Branding is at its most powerful when it is omnipresent. This, a key pillar of traditional marketing, has led to the rise of the promotional merchandise industry, worth $125 billion worldwide. Given away at little to no cost, promotional merchandise hits two birds with one stone: for prospective consumers, it raises brand awareness and, for employees, it makes them feel valued and celebrated.
Increasing awareness of overconsumption, unethical supply chains and plastic waste is putting pressure on the longevity of the promotional merchandise industry. The market itself is fragmented, with local grassroots printing businesses competing with bulk buyers that import cheap goods en masse. The churn-out model is in direct contradiction with the values of the new consumer, and yet the industry is reluctant to innovate.
Bringing humanity back to merchandise
Simon Polet and Benoit Fortpied were the co-founders of Drink Big, a carbon-neutral reusable water bottle. ‘An unexpected new channel of revenue came with companies wanting to brand the bottles,’ he says. ‘At first, there were small orders of 10 to 50 bottles, followed closely by deals of hundreds and thousands.’
Spotting a need for timeless corporate merchandise, Simon and Benoit launched Merchery, a catalogue of sustainably sourced promotional products, including stationery, clothing and drinkware. With 79% of consumers now looking for utility and practicality in merchandise, Merchery brings deliberate awareness back to the products we use daily: ‘Consumption now is short-termist: you get something, you like it for a week, then you throw it away,’ says Simon. ‘Crafting a story around the product increases its emotional value and the consumer is less likely to think of it as disposable.’
‘We question ourselves every day on what sustainability means to us,’ Simon continues, ‘but consumers are not listening to this any more unless it is action-oriented.’ The rise of environmental awareness has inevitably also left businesses at risk of greenwashing. To address this, Merchery holds itself accountable to a transparency manifesto.
Each of the meticulously sourced products can be traced back to its origins, the raw materials, factories and production processes themselves thoroughly vetted. Merchery also relies on train and boat transportation for long-distance deliveries, ensuring they are fully open with clients about slightly longer waiting times in the absence of air transportation. Clients value and appreciate this honesty. A shift in the market is forcing companies to think about their own standards, according to Simon, and Merchery might just be the push they need.
Building beyond the pandemic
When lockdown hit Belgium in January, all sales of Drink Big were paused until March, giving the pair time to consider their pivot. They found a big enough market of businesses that had not been deeply impacted by the pandemic, including internet startups, banks, consultancy firms, and large supermarkets. However, remote working was a challenge that these organisations had to grapple with, which Simon recognises was an opportunity for Merchery: ‘Even if people are spread across countries, tangible gifts are a great way for brands to express themselves away from the internet.’
This allowed Merchery to hit profitability very early on in its journey. Bootstrapped up till now, Merchery is looking to increase its visibility, with Simon and Benoit considering raising investor funds. But, Simon is also quick to point out that more small business owners are turning away from this model of funding, favouring debt financing and organic growth instead.