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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: The Power of Promotional Items or Tchotchkes

Photo purchased from …

About twenty years ago I was given a foam-rubber BlackBerry. It was a Congressional Quarterly promotional item (also known as a “tchotchke” or “swag” or “give away.” I had my own real BlackBerry at the time, so this exact-size toy was really quite intriguing. The keys were slightly raised. The colors were accurate (blue and silver). And it even had a message on its foam-rubber screen.

The BlackBerry is a quaint memory now, since I have had various iterations of the smartphone since that time, but I will always keep this promotional piece as a memento.

Promotional products are powerful branding tools, in part because they are physical products. You can pick up and play with the faux-BlackBerry and even throw it or bend it if this relieves your stress (like a foam ball). A print book or other piece of commercial printing is a physical entity, compared to an email advertisement, but a tchotchke goes one step further.

Why Are They Effective?

In my experience, most promotional items are useful. Even a branded Post-it pad. In fact, if your brand message is emblazoned on a Post-it pad, every time your prospective client writes a note, she or he will have your brand reinforced in their brain. Stated differently, and based on psychological research, your prospect needs to see your branding message a number of times before it really sinks in. The fact that the promotional product is useful will make this happen.

I have another promotional item I got from my ex-wife over two decades ago. It was a clear plastic lightbulb with a top (the part of the lightbulb that goes into the socket) that unscrewed so you could shake out several paper clips. My ex-wife worked at BGE, an electric company, so the promotional product was directly relevant to the brand.

So what makes these two promotional items so powerful, for me at least?

    1. In the case of both items, they are pertinent to the brand. Congressional Quarterly provides immediate updates on congressional activity. At the time, nothing hooked clients into current affairs like a BlackBerry. That’s why they called them “Crackberries.” In the case of the BG&E lightbulb, nothing says electricity like the Edison lightbulb.


    1. Both items had an air of the unexpected and a tone of humor, probably because they were the exact size of the items they replicated, but with a twist (foam rubber instead of plastic–like a pop art item–for the BlackBerry and hard plastic instead of glass for the Edison lightbulb paperclip holder).


    1. Humor and the unexpected attract viewer attention in a world that overloads the senses with a barrage of images. You remember something that’s unique. You also remember the branding on the item.


    1. Both items are useful, in their own way. The foam-rubber BlackBerry is a paperweight on my desk (for small slips of paper, since it is so light). The plastic BG&E lightbulb is a paperclip dispenser.


    1. In some way, shape, or form, the promotional products establish both the ingenuity of the marketer and the skill of the commercial printing vendor who produced the products.


  1. People like to affiliate themselves with what they perceive as a good cause, or a classy look or lifestyle. Depending on what you print (like a Covid mask or an upscale ink pen), you can take advantage of this human need for affiliation.

Other Promotional Items

If you look at the photo at the top of this blog posting, you’ll see a number of useful, branded promotional items. These include clothing items (shirts or hoodies, for instance, or hats with brims), mugs, key fobs, USB jump drives, luggage tags, pens, lighters, spiral binders, office nametags, shopping bags, foam beverage can jackets (or coolers), messenger bags, even fold-up fabric lawn chairs. Really, all you need is a flat surface somewhere on the item to print your brand message.

If you think about it, all of these items will (ideally) be used repeatedly by your prospective clients. And that’s good for your brand, as noted above.

How Are They Produced?

Custom printing on these items can raise issues. Specifically, in many cases the substrates (the base on which the logo is printed) is not porous. Paper absorbs ink, but a foam-rubber BlackBerry does not. So the ink has to sit up on the surface of the product and dry without any absorption into the substrate.

Here are some of the options:

Screen Printing

If you look at the foam-rubber BlackBerry through a high-powered printer’s loupe, you’ll see that the background blue is part of the product (i.e., the blue pigment was mixed into the material from which the BlackBerry was molded). On top of this is a very thick coating of what looks like paint (around the BlackBerry screen, on the screen, and on the BlackBerry keys). This is a dead giveaway of custom screen printing. Screen printing ink is very thick. (It’s also good for both porous and non-porous substrates, such as canvas–for bags–and even for items of clothing such as hats and shirts.)

The custom screen printing process involves forcing thick ink through a mesh screen using a rubber squeegee. There is a stencil attached to the screen. Solid areas of the stencil block out ink, while open areas let ink pass through to print on the substrate. The thick ink gives an opulent feel to the product.

Custom screen printing is also versatile, since you can print on vinyl, wood, fabric–practically anything. It’s good for printing on vinyl binders, clothing, fabric chairs, umbrellas, etc.

Pad Printing

My foam-rubber BlackBerry is not completely flat. It has raised areas and recessed areas. So pad printing might have been another way to print such a product. In this process, an ink plate is etched with a design and then inked. A squishy, silicone rubber bulb is pressed down onto the inked plate, and this bulb picks up the inked image. Then the bulb is pressed against the substrate, at which point it releases the inked image. This is an ideal process for imprinting a logo on golf balls, for instance. Moreover, it’s also good for imprinting pens and bottles.


Look at some of the caps and shirts at conventions. In some cases the branding isn’t printed onto the material. It is sewn into the material. This provides an upscale look for garments and woven chairs or messenger bags. It’s also durable. And some sewing machines now produce computer-generated patterns, so the machine can do the work for you.

Inkjet and Dye Sublimation

Let’s say you’re custom printing a Covid mask. (These have been incredibly popular over the past two years.) You can see people who look like lions. You can even see brand names, such as a fabric mask I have that is branded with the BlueCross BlueShield logo. If you’re printing on a polyester fabric, you will want to use dye sublimation. If your substrate is cotton, you’ll want to use inkjet technology.

Now one of the benefits of inkjet is that you can use UV inks, which cure instantly when exposed to UV light. So in this case you can use inkjet for non-porous substrates (like imprinted USB jump drives). In fact, when I look at my foam-rubber BlackBerry, it looks like the image on the BlackBerry screen (unlike the other custom printing on the item) is made up of dots. So this might have been a hybrid printing process, employing both custom screen printing and inkjet printing technology.

Dye sublimation can also be used for items other than fabric promotional pieces. To give you a short description of the process, special pigment is inkjetted onto a transfer sheet. This transfer paper is then placed against the substrate (such as the side of a ceramic mug). Then heat and pressure cause the inks to sublimate from a solid to a gas and to bond chemically to the substrate.

The Takeaway

Now that you understand the process, your challenge is to make the products memorable.

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