Cashmere and chocolate socks: ‘swag’ sweetens the deal for new hires

“#Swagalicious – the pure joy and excitement that only swag can deliver!!” states a post on LinkedIn. The poster had received a colorful bundle of gifts – including a water bottle, eye-catching socks and notebooks – from their employer.

“I’m starting my Day 1. . . with the coolest swag ever!” said another LinkedIn user. This new employee had received a smart lunch box, t-shirt and hoodie and other premium freebies. the the swag party continues.

Any search for #companyswag or #welcomekit on social media brings up an eclectic range of posts uploaded by workers. Corporate merchandise – or “merch” – seems to be on the rise.

In the world of hybrid and remote working, companies are enhancing their onboarding processes with welcome kits and other bespoke gift sets in an effort to make new hires feel connected – and remind existing workers that they still care about them. It may sound frivolous, but given that research suggests that only 24% of hybrid and remote workers say they identify with their organization’s culture, some companies believe that putting the effort into the merchandise to welcome new hires will help them feel part of the organization.

“Quite often, it’s the first commitment [with a workplace] beyond the first interviews and meetings. . . it’s a physical connection rather than an office,” says Conor McKenna, CEO and co-founder of Go Swag, a company that assembles loot boxes for businesses.

As a result, Go Swag and other suppliers of these premium gifts have found that customers are willing to spend more in a quest to provide higher quality, sustainable products. “The budget [per employee] since we started has just grown and grown and grown and grown – we’ve [welcome packs] which are worth £600,” says Ben Greenock, the other co-founder of Go Swag.

Her boxes can hold all sorts of goodies, including luxury chocolate, artisan coffee and even cashmere socks – what the duo call “pleasure items”.

Greenock and McKenna launched the Glasgow-based company in 2019. Both have a background in design and, as early adopters of packaged swag, their timing was impeccable – the pandemic hit a year later. “The growth in this area has been phenomenal,” adds Greenock. The company is targeting sales of £10million by 2023 and counts camera maker Canon and music streaming service Spotify among its customers.

Budget boxes aside, companies’ desire to send employees useful items that won’t end up in landfill means Go Swag creates boxes with an average budget of £70-100 per employee. Before the pandemic it was around £40, say Greenock and McKenna.

And sustainability is a big deal for Go Swag: if companies ask them to send items that don’t meet her sustainability criteria, she says no. This, says Greenock, “actually builds better relationships with people.”

Similarly, Sam Metssitane, founder of Sheffield-based Swag Box, says that when clients show up with very small budgets, they’re told it’s probably not worth the investment. The company has seen a similar shift in corporate attitudes towards merchandise and budgets have increased.

Jo Henderson, Marketing Manager of Stash Agency, which operates in the US and UK and creates corporate gift sets and gift baskets, says: “There has been an increase this year in onboarding orders and of retention”. And the growing appetite for reduced plastic and recycled items means employers are realizing they need to spend more.

With this ‘curated’ approach to welcome packs, containing items that have been carefully crafted, company loot is more likely to be used rather than tossed in a drawer or, worse, tossed in the trash.

Grab the canvas tote. Once a swag staple, there are signs it’s on its way out. “It just gets tossed in a closet,” says Rosie Atkinson, brand operations manager at MoonPay, a cryptocurrency buying and selling platform, and Go Swag client. But people like clothes like T-shirts. “People really want to wear clothes . . . there’s an element of hype to that,” she adds.

Even the plants are part of it. The Urban Botanist, terrarium and ecosphere specialists, provides branded succulents, self-contained ecosystems and sustainable baskets. Managing Director Lucy Serafi says employers “want to reward more, with more sustainable gifts that add real value to their employees while recognizing sustainability as a key core value.”

Employees obviously recognize a company’s effort to carefully consider the contents of its welcome packs. Another benefit for worker organizations posting their wares on social media is that it promotes the brand more. But there is also the issue of culture and how to use it to help create a connection.

Alex Cannon, head of growth at Fortris, which offers bitcoin cash management software for businesses, says the welcome kits he sends out — which contain branded clothing and office essentials such as stationery — are “a way to bridge the gap between employees entering the office and those who may never have met their colleagues in person. That way, they have something in common right from the start.

He acknowledges that it is a small gesture, but considers that it is “a non-verbal communication of our values”.

One of Go Swag’s gift sets, while The Urban Botanist provides succulents, self-contained ecosystems and baskets © Gary Doak / FT

Christina Lovelock was until recently working as a solution architecture and analysis manager for a university. Since he already has an online store full of branded products, she had pressured the management team to create a welcome box of items. With such a competitive market for digital skills in particular, she says organizations need to do everything possible to make people feel welcome. “Virtual onboarding is hard, and letting people know someone has thought of them . . . is really important,” she says.

Lovelock adds that welcome swag images on social media reflect organizations well: “The company wins twice for a small expense: 1) the person 2) the potential future employees. I really think it creates a sense of belonging.

While anyone can appreciate good quality gifts, Dan Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, is skeptical, suggesting there’s something about giving gifts that feels “a little too strategic” .

If a box is around £80 or £90 it will have some good stuff in it, but if you’re a managing director, he wonders, what’s the best return on investment? Companies don’t necessarily send freebies to employees to replace work on their culture. But a better investment, Cable suggests, is that companies could be more generous over time. For example, giving employees an hour a day to work on something they think is really important.

If CEOs take time to encourage people to use their brains, they are “someone in a very high position who uses their time to show that you are important”. When it comes to culture, he says, “the work itself is much more important than a gift”.

However, Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor in the Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School, has researched non-monetary rewards and says companies could be onto something if what they offer is well thought out.

The personalization aspect is essential. “Big companies with thousands of employees need to give managers the ability to do this,” she adds.

On this point, Swag Box, explains Metssitane, works with companies to create gift shops, where “employees can redeem coupons for things they actually want. . . there is a lot of diversity in what people prefer”.

For example, one employee – in response to a call via the FT’s Working It newsletter – said her favorite business item was a small Yeti thermos, saying it was “perfect size and good quality”.

On TikTok, a poster suggests his trademark chopsticks are ‘the best swag idea ever’ as he slips into dumplings. However, it should be noted that some TikTok users are less impressed with their loot.

Whillans also points out how effective “experiential rewards” could be. Free food, for example, is a pull factor for the office, so she suggests an employer could offer new hires a number of meal vouchers so they can connect with other members of their organization.

However, she is quick to point out that for new hires, a non-monetary reward — or welcome pack — “will not make up for a poor onboarding experience.”

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