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[whitespace] Stupid Brand Tricks

Companies boost name recognition with logo-laden giveaways--some useful, some just plain dumb

By Annalee Newitz

'I think the stupidest thing I've ever seen was a giveaway that SGI did one year for their annual company lip-sync contest at the Shoreline Amphitheater," says my anonymous informant, an engineer at Silicon Graphics. "They gave us these little plastic cups with confetti inserts that said Silicon Graphics. I mean, the confetti was molded into a compartment so that it would jump around if you shook it. It really was amazingly stupid."

People get oddly jumpy when you ask them about the weird things that tech companies give away. They want to talk anonymously, or they ask that I not reveal where they work, as if they fear unknown repercussions.

"I've signed a contract that states I can't talk to the press about anything," says another anonymous engineer who works for a large e-commerce company.

"You can't even talk about free stuff they give you?" I push.

"If you don't give my name I will tell you that I did receive a paper clip dispenser made out of a magnet on a roller. As you roll the dispenser, the company's slogans pass by again and again."

Finally I talk to Kenton Hoover, former head of networking at Cisco, who agrees to go on the record about free stuff. He sends me one of those long midday emails that say his brain is idling. "Geoff Goodfellow (used to be at the InterNIC when it was run by SRI International) gave away matchbooks with condoms inside them as a promotion for his firm InModeration Networks (note this was in 1989)," he recollects. "I used to keep my strangest items around--I got a paddle ball set with a cloth cover, Swiss Army knife knockoffs from both NetApp and Sendmail Inc., and a wooden rubber-band gun from someone."

The operative question here is why. Why the confetti cup, the paper clip dispenser, the paddle balls, the rubber-band gun? Why all the T-shirts, the tiles, the stress toys and mugs? Do these objects really say anything about the companies they are supposed to promote?

I've got a mood nerf from Electronics for Imaging (EFI) sitting on my desk. It's a green and pink football that changes color when you touch it or--as I discovered late one night--if you put it in the oven. I called their PR department to ask why. The bemused rep at first could not believe I was asking why they chose to put their corporate logo on a mood nerf; then she said she'd ask the person who thought of the idea to call me back. No one ever called.

I had to get some answers. So I chatted with Corey Oiesen, director at Dovetail Public Relations in Los Gatos, who was intimately familiar with the idea of weird free things. She mentioned Mylex, a company specializing in RAIDs, that gave away socks at Comdex. "I thought that was kind of weird, but it was very successful and people were excited about the socks," she confesses.

Now comes my moment of truth. "So, why socks?" I ask. "Was there a reason?" Yes, as a matter of fact, there was. "The theme was 'We'll knock your socks off,' and it was a high-performance product, so it worked very nicely," Oiesen says.

It turns out there is a kind of method to the apparent madness of free stuff. I get to the crazy heart of it when I reach Carol Kantor at Business Builders in Cupertino. Business Builders specializes in creating free things with brand names on them. Kantor's most memorable project was putting together a trivial pursuit game called "space pursuits" for Lockheed Martin, complete with an entire deck of space trivia cards. The game is still given out at trade shows, a little symbol to demonstrate Lockheed Martin's mastery of space-related knowledge.

But Kantor has dealt with her share of mugs and stress toys too. "We've done stress toys in every shape," she sighs. "Brain-shaped, moon-shaped, earth-shaped, and even your basic boring stress balls."

Kantor explains that most free toys are given out at trade shows, and that it's important for a company to consider why it's giving things away before they order a whole crate of them. "Aptix used yo-yos at a convention. They wanted something that was an attraction, an action item that people would stand around and play with--and it worked, because everybody wanted them. Whether people want toys for themselves or their kids, they're still getting something with a corporate logo and therefore it served its function."

I ask Kenton Hoover about the yo-yos later. "Those yo-yos they give away at conventions are hollow," he grumbles. "You can't play with a yo-yo that isn't heavy. Just doesn't work."

Maybe. But I still dig my squishy brain toy and the mood nerf, even if I keep forgetting the names of the companies who sent them to me.


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd and it won't cost you anything to send her email, violently disagree with her, or write her love letters at tabloid@jps.net.

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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