While working as the manager of multiple urgent care clinics in Tacoma, Washington, Lou Elliott-Cysewski came up with an idea that would change her future and that of the planet.
“My dedicated team and I were often given gifts like cheap plastic tumblers decorated with motivational quotes as a ‘thank you’ for our hard work. I grew tired of these gifts, which I felt reflected a lack of care for the providers working hard at the understaffed clinics.”
Upon discovering that the swag industry (promotional products) was nearly 80% waste – more than US$24 billion in corporate swag is binned each year – Lou saw an opportunity to leverage corporate procurement activities to solve global problems like waste, climate change and equity.
And in 2018, she founded Coolperx, with the mission “to transform the swag industry from a toxic polluter into a credible, brand-building force for people and the planet”.
Today, Coolperx is not only a multimillion-dollar mission-driven business, but the first net climate-neutral and social purpose merchandising company in the world helping some of the world’s biggest businesses – among them Google, Microsoft, and Amazon – through both their procurement and sustainability initiatives.
Using the ClimateCost Index, a proprietary and accredited Scope 3 metric created by Lou and her team, Coolperx helps clients ascertain a holistic and highly accurate analysis of their environmental and brand impact and make informed swag procurement decisions. The company is also the first online B2B gift and brand merchandise marketplace for worthy manufacturers to sell their products to corporate clients.
“Currently, only 21% of typical swag products are kept by recipients for any length of time,” declares Lou, who was listed as one of the Top 100 Trailblazing Entrepreneurs of 2021 by the Enterprise League.
“This is not just a stark lack of ROI, but it’s a huge liability for brands. When a company makes public statements about its commitment to environmental sustainability and then turns around and distributes meaningless, toxic swag to its community, it is engaging in a particularly egregious form of greenwashing and destroying credibility.”
Lou tells Business Chief that as a society, we have steadily increased our fixation on consumerism, and the tradition of gift-giving has been taken to the extreme as an overt symbol of over-consumption.
“Instead of gifting people carefully selected items, companies all too often opt for cheap, plastic products that the intended recipients will keep for a few months, if even that. But we’ve now reached a tipping point. Consumers and employees want to support companies that live up to their commitments to the planet, including in their corporate gift-giving practices.”
Mindful gifting and quality product on rise
The tide is turning and the corporate world is looking increasingly to ‘mindful’ gifting – a welcome transition given that the corporate gifting market is in growth and estimated to increase from US$258 billion in 2022 to US$312 billion in 2025, a 6.5% CAGR over three years, according to a recent Coresight Research report.
“The corporate gifting market continues to show healthy growth, due largely to organisations expanding gifting beyond the holidays to year-round gifting occasions,” Steven Winnick, Senior Analyst at Coresight Research tells Business Chief.
Coresight’s report reveals that while organisations are gifting less frequently (2 to 5 times per year over six or more times annually) they are investing in pricier and more mindful gifts.
“Mindful gifting is a distinct trend with organisations gradually understanding the value of sending out quality gifts to their employees and partners/clients,” Manik Bhatia, Senior Analyst at Coresight says.
And the report's data backs this up, with ‘quality of product’ the top criteria in terms of importance to gift buyers, followed by ‘timely delivery to recipient’ and ‘simplicity of process’. This points not only towards increasing mindfulness among corporate gift givers, Manik explains, but is an indication that “we may be gradually migrating from co-branded swag manufactured in bulk to more thoughtful corporate gifts”.
AI powering personalisation and choice
With this move to more mindful gifting comes a preference for personalisation and choice with the gifting industry “advancing in important ways, especially e-gifting innovations, which are providing greater flexibility and customisation options for both the gift-giver and recipient,” says Steven.
With e-gifting – HR, marketers, sales, or employees are able to send gifts digitally in seconds via email or text. Recipients receive a customised gift notification, including a video, and can modify or exchange the gift on their device before it ships. Steven says this helps eliminate the need to gather shipping information in advance while ensuring a satisfied recipient with a gift they truly want (and therefore probably won’t discard).
It marks the end of ‘one size fits nobody’ gifts that no one wants or uses, he says. “With e-gifting, there’s no need to worry about what size the person wears or what colour they prefer.”
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being used increasingly by gifting platforms, both to automate the gifting process, and to counter the one size fits nobody gifting approach – ensuring gifts are tailored for each recipient and therefore meaningful and useful.
AI-based corporate gifting platforms Alyce, EvaBot, and Giftpack AI all use AI to analyse the digital footprint of individuals to suggest the most suitable gifts. A personalised list of items is then sent to the recipient from which they can then choose.
Lou points to the ‘gift of choice’ as a trend emerging in corporate gifting circles. “The reality is that it’s impossible to find one thing that all your different recipients will love. My recommendation is to give people three different gifts they can choose from, especially if your company is truly committed to reducing landfill waste and creating an inclusive workplace.”
Not only do recipients feel “empowered, seen and supported” when they get to choose their gift, but they get something they truly love – meaning that fewer gifts go in the trash.
Gifting – pivot to priority in a hybrid post-pandemic world
Taking a mindful approach to the items a company sends as gifts doesn’t just make a difference to the planet – It can also make a difference to the relationships a company has with its customers and employees.
After all, gift-giving at its core is all about relationships. “Whether we like it or not, we look at gifts as a reflection of how someone feels about us,” says Lou. “They have the power to make us feel appreciated, approved of, and valued, or disregarded, snubbed, and taken for granted. Done well, swag can increase feelings of goodwill and belonging, which can in turn lead to greater job performance, satisfaction, and loyalty.”
Corporate gifting has always been an important strategy for businesses in building connections and driving loyalty with employees and customers, but during the pandemic it became even more vital as a tool to “support business goals and KPIs for multiple stakeholders”, says Steven – and is expected to continue, as companies look for new ways to motivate and manage remote workforces and connect with clients.
Steven explains how during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 a growing number of organisations identified gifting as a way of strengthening and building connections amongst remote workers.
“Corporate gifting benefitted as working models changed, prior to and accelerated during the pandemic,” says Steven. “More than nine in 10 organisations who changed their working model in response to the pandemic said their gifting frequency either increased (61%) or remained unchanged (30%).”
San Francisco-based gifting platform Gemnote saw its sales jump 150% in the year after the start of the pandemic, while gifting platform Blueboard, which lets employees and other corporate gift recipients choose among hundreds of experiences, has seen its revenue surge and its client list more than triple over the last few years as well as seeing client spend consistently grow at a rate of 15% YoY, backing up Coresight data that companies are spending more.
“One of the main drivers of the increase is the need for businesses to find new ways to bridge the remote and hybrid working gap by providing HR, sales and marketing leaders, and employees themselves with more opportunities to connect and show appreciation for each other,” Steven says. “Businesses are facing many uncertainties today when it comes to acquiring and retaining employees, with the pandemic spurring the Great Resignation; and now with concerns about inflation and recession top of mind for business… organisations are hungry for new ways to attract and especially retain top talent.”
Organisations are also increasingly leveraging gifting to support DEI, Coresight research finds, with 45% already using gifting to support DEI programs, while 30% are planning to support DEI with gifting in the future – to celebrate diversity and employees during moments like Black History Month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month or LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
Lou argues that corporate gifts should be a tangible representation of what your company stands for. “Swag is proof of your brand values in the world, and a piece of junk with your logo speaks much louder than your climate promise. However, a socially responsible item can increase goodwill among your team by showing them that you care not only about them but also about society and the planet at large.
“The companies I work with want to demonstrate their values through their gifts. They want them to connect to sustainability efforts they are making rather than exist apart from their goal of reducing their environmental impact.
"Furthermore, they want their gifts to tell a story; about the passion of the founders to build a better world, about responsibly sourcing the materials used in a product, about the company’s commitment to fair labour and more.”