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The “Dirty” Secret Behind Promotional Products

Printer | Antique Design IllustrationsIn recent blog posts, I’ve talked about one of the hottest promotional products on the market today, reusable tote bags.  But did you know that the “American father of promotional products” launched today’s multi-billion dollar industry with a reusable tote bag? 

In 1886, a newspaper owner in Coshocton, Ohio named Jasper Freemont Meek observed a young schoolboy as he dropped his books in the dirt on Main Street.  This sparked an idea.  Mr. Meek approached a fellow business owner and friend, Mr. Cantwell of Cantwell Shoes.  Meek pitched the idea of imprinting a burlap book bag with a simple, but direct advertising message:  “Buy Cantwell Shoes.”  Cantwell would give every child who came into his shoe store a free bag. The children would carry the bag as they walked to and from school so Cantwell’s name would be seen all over town.   Meek explained that this simple advertising promotion would build store traffic, increase name recognition and spike sales in Cantwell’s store.

Mr. Meek manufactured the book bag, imprinted the advertising slogan on his printing press, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Those dirty schoolbooks sparked the birth of the promotional products industry as we know it today.

After launching another successful promotional product (imprinted horse blankets, seen on virtually every horse in town), Meek realized that he could easily supplement his newspaper revenues by using his printing press to print a variety of promotional products in between weekly newspaper editions.  Meek officially started his own successful promotional products company, the Tuscarora Advertising Co., organizing a sales force that sold promotional items with practically no competition until 1889.

A rival local newspaperman became Meek’s first competitor.  Henry D. Beach followed Meek’s lead and soon the two were in stiff competition to be the first to create new promotional products by printing advertisements on anything that could be run through a printing press: cloth caps, aprons, hats for horses, Cobb pipes, marble bags, fly swatters, buggy whips, card cases, wooden rulers, calendars and fans, all imprinted with the messages of local merchants.  Both men then turned to printing on metal signs, opening up a new product line for metal advertising trays (like the now iconic collector’s items created for Coca-Cola and beer companies).  Soon the two companies would become world leaders in promotional products, attracting artists and skilled workers the U.S. and from Europe, all traveling to Coshocton, Ohio to gain work in illustration and other advertising mediums.

So what are the “dirty” little secrets Mr. Jasper Freemont Meek  and his competitor Henry Beach taught us?   The most effective advertising messages are the ones printed on useful, everyday items. It’s easiest to capture your customers’ attention with promotional giveaways and novelty items.  And it’s smart to incorporate promotional products that correlate to your company’s core business-painter’s caps for a paint store, marble bags for a toy store, and reusable tote bags for a shoe store that makes its best profits selling a new pair of shoes to growing schoolchildren each year!

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  • By Shawn, June 13, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    Interesting! I was looking for info on totes, and was surprised to learn this.

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