YAKIMA, Wash. -- Almost everyone can remember their first job and the uniform that came with it — expensive clothes you didn’t need but had to wear to further the brand; the hat from your favorite fast food restaurant with the smell that just wouldn’t leave; or, if you were one of the lucky ones, the restaurant’s mascot.
Employers today, however, are thinking more about the uniform people are wearing out of the office — uniforms that often come with USB charging ports, nice headphones and name-brand jackets.
Swag, as it’s often called — a departure from the “trash or trinkets” gifts that used to sit in someone’s closet until they knew they were going to see their boss — gives employers an opportunity to thank their employees with increasingly nice gifts.
But it also translates into thousands of dollars of free marketing.
“You now have this spokesperson, and the investment was giving them a jacket or a pop socket,” said Wenatchee-based Go USA President and CEO Dan Hamilton.
Go USA is the middleman between companies that want to give their employees swag and the companies that make the items.
Despite many companies in the Valley participating in this trend, there are different models.
Bale Breaker Brewing Co. has been offering its employees merchandise since it opened, said co-owner and business manager Meghann Quinn.
“We see our employees here as an extension of our marketing team, and we want them wearing our merchandise, and we want them to be proud of working for us and be talking about us,” she said. “We think it’s a bit of pride and a bit of getting our logo out there on people who know what our story is about.”
Within reason, the company gives employees whatever merchandise they want for free. And they offer a discount on gifts for family and friends.
So every time an employee goes to the grocery store, restaurant or anywhere else around town, the people they’re interacting with see the Bale Breaker logo — even if they’re not talking about it — and might be more likely to choose it when they’re picking a beer.
Employees also help improve the items. They give feedback about the quality or different designs or colors they and others want to see.
“It helps that we don’t have just one of us making the merchandising decisions,” Quinn said. “Getting feedback on what employees want to wear or what they hear from people helps make decisions on what people like.”
And when someone sees a hat, shirt or other item they just have to have, they’re usually buying at least one beer when they come in.
While many brands don’t intentionally make lower-quality items, Darren Uceny with Go USA said companies lean toward higher quality when they know their employees are going to be using or wearing the items.
That’s been a more recent development, though.
Employee gifts used to be called “trash or trinkets,” and would often be good for the one-time thank you — but would sit in a drawer or a closet instead of being used.
As companies have become more aware of the potency of marketing that doesn’t come from a billboard, TV commercial or newspaper advertisement, they’re often paying more attention to making sure their employees will actually want to wear or use the item, making it a positive investment.
Many local companies, like Gilbert Cellars, find their employees are enjoying the merchandise so much that they’re buying more to give as gifts for friends and family.
The company has water bottles, reusable bags, sweatshirts, baseball hats and candles made from reusing the company’s wine bottles, among others.
“The stuff we have is the stuff we believe in,” said Gloria Gilbert, partner and general manager. “We don’t require anyone to buy it. But if we like it, our employees will like it, and the best way to get our message out is if our employees use it.”
It’s not just more outward-facing companies that are investing in giving or selling employees merchandise, Hamilton said.
Agricultural companies are buying gifts for the employees — seasonal and full time — that not only advance the company’s brand, but also serve as a way to retain employees.
He said some companies will come to them with a price range or an idea for an item in mind and ask for guidance if that’s what another, similarly-angled company is doing. And if it doesn’t make the cut, sometimes they’ll look to another item or increase the amount of money they’re willing to spend.
“It’s proven this stuff increases staff loyalty,” he said.
Washington Fruit is just one of many local companies that use this model. But Olivia Martinez, with Washington Fruit, said the items are to show their thanks, not an employee- retention technique.
“We don’t use it as a perk of working with us,” she said. “It’s a gift of gratitude.”
For holidays or work anniversaries, the company has given employees sweaters, camping gear, caps, clothing, electronics and other items. Washington Fruit also has an “employee branded apparel” portal on its website. It’s unclear how that’s handled, and the company didn’t return requests for comment.
In the future, Hamilton said this sort of marketing and employee retention will likely just get more popular with more people looking to spend their money at local companies that treat employees well.
As a result, companies will have to continue improving the gifts they’re giving to employees.
One of the most recent ways the products are improving is through partnership with name brands and imitating more retail-like styles.
“If you have 25 years of baseball caps, you’re going to have to keep finding ways to make them better,” he said.