Where have all the matchboxes gone?

What runs through your head when you finish eating at a restaurant and a branded matchbox is given to everyone at the table alongside the bill? When I was a youngster in the 1960s, this was commonplace. Nowadays, however, complimentary matchboxes are somewhat of a rarity. While I’m not condoning a resurgence of cigarette consumption, from a branding and marketing perspective, perhaps we gave up on the matchbox a little too soon.

Or, to be more abstract, we gave up on the idea of the matchbox. They’re freebies with utility, and as such they are snatched up liberally. Wherever the matchboxes go, they’ll carry the branded logo of the establishment that produced them — sneakily advertising said establishment to the prying eyes of new consumers. As it applies to hotels, the concept here is to give a guest something free, and then let these customers help with the marketing push. And the matchbox is but one possible vector for which you might also lump in pens, t-shirts, hats, gym bags, fridge magnets, posters, Frisbees or teddy bears.

In this day and age, with its furor of media bombardment and endless distractions for consumers, you must find innovative ways of spreading awareness and making your brand viral. Freebies are one such tactic.

In Jonah Berger’s 2013 marketing book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” he elaborates on the theory of “social proofing.” That is, most people only like things that other people already like. In other words, consumers need proof of a product’s efficacy by witnessing others buying and using it before they will make a similar purchase — a catch-22 if ever there was one.

A key example is Apple. When Apple launched the iPod, it bundled each player with a pair of white earbuds at a time when most headphones were colored black. By visually standing apart, Apple ensured passersby would note the iPod owner’s unusual white earbuds dangling from the exterior of his or her clothes, thereby “proofing” the iPod itself. Additionally, the radiant Apple logo on the back of every laptop sold is not designed solely for the purchaser’s satisfaction. It is upside-down so when the computer’s screen is flipped open, other people will see the logo in its proper orientation and know Apple laptops are socially endorsed.

Now consider a hotel room’s soaps, shampoos, conditioners and all other bathroom consumables. It is a common practice for guests to use these products during their stay and then put the miniature hygiene bottles in their bags upon checkout. Such products are relatively inexpensive, and their “theft” is likely already factored into the ADR. As each bottle has the brand’s name and logo on it, a shrewd hotelier might assume they will help spread awareness amongst each guest’s friends. But this is not the case, as hygiene products typically will be consumed privately and won’t be visible in high-traffic areas.

Ultimately, any “stolen” soaps and hair-care products will serve as mementos to reinforce customer loyalty, but they will not directly help the hotel breach new social circles. The same can be said for fridge magnets. Even if a brand is lucky enough to have a customer slap one of these on the refrigerator door, its exposure is limited to friends, family and, occasionally, workmen who visit the kitchen. Magnets are better on the social proofing front than bathroom products, but still far worse than popping open your Apple laptop in a crowded café.

Next, consider the branded pen (or pencil or highlighter, for that matter). They have utility everywhere, in both public and private spaces, and they can be produced en masse at a bargain price. There are two significant design problems, however. First, pens are ordinarily quite thin, which means a logo must be imperceptibly small to wholly fit on one face. Or, if kept at a reasonable size, the logo will wrap around the cylindrical shaft and won’t be seen in its entirety by other people. Branded pens are also likely to have some text scrawled down one side; in the event the pen is turned the other way, the words won’t be visible to the outside world. The other major issue stems from the fact that these cheaply made pens are oftentimes just that — cheap. They don’t last long, and the flow of ink isn’t constant. They are disposable goods, and they are treated as such.

Branded pens can nevertheless act as a viable advertising vector when they are done right. The key is to not skimp on craftsmanship. They shouldn’t fit the same standard design as 99% of the pens out there. Make them longer, make them shorter, give them a funky color, give them a oddly shaped top or make them as thick as a fountain pen so they appear to be of higher quality and so one side can adequately accommodate a large-enough logo. Design them as durable products that guests will actually cherish. That way, they will be used in public spaces — and thus exposed to other consumers — over as lengthy a time as possible.

The broad takeaway is this: you must become aware of the potential for this marketing vehicle because it is a great way to develop a new, unconventional advertising or awareness engine. As an exercise, reflect on other products doled out as freebies and their social proofing capabilities. Then, think outside the box — or, outside the matchbox — and you might discover a “gift” your own brand might apply for a very lucrative outcome.