People’s Relationship with Promotional Items and Branding

The Relationship Between People and Promotional Items


Promotional items, freebies, free stuff, whatever you want to call them, has been an interesting sign of marketing subculture. Whether it is a toy that came from the inside of a cereal box or a t-shirt being sold at a concert, promotional items are part of a larger narrative. One that involves the relationship between people and possessions.

This is an observation that has resulted in a series of questions regarding the relationship between people and promotional items.  Why do we like stuff? Why do we take free stuff? What does it matter to a kid if their backpack had the ninja turtles on it or not? Is too much stuff really a burden?

So, we are going to look into the relationship between people,  their stuff, and how we got to branding.


Why People Like Stuff


shopping promotional itemBasic Needs

It is very easy to spin a narrative of vanity, especially given our current economy. But the idea of necessity and possession is more complex than that.

When we look at the bare essentials of why people have things, it starts out as a basis of need. If your bellies are hungry, they need to be filled, so we find a way to get in possession of food. If you want to be able to stay warm at night and ward off potential intruders in prehistoric times you would need a fire.


The Need for Efficiency

Then we learned that when we are in possession of certain tools, we are able to get the things we need better. Hunters would get weapons so they can kill game easier and gatherers would make satchels so they can be able to carry more of what they find.

Once basic needs were addressed, efficiency became something that people strived for.

A contributor to, Margo Aaron, explained this when going over the invention of shopping. ” Consider the first soap bar you didn’t have to make yourself. Or the first pair of gloves you didn’t have to sew yourself. Or the first pair of shoes you didn’t have to wear daily… All of these things are staples in our lives today, but they weren’t for most of human history. Technically, we didn’t need any of them for survival, but they made life easier and more efficient.”

Over the centuries, most of this still rings true today. We need to communicate with others quickly at any time or place, so we have cell phones. If you need to get from one place to another that is miles away then we get a vehicle so we can get there faster.


The Need for Status and Expression

Once the need for efficiency was virtually met there was a new vacuum that was created. People had more time to think less about what they needed and more about how they felt about things maslow, promotional itemand their relationship to the people around them.

This makes sense. As soon as concrete needs are met, abstract ones are soon to follow. This is evident in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Stuff becomes less about its intended purpose and more about association and status symbols. Now that class and affordability was no longer a big factor in the acquisition of stuff, they could focus more on their relationships and identity that can be associated with the stuff that they own.

That is why people started personifying brands and started to use them to confirm a person’s identity through their taste. They are buying and not buying things because of how it makes them feel.

Promotional items work the same way. When a person utilizes or willingly takes a promotional item, they are willing to associate them as part of their personality.  Then, if they think they are in a position to afford more of that brand or other objects that accurately represent their own identity, they will buy more of it.


The Diderot Effect

However, it can backfire spectacularly. If someone ties their identity too much with a brand, they may run the risk of losing sight of reality. People that might know them from before might get turned off of this new identity based on a promotional product. Especially when a brand or a promotional product is supposed to be representative of a wealthy status symbol. There is an actual term for when a person starts trying to acquire more items to match the identity that one item gives you.  And it was surprisingly coined far before there was a concept of brand identity or promotional items.

French Philosopher Denis Diderot was initially gifted an expensive item far above his usual paygrade. It was a dressing gown that was made of expensive materials and was red as scarlet. He started to notice that the rest of his possessions looked shabbier than the gown. As far as he was concerned, the aesthetics just didn’t match with the brilliance of the robe.  So he started spending money he didn’t have to buy possessions that would match the wealthy status that the robe seemed to have given him.

He wrote down the experience in an Essay titled, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown“.

He was so focused on how the gown made him feel, that he looked past the reality of his own financial situation. This essentially put him back to square one and he wound up in debt, focusing on needs rather than how something made him feel.



Whether we are looking for identity through a brand or for a promotional product that makes our lives more convenient, our behavior is consistently driven by the acquisition of stuff.  Everybody loves stuff, and on some level everybody needs it. When you are ready to use promotional products to draw in more people to your business, make sure you  at least tackle two of these three factors:

  • What need are you trying to fulfill for your customers?
  • How can your promotional item make things more convenient?
  • What sort of identity do your customers want to identify with when using your product?

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