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Thanks for the Gift Card, But Where's My Gift?

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I wonder if Dickens ever considered ending A Christmas Carol with Scrooge handing Bob Cratchit a fist full of gift cards instead of the giant prize turkey...

You might scoff at the notion for any number of reasons, least of which might be that the first large scale gift cards weren’t available until the 1990s. The point is, something in the moment is lost when the unexpected gift of kindness becomes a “choose your own adventure” transaction.

A more recent comparison can be taken from social media influencer, Mr. Beast. An internet persona recognized for sharing his wealth in gifts of cash, one of his most recent internet sensations was a video of children receiving iPhones at Halloween in place of candy. The expressions of surprise and bewilderment on their little faces are priceless.

My favourite part is when the kid hands back the $10,000 cash.

Dress it up however you want, but cash is cold. Unboxing an unexpected free product, whatever it may be, has the thrill of discovery.

I’m obviously biased. I write for a magazine that caters to the promotional products industry. I’ll own that. I will also go as far as to concede to the ease of purchase and distribution of gift cards, their application for helping people and families in a challenging economic climate, and their ability to offer a near infinite opportunity for an individual to choose their own path. I say near, because the card itself will have some kind of limitation to where it can be redeemed.

But in my research and experience, that’s the end of the line. There is no more good that can come from gifting pre-dedicated dollars.

branded merchandise lifestyle experience impressions engagement

Coming off my soapbox and returning to the roots of this publication’s content, on scoring the marketing effectiveness of a gift card using the measures from the annual marketingedge Top Products contest, the results are very weak.

As an incentive, a gift card does offer an allure of compensation for what is most often a simple action requiring minimal time commitment. However, a branded product of equal value can prove to have as much - or greater - ability to attract attention from a target audience when that product is designed with an understanding for that group’s interests and needs.

Steve Chatoff is national account manager at Polyconcept North America (PCNA), an international promotional products supplier. His role has taken him into different markets and conversations from coast to coast, and his experience includes working as partner to campaigns for some of the world’s largest brands. Asked about the impact of branded merchandise in gift opportunities, he shared:

“Branded items done correctly, deliver a positive and long-lasting brand impression that aids in employee/customer engagement, generating additional revenue, or adding another layer to a communication and marketing strategy.”

PCNA gift box branded merchandise

Chatoff’s comments underscore the chief argument for merchandise over money. A branded product has a longer timeline for reinforcing the messaging and emotions of its origin, creating more brand impressions over time. Is that enough to outpower the charm of free money? Chatoff offered another benefit to enhance the presentation of the gift alternative.

“Print on demand has applications in our industry far beyond simply offering “choice.”

In addition to playing a significant role in reducing waste, modern print technology allows customers to personalize products for their recipients, offering opportunity to highlight team membership, commemorate anniversaries and achievements, and create practical awards for recognition events.

scoring marketingedge magazine top products
gift cards versus branded gifts using a Top Products scoring matrix from marketingedge magazine

Melanie Dobosh is a senior brand manager with Debco-HPG brands, also an international ad specialty supplier. Dobosh’s thoughts on the value of brand impressions aligned with those of Chatoff, adding:

“When you give your customers something tangible and useful, it fosters a positive association with your brand. It's a gift that keeps on giving, and who doesn't love free stuff?”

melanie dobosh debco hpg brands marketingedge magazine music edition 2021

Mel Dobosh was previously featured in marketingedge magazine in the 2021 special edition, The Music Issue

Switching perspectives, imagine a modern Bob Cratchit having a giant turkey thrust forward for his acceptance in a grand gesture of appreciation. Would modern Bob be thankful?

The cynic might suggest that he, Cratchit, would take offense. Perhaps there’s a dietary restraint or lifestyle choice that’s been overlooked. Maybe turkey isn’t his household tradition, or the size of the bird is too large for his humble oven.

One of the greatest challenges for buyers today is being held accountable for their decisions.

Whether by committee or as a final decision-maker, there is real fear of negative reaction to product selections. To combat this stigma, a promotional product professional needs to demonstrate their specialty and shoulder the burden of research and responsibility. Services like providing testable samples, concept drawings, confirmation and guarantee of inventory and delivery, and quality assurance may be needed to overcome the perceived simplicity of cash awards.

ecommerce e-store gifting choice cart experience
Online gift stores allow employees and customers an opportunity to have a choice, without a card-based transaction.

There is a middle ground, where everyone can benefit and no one is left behind.

A branded product can be paired with a gift card to achieve a mix of lasting brand impressions and the satisfaction of being gifted a shopping experience. Smaller, economical products like card wallets or drinkware can be used as decorated vessels for presenting a gift card. Larger premiums and/or co-branded merchandise and apparel may be the headline gift, while the gift card gets tucked inside as a surprise added value.

An employee from a financial firm shared their experience as an example:

“Our team was gifted hard-sided, insulated rolling coolers. It was a shock. They were massive. On top of that, we were given the opportunity to pick a gift card from a small selection of brands. It was like everybody got a stocking and the choice of what to put in it.”

Gift campaigns are an ideal opportunity to present your target audience with an accessory that will help them enjoy and engage with your brand. When you’re familiar with your colleagues’ and customers’ interests you can make informed decisions on what they might appreciate. Your gift is a reflection of the attention and interest that you invest in your recipients.

A buyer may feel like one gift choice is not going to please everyone, and that is a valid concern. When you are choosing a gift for a larger team of people, there is not going to be a “one-size-fits-all” gift choice. We have a solution to that! Pop-up webstores offer a relatively simple solution to his challenge. Creating an online ordering platform where your team members can log in and select their preferred gift from a selection of gift choices allows them them to not only get something they want or need, but it makes them more likely to appreciate and use the item they selected. It also saves the headache of one person having to try and guess at what sizes to order for any branded apparel items.

It all adds to a very positive gifting experience, and isn’t that the goal?

Some would argue that creating an online ordering platform may eliminate the surprise factor of receiving a gift they weren’t expecting, as your end users will know in advance what they will be receiving, but there is still a factor of anticipation as to when they will receive their gift. You can also still add a little unexpected wow factor by presenting the gift beautifully gift wrapped or adding a little something extra such as a gift card as mentioned above, or perhaps a yummy treat like candy, cookies, chocolate or gourmet coffee or tea.

Leave the gift cards to the distant and detached people who feel obligated to send a token but don’t know the recipient well enough to choose an item that will bring joy and benefit to their life.

And to the recipients, count yourselves lucky that someone out there thinks enough of you and your role in this world, to offer you something of theirs above and beyond any contractually obligated compensation. Whatever you find in your stocking, under your tree, in your mail or on your desk, say, “Thank you,” for every one! mem

The December 2023 edition of marketingedge magazine, read free online.

- as featured in marketingedge magazine, December 2023



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