Branded merchandise UK: The history of the branded merchandising industry
Updated: Jan 15
The branded merchandise, or promotional products, industry is now worth 1 billion pounds a year to the British economy. According to the PPAI (the Promotional Products Association International) that figure is a staggering $23.3 billion in the US.
Those are truly mind-blowing numbers for an industry that, by and large, doesn’t manufacture any of the goods it brands before selling. Then again, thinking of branded merchandise as a sector that produces physical objects is a misrepresentation.
Promotional products are not objects designed for the consumer’s use. They are the tangible expression of what is, and has long been, considered to be one of the most effective marketing and brand-building methods the world has ever known.
In this week’s article, we wanted to take a look back at how this inventive way of advertising came into being. This piece will be part of a series that spans the whole timeline of promotional products and will provide context and explanation for how one of the industry’s largest and most successful names, Jack Nadel International, came to be what it is today.
A contested origin story?
There is some speculation over when and where exactly branded merchandising began. Some historians of the early days in promotional products – those amongst us with a penchant for poignancy perhaps – have linked the beginnings of the industry with the birth of the United States of America.
Those of this mode of thinking draw attention to the distribution of commemorative buttons to celebrate the election of America’s first president, George Washington. In the wake of President Washington’s inauguration, embossed bronze buttons were distributed with the words ‘Long live the President’ flying over the founding father’s initials.
As far back as 1789, tangible objects were indeed in use as a method of raising the profile of whatever ‘brand’ was emblazoned on them.
This origin story, however profound and exciting the links between promotional products and the genesis of the globe’s greatest economy prove to be, fails to truthfully explain the beginnings of branded merchandise for two reasons.
There is, of course, the fact that commemorative memorabilia, as novel as the buttons may have been in the new country, were well-established in the old world. Medieval hammermen in European pilgrimage sites, for example, used to produce pilgrim badges for visitors in sites such as St. Andrews on Scotland’s east coast.
Then, there is the fact that commemorative buttons may well have set a precedent for the use of free and tangible marketing incentives, but their use in politics does not indicate this industry’s commercial beginnings.
A better beginning, in that it consisted of the distribution of free gifts for the purpose of raising a company’s profile, can be seen in the gifting of branded corkscrews by Anheuser-Busch salesmen in 1852.
Anheuser-Busch was then a small brewing company run by Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant, and his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, when Adolphus instructed his salesmen that they bring some free giveaways to promote potential vendors to endorse their beers.
The idea, however inventive, failed to gain any traction outside of Anheuser-Busch and it didn’t look to become a business idea for another thirty years when the history of branded merchandise met with its next pioneering businessperson.
In 1886, Jasper Meek, now considered the ‘father of promotional products’, decided that he would reorganise the function of his printing press, which published a paper once weekly, in order that it was not left idle when the papers were not in print.
He partnered with a local shoe store, Cantwell Shoes, and began to print and distribute burlap book bags embossed with the label ‘Buy Cantwell Shoes’ on them. Meek’s idea grew and became more popular.
So popular, in fact, that by 1904 there was significant endeavour in the industry for a trade association to prove itself worthwhile. 12 manufacturers banded together to form the PPAI, which, as we know, is still in operation today. The idea was to build a platform for cooperation between operators in the industry and it was very successful.
The industry continued to grow over the first half of the 20th century. Despite a slump during the years of the Great Depression, businesses and brand-builders became very reliant on the industry in the post-economic slump recovery.
By 1947, the industry, which was largely based in the States, saw $124 million in sales. After the successes witnessed across the pond, branded merchandise, as a sector of industry, was formalised in the UK and Ireland.
'Ideas that mean business'
It was in 1953 when Jack Nadel founded his own merchandising solutions company, named after himself. Jack founded the company with a mantra that would go on to become a parallel for how influential this decision would be.
The merchandising world has been shaped by the continued excellence of Jack Nadel International. Jack's idea, way back in 1953, certainly meant business.
Tune in for our next article if you want a deeper dive into the how the industry developed over the 20th century. We’ll take a look at what drove promotional products corporate culture, how it grew and what it operated in, and we’ll do so with a real case study forming the heart of our information.