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People Selling Merch

A Breakdown of Merch vs. Swag: What’s the Difference?

Whenever you’re reading about or researching products you can have printed or manufactured for your brand, you’re likely going to see two terms used throughout. Those two terms are Merch and Swag. Do you know what they are, what they mean, and how they’re used? Let’s break it down and see how right you are.

What is Merch?

Merch is a shortened term for a longer word: Merchandise. While traditionally, the definition of merchandise is simply “goods to be bought and sold,” the use of merch in the context of branding means something a little more specific.

In this case, merch is the set of products you have created for your own brand to represent your brand and to be sold by your brand. Merch can be available in an internal company store where only employees (and maybe their family members) can shop, or it can be available to the general public.

Examples of merch include things like the Superbowl Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, selling Chiefs-branded apparel on their official store.

The Chiefs Official Store

Merchandise can also be part of cross-promotion and cross-branding partnerships. It doesn’t have to be limited to just your brand. For example, Red Bull, the energy drink company, sponsors a wide range of events and has partnerships with various sports, athletics, and high-performance racing companies. In their store, they offer both Red Bull-branded items and items with branding for those partnerships.

The two keys to merchandise are:

  • Your own company branding. As a counter-example, Nike produces blank base apparel that can be branded with other companies; this isn’t Nike merchandise.
  • Available for sale. It doesn’t have to be a broad, general-availability sale, but it needs to be available for sale to people who like or wish to support your brand.

So that’s one-half of the two types of items. What about the other?

What is Swag?

Swag is slightly harder to explain. The term actually goes all the way back to the 1300s or even earlier; it comes from the Scandinavian term swagga, which meant something like “a bulging bag.” It was eventually introduced to English and has carried various meanings all the way to the present day.

Many people believe swag is some sort of acronym, but it’s not. Those are backronyms, existing words assigned acronym meanings. Unlike other backronyms, none of those alternatives have really caught on. Regardless, the original term still carries some of the same meaning, so it’s worth keeping around as-is.

Various Branded Swag

Swag is similar to merchandise in one respect: it’s any item that generally includes your branding. Unlike merchandise, however, it’s not available for sale. Instead, it’s handed out for free, usually to attendees and ticketholders of events and conventions, but also possibly to employees on teams that reach significant milestones, or as career anniversary rewards, though these are less common now than they used to be back when careers were longer and more secure.

Swag is often, though not always, exclusive to the event it celebrates. Attendees of a convention getting swag for that convention are the only source of that swag, which can’t be obtained in any other way.

The Crossover of Swag and Merch

In the endless quest to monetize everything, swag and merch are not as separate as they once were. It used to be that things like convention or company employee swag were limited and exclusive. “Convention exclusive” was, in fact, a marketing buzzword used both to encourage people to register and attend the event for the swag and as a way for people who got the swag to sell it for a premium on the secondary market.

This does still happen. For example, the popular trading card game Magic The Gathering holds tournaments and conventions every year, and they’ve introduced a variety of different cards and products as convention exclusives. Some were only available at the convention, while others eventually were made available to the wider audience after the convention. And, of course, Hasbro produces a variety of merchandise items like shirts, jackets, hats, and other apparel as merchandise as well.

Printing a Shirt for Swag

Often, these days, swag is used to describe the things you get for free when you attend an event, no matter what those items are. Swag can include merch. Merch can include items that are used as swag. But the core driving definition of swag is that it’s free to the person who receives it, whereas merch is for sale.

Difference in Purpose

One of the main differences between merch and swag is the purpose behind them. Even if the item – say, an event-branded t-shirt – is the same, the purpose is what makes it either swag or merch.

That t-shirt would be considered swag if it was bundled in a package with the tickets to an event, and attendees didn’t need to pay extra to get their shirts. Often, in a case like this, when claiming your tickets to the event you’re asked your shirt size, and they give you one of the appropriate size. Other size-agnostic items like water bottles or branded pens are simply included in a bag of items for everyone.

Meanwhile, the t-shirt would be considered merch if it’s purchased at a kiosk at the event or on the event’s website.

Various Merchandise

Often, swag isn’t just from the event itself. Instead, various exhibitors and presenters have their own swag. This allows attendees to get a wider array of things they’re interested in, lessens the financial burden on the event organizers, and allows the presenters to give swag in limited numbers – and thus with the option of higher quality.

For example, CES – the Consumer Electronics Show – hosts hundreds of tech companies, startups, and capital firms all vying for attention to show off the latest and greatest developments, and most of them offer some kind of swag to people who attend their presentations. Sometimes, it’s things like stickers and pens; other times, it’s tote bags and shirts. You can see an example array from an attendee of CES 2024 here.

Difference in Intent

Another big difference between merch and swag is the intent behind the items.

Swag is generally about an event and the marketing surrounding it. It’s something you give out at a career fair so that prospective applicants can remember the talk they had with you. It’s something you give out at a trade show to remind potential partners to reach out down the road. It’s something you give out to event attendees to give them some valuable, limited-availability item in a “you had to be there” sense of exclusivity.

A Person Packaging Merchandise

Meanwhile, merch is more about direct marketing and profits. You sell merchandise so that you can make a return on the investment of having that merchandise created for your brand. You sell it so that your fans and proponents can support your company. You sell merch so that people who like you and your products can represent their interests in their daily lives.

Difference in Importance

Importance can be variable for branded items. Anyone who has ever attended a college career fair knows that you walk away with dozens of pens and notepads, maybe a few totes and shirts, and very little sentimental attachment to most of them. Many people simply discard the items they don’t actually think they’ll use. After all, who needs their 20th free water bottle? Most people only need a couple at most.

The more frugal or environmentally-conscious people out there might keep and use items, even if they don’t care about the brand, simply to save on waste. They might not care about your brand, but they’ll use your pen until it’s out of ink because a pen is a pen is a pen. They can wear a branded shirt as an undershirt and not feel like they’re advertising for you, but get use out of the shirt.

Pens and Notepads

Now, this does tend to keep your brand in their minds, even if they aren’t actually interested in your products. Awareness is its own kind of marketing, after all.

Merch, meanwhile, is more targeted. The people who are buying merch are invested. They already like you or your brand and want to support you, so they buy your merchandise. Most of the time, this is aimed at smaller companies. Larger brands tend not to have as many staunch supporters – and don’t need them to survive – though there are never zero. After all, there are people who fill their homes with Coca-Cola merchandise or Disney paraphernalia.

Difference in Quality and Cost

Another common difference between merch and swag is the balance between quality and cost.

Merchandise, since customers are paying for it, tends to be of higher quality. T-shirts are made with higher-quality fabric and use a better, more long-lasting printing process or even embroidery. Pens tend to be higher-quality base pens with branding rather than cheap, bought-by-the-thousand pens from overseas. Items are expected to be appreciated and used since the person buying them is a fan.

That said, higher quality does require a higher price, and merchandise is intended to make money as much as it is to represent your brand. Some brands are fine with cheaper items, either at a cheaper price point to broaden awareness through passive marketing from fans or at a higher price point to maximize their profits per item.

Printing a High-Quality Shirt for Merch

Swag, meanwhile, tends to be cheaper and bulk-ordered. It’s not necessarily cheap in terms of quality, but often it is. Since there’s a greater chance that the item ends up disused or discarded, it’s a greater waste of money to give away something more valuable only to see it in the event’s trash cans later.

That said, the smaller and more focused a presentation or event is, the more likely they can get away with higher-quality swag. And, above a certain quality threshold, people are less likely to throw away or discard an item and more likely to give it to a friend or try to resell it. In the example of CES swag above, the pens and stickers might be discarded, but the headset and backpack are much more likely to be used or resold.

Swag may also be consumable in the context of a convention. For example, many brands are starting to include things like hand sanitizer to fight convention-spreading disease. An example on Reddit of a well-received swag item was glasses lens cleaner kits from GitLab.

Ethics in Swag and Merch

There is often a difference in the ethical baseline behind merch and swag, but it’s extremely variable and depends on the nature of the company handing out the items.

Merch varies wildly. Some companies prefer to offer the most ethically-produced merchandise they can possibly source, like the kinds of apparel we offer for customization. Other companies only want to make the most profit per item and go with the cheapest sources and manufacturers they can find. Obviously, we prefer the first one.

Ethix Merch Apparel

Swag also varies a lot but for different reasons. Some companies just want extremely cheap branded items they can hand out like candy and not care what happens to them. Other companies put their ethics and morality behind each item, so even their cheaper items are made with ethical processes and ethically-gathered raw materials. Some are even pioneers in novel materials and alternatives and use their swag as a way to demonstrate that their processes, while different, result in just as good a quality item.

So, here’s our question to you. Do you need merchandise for your brand, and do you want that merchandise to be created using ethically sourced materials, made with union labor, and produced entirely domestically? Do you need swag for an event or conference, and do you want that swag to be backed by as little exploitation or damage to the environment and the people involved as possible?

If you answered yes to either of those questions, you’ve come to the right place. At Ethix Merch, we pride ourselves on doing everything in our power to source ethically produced and ethically made items, and we maintain as much transparency as possible about each and every item we sell. Feel free to browse our store for anything that catches your eye, and if you have questions about sourcing or manufacturing, feel free to ask! We’re more than happy to give you the full rundown in as much detail as you want.