI publish magazines to meet the needs of producers and sellers of promotional products. They also hold large trade shows at industry conventions, where representatives of the business come together to share their knowledge.

The 20th and 21st centuries saw a massive rise in promotional merchandise and branding, from big players such as Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Campbells.

Promotional branding is used in a variety of industries from tyre manufacturers such as Michelin to media outlets like NBC. What’s more, the promotional products industry has recently recorded sales figures of $17.5 billion.

Promotional merchandise and branding has come a long way since ancient times. Today it’s a huge industry turning over significant annual revenues. It’s now affiliated with advertising associations, trade shows and publications.