I spoke in the House of Commons last night!

I spoke in the House of Commons last night!

Image of Westminster - House of Commons

Wait. What?

I know! But it’s actually not that big of a deal. I was at a debate, following an email from the Advertising Association promoting the Debating Group event, and it was in a committee room, not in the chamber.

It was an interesting discussion though.

The motion was: “Promotional Merchandise is the medium which forges the most effective and long-term emotional relationship with its audience.”

Now, given that it was hosted by BPMA (British Promotional Merchandise Association), I was more interested in what the opposition would be.

Here are the main points, for and against.

Carey Trevill, BPMA CEO, kicked off with a very strong argument, including the Compare the Meerkat* campaign as an excellent example. On the back of the memorable ad campaigns featuring Aleksandr the meerkat, grown ups were encouraged to sign up to Compare the Market, by offering them a free cuddly cast character (apparently now available on Amazon!).

Ad for Compare the Meerkat toys available from Amazon

This is an undeniable case of promotional merchandise forging a long-term emotional relationship with its audience.

However, speaking for the opposition, Tony Spong, Lead Consultant Brand Strategy, AAR, was also strong. He spoke about consumers being more aware of marketing methods today, and more are questioning sustainability. But his main point was not to deny that the right merchandising can be effective, but that it cannot work alone. The relationship has to already exist.

Tony Spong from AAR at the BPMA debate on merchandising

Ollie Gilmore, Group Planning Director at VCCP seconded the motion by speaking favourably about merchandise and nostalgia. Physical items represent memories. For example, how many of us have family members who still use the Roses tin long after the chocolates are eaten. Or who amongst us has pocketed a glass or an ashtray (back in the day) from a good night out down the pub?

And finally, Alana Ballantyne, Planning Director, also from VCCP, seconded for the opposition. She reiterated the need for all the channels to work together, but also reminded us to consider all the forgettable examples of merchandising.  There’s not much of an emotional bond with the 5 minute wonder that is a Kinder Toy. She also highlighted that PR stunts could sometimes be as, or more effective (Greggs replace jesus with sausage roll).

The debate was then opened to the floor.

There were a lot of merch reps in the audience, many backing up Carey’s point, including their own stories of begging their parents for a meerkat toy or whose children had asked them to sign up to get one.

Some other good points were made like; how many happy meal toys end up in landfill; why we see Lidl bags in Sainsbury’s and Sainsbury’s bags in Tesco (because a bag’s a bag when you need one. And I would make the same argument for branded pens – they’re about practicality, not emotional attachment). There was also talk of fandom and why sports and music fans buy merchandise.

Now, I hadn’t planned on speaking, but I felt that something was missing. The merchandising stories they were telling were not from the merchandising world that I know. So I took a deep breath and put my hand up.

I didn’t say it as clearly as I’d like but I introduced myself as a freelance designer and told them my story.

That many of my clients are small businesses and don’t have marketing strategies or campaign budgets. Mostly, they have been sold space at a relevant exhibition or event and then realise they need some materials ‘and a giveaway’.

If there was time and budget, I would encourage them not to buy ‘stuff’ at all, but to consider an event specific special offer, discount, competition or interactive event or experience instead that might represent their brand better.

However, in most instances there is neither time nor budget, so merchandising, to me, means looking for the best value, most sustainable**, affordable and relevant item we can put a logo on. I’m not sure we’re always creating the most (or any) “effective long-term emotional relationships”.

Carey responded and said she appreciated my point, and suggested, with a room full of merchandisers, there would be many people who could help me. But actually, nobody did (except the lovely Jemini from Event Merchandising), so either I spoke really badly or, more likely, nobody there was interested in small businesses and their small budgets.

The debating team - Ollie (VCCP), Carey (BPMA), Tony (AAR) and Alana (VCCP)

Photo: from left to right – Ollie (VCCP), Carey (BPMA), Tony (AAR) and Alana (VCCP)


I voted against. Promotional merchandise CAN forge effective and long-term emotional relationships but I would argue, most of it doesn’t.

I also agree with Tony that good merch has it’s place, but that it cannot work alone. How many people would’ve signed up for a stuffed meerkat without the TV ad campaign? I can’t think of a single example of desirable merch where the consumer hasn’t already bought into the brand, so while merchandising offers a physical reminder of the brand, it wouldn’t work without the brand story.

We lost the debate (66% agreed with the motion). But the carpet was pretty!

House of Comons Committee room carpet

* Here’s a link in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of Aleksandr or the meerkats. “Simples”.

**Finding the most sustainable giveaway can be tricky. How much of a recyclable pen is ACTUALLY recyclable? And of the eco products, what resources are used to produce them. And don’t get me started on pull-up banners! It’s difficult to persuade a business to spend double+ on a reusable banner when you can order one online for £30! And where are they all now? In the back of stationery cupboards, in garages and attics, and, no doubt, in landfill.

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