Everyone has received a promotional product whether it is a pen from your bank, a fridge magnet from a food store or a keyring from a car dealer. Promotional products are used all around the world to advertise brands and products and help organisations grow within their industry. But have you ever wondered where did it all start?

When was the first promotional product produced?

Promotional products in fact have a long history dating back to 1789 in the United States! This first promotional gift was a commemorative button for George Washington’s election celebrating the new president and this historical event. These buttons became so popular that further promotional products were made in the early and mid-1800’s such as advertising calendars and other wooden items. But it was only in the late 19th century that promotional merchandise became a big hit with large quantities being developed and marketed.

When did promotional products take off?

Jasper Freemont Meek was one of the first significant members to the promotional product industry and he is to thank for the products we create today. He owned a newspaper in Ohio. In 1881 his ideas started to flourish when one day he saw a child drop their schoolbooks in a puddle. This gave him the idea to start producing printed burlap bags to give to the children to keep their school equipment safe.
Cantwell, Meek’s friend who owned a shoe shop, would give every child that came into his store a free bag with the printed message saying, “Buy Cantwell Shoes”. This began a great increase in sales and name acknowledgement for both Meek and Cantwell as the children would use these bags walking to and from school, for the whole village to see.
With the success of his bags Meek started to print on more items and by 1900s, he sold his printing press and went full-time into promotional advertising. In the end, he opened ‘the Meek Company’. He began to specialize in branded metal gifts, including customized trays for plenty of organizations, including Coca-Cola.

Where was the UK In this timeline?

The UK was a bit behind on realising how powerful promotional products where for industry with printed products emerging after the first world war. The first professional gift organisation began in 1948, known as BAGDA, the British Advertising Gift Distributors Association. Once the word began to grow about this way of promoting a business though gifts that included a logo and company details, it soon became a trend everyone wanted to ‘jump on’. By 1965 a huge demand for promotional products had developed, right across the UK. A new trade body was formed to support the growing promotional products industry. This is when the BPMA (British Promotional Merchandise Association) was launched. To this day BPMA plays an important role in the promotional industry. Their goal is to “inspire, connect and educate using meaningful connections through events, networking opportunities and introductions.” The organisation now sets the standards by which professional promotional gift distributors operate.

Where are we today?

Promotional products are developing rapidly and have been growing since the end of the 20th century. The product industry has come a long way since the commemorative buttons and simple print processes of the previous centuries. Classic engraving, stamping, pad and screen printing are popular branding techniques. The 21st century has seen the emergence of 3D laser engraving, 3D printers and direct digital full colour printing technologies. This has made it possible to brand almost any manufactured product or garment and even foodstuffs like cakes, biscuits and sweets. Lead times have also been reduced from 4-6 weeks, 50 years ago, with some products available in just 24 hours or even a same-day service today.

We have also seen am emergence of new eco-friendly materials and environmentally friendly inks. In 2021 we saw what we believe to be the first ever promotional product made from Prevented Ocean Plastic (https://www.preventedoceanplastic.com/), a global recycling initiative. PF Concept of Blackpool, Lancashire developed the food grade quality, H20 Eco refillable sports water bottle, (https://businessgiftuk.com/product/ecoproducts/recycledproducts/h2o-eco-flip-lid-sports-water-bottle-copy/) available to put your brand in the hands of the next generation.

So, what does the future hold for promotional products?

Without doubt the future will see moves to more sustainable, long-lasting products that can be recycled at the end of their useful life, in line with modern circular economy goals.
Further advances in product printing and decoration techniques will see even more opportunities for businesses to gain exposure from promotional products.


So, really the question is…
What is the most memorable promotional product you have received?

I wonder what will be the next?


Author: Jasmin Latham, Digital marketing apprentice with Runshaw College. For more information about the latest promotional printed products, including the H20 Eco sports water bottle, call BusinessGiftUK.com on 01772 429111 or send a message now from their Get in touch page.