Branded merchandise has long been a staple of consumer marketing and trade shows. Logoed bags, socks, hats, pens, device chargers and laptop stickers abound. They are safe, ubiquitous and useful items that transcend age and interests.

Consumer and business brands, retailers, restaurants and many other businesses look to branded merchandise as a way to turn their names into “virtual billboards.” The best swag has longevity. Every consumer or professional who sports your name represents loyalty and an opportunity to build awareness.

As it has so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world of branded merchandise on its head. What was popular before is forgotten now, and things we never would have thought to brand with a logo are now commonplace. Many brands have been quick to adapt to these new realities.

How COVID-19 Has Changed (And Not Changed) Business and Marketing

Live, in-person experiences, including retail, restaurants and lodging, were transformed this year.

The live trade show industry came to a screeching halt, and conferences are now virtual experiences via Zoom or one of the hundreds of online event platforms. Restaurants pivoted from indoor experiences to take-out and delivery. Retailers focused on the omnichannel (digital plus in-store) experience, and BOPIS (buy-online-pick-up-in-store) has become commonplace. Millions of people are now working from home, so corporate gifting has changed dramatically, too.

Sales of hand sanitizer and masks have skyrocketed, and touchless gadgets have emerged. The basic principles of branded merchandise still apply, however. Pandemic or no, great merch is:

    1. Unique: You want the recipient or buyer to think, “Wow…this is different!” You also want other people to ask about the branded product, so you get word-of-mouth impressions. (e.g., “Wow…how and where did you get that?”)
    2. Useful: Balance utility with the wow factor (#1). After a while, the consumer may have hundreds of logoed pens. Why do yours stand out?
    3. Keepable: Merchandise should have a long shelf life if you want the biggest bang for your buck. Branded food items are consumed and forgotten. Masks and hand sanitizer are useful now and probably throughout the year, but they may eventually become obsolete or be replaced with new alternatives.

3 Creative and High-Impact Branded Merchandise Ideas

These are just a few examples of how brands develop concepts that rise to these standards and meet today’s consumers’ and businesses’ needs, especially in the time of COVID.

Merchandise With Soul

Consumers are drawn to brands that have a conscience, especially during challenging times. McDonald’s recently worked in partnership with IMS and Coca-Cola to raise about $2 million for local Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) chapters across the country.

Many brands have specifically created branded merchandise that directly links COVID-related causes, including funds for research and relief for first responders and families in need.

Merchandise for the WFH Professional

A popular trend in the virtual conference world is creating and producing “remote gift boxes.” This allows sponsors to promote their brands to the work-from-home (WFH) audience and engage new prospects. The PCMA (Professional Conference Marketing Association) sums it up best:

“During the pandemic, swag is playing a bigger role in the events space, helping organizers create tangible connections with virtual audiences — and provide ‘a bit of joy.’ ”

As you develop your branded merchandise concepts, think too about the needs of the WFH consumer. Items that provide stress relief, merch the entire family can enjoy or gadgets that facilitate remote meetings are all useful. For example, blue light glasses help people avoid eye strain and will be valued for years to come.

Merchandise That Promotes Health & Safety

Although masks and hand sanitizer are obvious choices, some new creations have emerged that are unique, useful and keepable.

    • Branded Key Pulls: For doors, elevators and other potentially virus-carrying surfaces.
    • Branded Buffs: Unlike masks, these face/neck coverings will have a long post-COVID life. (But keep in mind that they may not prevent the spread and may need to be combined with medically approved masks)
    • Sanitizer Stands: Retailers can offer COVID-friendly products to shoppers while showcasing their brands.
    • To-Go Cocktail Pouches: Restaurants have discovered ways to meet consumers’ dine-in needs while giving them fun (and often reusable) ways to enjoy adult beverages.
    • Integrated Safety Kits: IMS has produced all-in-one safety kits for some of our clients. Brands can give customers and prospects a range of useful branded projects, along with a branded and memorable bag or box to prolong its shelf life.

What’s Your Next Big COVID-Friendly Branded Merchandise Idea?

Complicating the branded merchandise world are global restrictions that have had an impact on manufacturing and shipping. Working with experienced professionals is essential during this challenging time. When you are shipping to multiple locations and rolling-out complex campaigns, you need partners who are both creative and process-oriented — ensuring every store, restaurant location or consumer gets what they need, when they need it.

We at IMS Retail have extensive experience working with businesses and brands to identify their target market and come up with big, memorable ideas for a wide range of industries.

Brand campaigns are timeless and here to stay. However, during COVID-19, what’s popular and how it helps you sell has changed dramatically. Let IMS help you turn your brand into memorable merch.

Article Author: Stephanie Islas

Stephanie is a Digital Marketing Associate at IMS. She specializes in building creative marketing content and raising brand awareness. Her areas of expertise include social media management, digital marketing strategy, client relations, execution and promotions.