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Years ago, when I was working for the American Bankers Association’s monthly magazine, a vendor company serving the financial services industry sent a fencing foil to our office as a promotional gift. My boss received the gift and spent much of the day running about the office like an overeager Robin Hood looking to duel an elusive Sheriff of Nottingham.

It was one of the most elaborate promotional gifts that I’ve seen, if also one of the most pointless. And it didn’t quite make the impression that was intended. After all, I can’t recall the name of the company, nor am I able to ascertain the connection between a fencing foil and the banking industry.

To be frank, I’ve never been a big fan of receiving promotional gifts. In concept, they are supposed to be a colorful and effective way to keep your corporate brand in front of current and potential clients. Whether these items are handed out at trade shows, seminars or person-to-person settings, useful promotional items should be able to take your brand out into the world and keep it front and center before those who need to know about it.

The operative word here is “useful,” because so many of these gifts fall short in that department. Perhaps the most ubiquitous promotional items being distributed are pens. But unless you are willing to spend a good deal of money on very fancy pens, it might be better to skip this item – after all, cheap pens tend to either go dry, leak or break all too easily. And who would want their corporate name and logo on something the literally falls apart in your hand?

T-shirts are also somewhat problematic. I had a friend who once received promotional t-shirts from a well-known firm in the financial services world, but he thought the items were so badly made that he refused to wear them. Instead, he put the t-shirts in a plastic bag and would whip them out whenever he needed to wash and wax his car.

The selection of merchandise for promotional distribution is endless – ceramic mugs, water bottles, tote bags, writing pads, thumb drives, candies, baseball caps, toys, and so forth. If I kept all the promotional gifts that I was given during the course of my career, I could have opened my own store with that freebie inventory. The fact that I either gave these gifts away or threw them out cancels the whole concept of the gift – the brand that was supposed to stick with me was, unfortunately, stuck on items that held no value with the recipient.

Of course, promotional gifts are not a requirement of business operations – and this column shouldn’t be seen as sneering at the sincerity that went into their creation and distribution. My point is that the best promotional gift isn’t an object, but an objective.

Clients will remember a company by its commitment to quality and its team members by the spirit, honesty and intelligence that they bring to their duties. A business professional who brings 100% dedication to their assignments will be recalled long after the gift pen runs out of ink or the mug is exiled to a dark corner of a cupboard. If the choice is between a job well done and an inexpensive doodad, I know which one will stay with me longer and will be cherished deeper.

Phil Hall is editor of Weekly Real Estate News. He can be reached at [email protected].