Cashmere socks and chocolate: ‘swag’ sweetens the deal for new recruits

“#Swagalicious — the pure joy & excitement that only swag can yield!!”, a LinkedIn post declares. The poster had received a colourful pack of gifts — including a water bottle, eye-catching socks and notebooks — from their employer.

“I’m starting my Day 1 . . . with the coolest swag ever!” says another LinkedIn user. This new employee had received a smart lunchbox, T-shirt and hoodie, and other premium freebies. Hop over to TikTok and the swag fest continues.

Any search for #companyswag or #welcomekit on social media brings up an eclectic range of posts uploaded by workers. Company merchandise — or “merch” — it seems is on the ascendancy.

In the world of hybrid and remote work, companies are enhancing their integration processes with welcome kits and other bespoke gift boxes in an effort to make new employees feel connected — and remind existing workers they still care. It may seem frivolous, but given research suggests only 24 per cent of hybrid and remote workers say they identified with their organisation’s culture, some companies believe putting the effort into merchandise to welcome new recruits will help them feel part of the organisation.

“Quite often it’s the first engagement [with a workplace] beyond the first interviews and meetings . . . it’s a physical connection rather than an office,” says Conor McKenna, chief executive and co-founder of Go Swag, a company that puts together swag boxes for companies.

As a result, Go Swag and other suppliers of these high-end gifts have found that clients are prepared to spend more in a quest to provide better-quality sustainable products. “The budget [per employee] since we’ve started has just gone up and up and up and up — we have [welcome packs] that are worth £600,” says Ben Greenock, Go Swag’s other co-founder.

Its boxes can contain all manner of gifts including luxury chocolate, artisan coffee and even cashmere socks — what the duo call “delight items”.

Greenock and McKenna started the Glasgow-based business in 2019. Both have a background in design, and as early adopters of packaged swag their timing was impeccable — the pandemic hit just a year later. “The growth in this area has been phenomenal,” Greenock adds. The company is aiming for a £10mn turnover by 2023, and has customers that include camera maker Canon and music streaming service Spotify.

Budget-busting boxes aside, companies’ desire to send employees useful items that won’t end up in landfill means Go Swag is creating boxes with an average budget of £70 to £100 per employee. Before the pandemic it was about £40, Greenock and McKenna say.

And sustainability is an essential element for Go Swag: if companies ask them to send items that don’t fall into its sustainability criteria, it says no. This, says Greenock, “actually builds better relationships with people”.

Similarly, Sam Metssitane, founder of Sheffield-based Swag Box, says when clients pitch up with very small budgets, they are advised it is probably not worth the investment. The company has seen a similar shift in companies’ attitudes towards merchandise and budgets have increased.

Jo Henderson, marketing manager for Stash Agency, which operates out of the US and UK and creates corporate gift boxes and hampers, says: “There has been a surge this year in orders for onboarding and retention.” And the growing appetite for reduced plastic and recycled items means employers are realising they need to spend more.

With this “curated” approach to welcome packs, containing items that have been carefully designed, company swag is more likely to be used rather than dumped in a drawer or, worse, thrown in the bin.

Take the canvas tote. Once a swag staple, there are signs it is on its way out. “It just gets chucked into a cupboard”, says Rosie Atkinson, head of brand operations at MoonPay, a platform for buying and selling cryptocurrencies, and a Go Swag customer. But people like clothing such as T-shirts. “People really want to wear apparel . . . there’s a hype element to it,” she adds.

Even plants are in the mix. The Urban Botanist, a terrarium and ecosphere specialist, supplies branded succulents, self-sustaining ecosystems and sustainable hampers. Managing director Lucy Serafi says employers “want to reward more, with longer-lasting gifts that add genuine value to their employees while recognising sustainability as a key core value”.

Employees obviously recognise a company’s effort to properly consider the contents of their welcome packs. Another benefit for organisations of workers posting their wares on social media is that it further promotes the brand. But there is also the question of culture and using it to help forge a connection.

Alex Cannon, head of growth for Fortris, which offers bitcoin treasury management software to businesses, says the welcome kits it sends out — which contain branded clothing and office essentials such as stationery — are “one way of bridging the divide between employees that come into the office and those that may never have met their colleagues in person. This way, they have something in common from the outset.”

He acknowledges that it is a small gesture, but believes it is “a non-verbal communication of our values”.

One of Go Swag’s gift boxes, while The Urban Botanist supplies succulents, self-sustaining ecosystems and hampers © Gary Doak/FT

Christina Lovelock until recently worked as an analysis and solution architecture manager for a university. As it already has an online store full of branded merchandise, she had been lobbying the leadership team to create a welcome box of items. With such a competitive market for digital skills in particular, she says organisations need to do all they can to make people feel welcome. “Virtual onboarding is difficult, and letting people know someone has thought about them . . . is really important,” she says.

Lovelock adds that pictures of welcome swag on social media reflect well on organisations: “The company wins twice for a small expenditure: 1) the person 2) potential future employees. I definitely think it builds a sense of belonging.”

While everyone might appreciate good quality freebies, Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, is sceptical, suggesting that there is something about dishing out swag that feels “a bit too strategic”.

If a box costs about £80 or £90 it will have some good items, but if you are a chief executive, he wonders, what is the best return on your investment? Companies are not necessarily sending free gifts to employees as a substitute for working on their culture. But a better investment, Cable suggests, is that companies could be more generous with time. For example, by giving employees an hour a day to work on something they think is really important.

If chief executives take time out to encourage people to use their brain matter, that’s “someone very senior using their time to show you’re important”. When it comes to culture, he says, “the work itself is far more important than a gift”.

However, Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor in the negotiations, organisations and markets unit at Harvard Business School, has done research into non-cash rewards and says that companies could be on to something if what they offer is thought through.

The personalisation aspect is key. “Large corporations with thousands of employees need to give managers the ability to do this,” she adds.

On this point, Swag Box, says Metssitane, works with companies to create swag stores, where “employees can redeem coupons on things they actually want . . . there’s a lot of diversity in what people prefer”.

For example, one employee — in response to a call out via the FT’s Working It newsletter — says her favourite item of corporate merchandise is a small Yeti thermos, saying it was “the perfect size and good quality”.

Over on TikTok, one poster suggests his branded chop sticks are “the best swag idea ever” as he tucks into dumplings. Although, it’s worth noting there are TikTok users who are less impressed with their swag.

Whillans also highlights how “experiential rewards” could be effective. Free food, for example, is a pull factor to the office, so she suggests an employer could offer new joiners a number of lunch vouchers so they can connect with others in their organisation.

However, she is quick to point out that for new employees, a non-cash reward — or welcome pack — “is not going to make up for a bad onboarding experience”.

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