The Power of Promotional Giveaways in School Marketing

Let's face it, we all like getting something for free. Many companies have turned to promotional giveaways as a way to get their name in the mind of prospective consumers. Promotional giveaways are a more and more common way for marketers to create a bond with their customers. This $20 billion market is actually one of the oldest marketing industry in the US [1]. Schools have turned to promoting themselves with giveaways in various school fairs or exhibits in which they find themselves. Is this method effective? What promotional items should be handed out to prospective parents and students? 

The science of giveaways

Dr. Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing from Arizona State University studies the concept of reciprocity and its origins in self-defense [1]. At its heart, he says, it is a natural and anthropological sense of reciprocity which pushed us to act. When we are given something for nothing, we tend to be more generous towards the giver. This is seen in many situations: a survey that needs your opinion, but includes a crisp dollar bill as a way to entice you to actually fill it out; a free local smoked salmon for a prospective parent of an international student looking for US schools for his child; or even a free flashlight handed out by an electrician [1]. 

At their core, marketers know that once we have received something for free, we are much more likely to reciprocate. Dr. Cialdini's own research shows that an organization like the Disabled American Veterans' mailers requesting a financial contribution get an 18% reply rate, but when they included personalized address labels, their response rate went up to 35% [1]. 

Promotional giveaways in schools

Are promotional materials even needed in schools? While many may see this promotional step as a waste of a school's limited financial resources, research shows that promotional giveaways, in conjunction with traditional advertisement lead to higher perceived brand value in the mind of the consumer [2].  In this vein, schools have been using promotional to promote themselves for a while, since the first promotional items were business items (pens, rulers, clothing...etc), all of which easily double as educational paraphernalia. 

These promotional items should follow a number of simple rules in order to remain effective in the minds of prospective parents and students:

  1. Put yourself in the minds of parents as they are discussing where to send their children to school. What are simple yet useful items which are found where the parents would make the decision? Do they make the decision around the kitchen table? Perhaps at school with the help of the child's current teacher? Perhaps even in the car? Tailor your products so that they help stoke the image and characteristics in the parent's mind. However...

  2. ... don't forget Marshall McLuhan's most famous adage: "The medium is the message." This Canadian communication theorist posited that the message is intertwined with the way that the message is delivered. For schools, this would mean that the fact that the school is giving away ruler (school-related, useful, practical, linked to arithmetic...etc.), will be in a symbiotic relationship with the information printed on that ruler (the message: school's information and the words "Now Enrolling")

  3. Try finding something new. It is a great investment to have a member of your school scope which items are being handed out by competing schools. Make sure to stand out in the crowd. While it is true that no parent will choose to send their child to a school simply because they received a special giveaway; it should be noted that that school will remain in their mind a lot more, than the crowded ones who don't stand out.

Importance of giveaways on a school's internal marketing

Internal marketing in schools is an often forgotten task which helps maintain the brand in the mind of the employees. Teachers and staff are in a labor market, and school administrators should remember that some basic actions should keep them from leaving. School administrators should also remember that internal marketing can help teachers accept and promote newer programs, and provide needed buy-in. Promotional materials can help schools achieve these goals. Examples often include using T-shirts, writing instruments, baseball caps and even mugs. All of these can be inscribed with the school's logo and information. Employees may have the same response that prospective parents and donors can have. Being treated with a gift can lead to greater good will towards the organization. There is a secondary positive effect since these gifts also be advertising for the school if used out in public. A satisfied teacher can wear his quality T-shirt with the school's logo out in public and a prospective parent might ask him about the school. 

Practical examples of effective giveaways

According to MP Meuller, founder of Door Number 3, an advertising firm in Austin, TX, the most popular promotional products are reusable grocery bags, thumb drives, and aluminum water bottles. This has worked well for a number of schools, but does it really stand out? More enterprising schools can also include branded backpacks, tablet computers, small electronic pocket dictionaries, or even school cookbooks, with student's and faculty recipes. 

Creating a tiered system of giveaways will allow you to have two types of product. The first will be for the general public, providing information and a general idea of what the company does. The second promotional product will be more expensive and of much greater quality. It will be at the discretion of the field representatives as to whom they give this second promotional product. This may be used to close the deal in the mind of a consumer. This second product can be a fully loaded backpack with school supplies, tickets to a school theater program, or even a meal with the headmaster for the prospective family. 

Use caution

The research suggests that promotional materials are an important part of the communication mix, but a school should not only rely on them. They are becoming necessary but they never have been, nor will they ever be sufficient. Communication mixes will be different for each school, but they should include activities like word-of-mouth,  web-based content, telephone outreach, press releases, public relations, and giveaways... just to name a few. Lastly, schools should remember that there is a direct positive correlation with the frequency of promotional products given to prospective parents [3]. The more often you provide promotional products (giveaways) the better the parental response.


When investing in branded product giveaways in schools, always remember to provide products which are in line with the school's message, make sure to make the product as unique as the message, and remember that teachers and staff respond to promotional materials as much as prospective parents. As always, a balanced communication mix includes more than just giveaways.