The 10 Most Iconic Promo Items in History

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Published: October 30th, 2018

Updated: April 22nd, 2019

Promotional products have been a significant part of advertising for over 200 years. From tote bags to t-shirts, these logoed items have resulted in amazing brand exposure for companies of all sizes.

The most iconic of all time include:

  1. Cantwell Shoes’s Tote Bags
  2. Anheuser-Busch’s Bottle Openers
  3. Coca-Cola’s Calendars
  4. Pepsi’s Pens
  5. Pan Am’s Lunch Boxes
  6. McDonalds’s Kitchenware
  7. Dr. Pepper’s Lip Balm
  8. Starbucks’s Travel Mugs
  9. West Coast Rap’s Baseball Hats
  10. Gatorade’s Water Bottles

They might seem like just pens, water bottles, and mugs, but don’t be mistaken – items with a logo printed on the surface can completely change your marketing game for the better. Big companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s have a combined value of over $250 billion, and much of that success can be attributed to their use of promotional giveaways!

What are some of the most popular promos in history? How have they grown companies? Grab one of your logoed pens and take note - these are the ten most iconic promotional products of all time!

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Promo items are something people can have in their hands and be constantly reminded about a company. That kind of exposure matters when you’re trying to make a name for yourself.

– Charlotte L., Small Business Owner in Springfield, Illinois

#1: Cantwell Shoes’s Tote Bags

As far as the world knows, this tote bag is the first promotional product in history! Back in 1886, Jasper Meek was looking for a way to keep the printing presses running during the slow season. Since business was at a crawl, he used the technology to print customized tote bags for Cantwell Shoes, a popular store located on Main Street in Coshocton, Ohio. The shoe store handed these bags out to everyone who came through and made a purchase.

#1: Cantwell Shoes’s Tote Bags Source: Johnson Humrickhouse Museum, Coshocton, Ohio

The kids whose parents shopped at Cantwell Shoes started carrying these burlap bags to and from school. Meanwhile, adults in the neighborhood would see them and ask where they could get one of their own. The trend spread around the small town like wildfire, and soon enough, the line was out the door at Cantwell Shoes. It took only a few days for the store to completely run out of bags! Everyone was wearing both the free tote bags and the footwear they purchased - a big boost for the small business!

#1: Cantwell Shoes’s Tote Bags Source: Johnson Humrickhouse Museum, Coshocton, Ohio

Jasper Meek was so inspired by all this success, he started American Art Works, the first promotional products company in history. About 12 others followed in Coshocton, including Marshall Manufacturing and W.F. Smith. Since then, the industry has outgrown its small-town roots. Today, there are more than 30,000 promotional products distributors all around the world, with a combined net worth of over $21 billion, and it all started with a simple burlap tote bag.

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Our town boomed because of the promotional products industry. Jasper Meek tapped into something that no one else had.

– Greg Coffman, President of the Eliot Calendar Company in Coshocton

#2: Anheuser-Busch’s Bottle Openers

Tote bags were all the rage in Coshocton, but it took a savvy entrepreneur, and a good pint of brew, to really get promotional giveaways on the map. Leave it to Adolphus Busch, the bearded genius behind Anheuser-Busch, to make these items a major marketing strategy for growing businesses. In the late 19th century, Busch encouraged his company’s salesmen to go to taverns with not only samples of their drinks, but also promotional corkscrews featuring the company name.

#2: Anheuser-Busch’s Bottle Openers Source: stanhopemicroworks.com

Anheuser-Busch emerged as one of the largest brewers in the world thanks to Busch’s smart marketing tactics. He built the brand from scratch by first making the beers available to a wider range of people and then using promotional giveaways in the process. With a team of engineers, he designed refrigerated freight cars that could transport the beers to different pubs, taverns, and bars around the country. Salesmen took the journey with the brews, talking with patrons about their new lager, Budweiser, and opening each bottle with a logoed corkscrew, sometimes even offering them to customers for free. This was so successful that Busch eventually went on to order custom playing cards, bottle openers, calendars, match boxes, and pocket knives. Just like that, Anheuser-Busch became the first major company to advertise with promotional products!

All this effort paid off in the long run. Today, Anheuser-Busch is well-known around the world and continues growing. In fact, the brand invested in 10 new breweries across the country between 2011 and 2017, with sales exceeding $107 million. Adolphus Busch is known as one of the best businessmen in history, and people still have a special place in their hearts for his coveted corkscrews.

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The best advice I can give a young man just starting in business is to work faithfully and loyally and with untiring energy.

– Adolphus Busch, Co-founder of Anheuser-Busch

#3: Coca-Cola’s Calendars

Coca-Cola is arguably one of the most famous brands in the world, but that success didn’t happen overnight. The beverage was first sold in drugstores in 1886, around the same time the promotional products industry was in full swing. John Pemberton developed the drink in Atlanta, while his bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, focused on the advertising. Robinson came up with the name, Coca from the cocoa leaves and kola from the kola nuts used in the recipe. He also created the signature logo, designed from his own handwriting. In the next few years, that logo would start decorating the most recognizable promos in the world, including custom calendars.

#3: Coca-Cola’s Calendars Source: moas.org

Unfortunately, Pemberton died before he could see these marketing efforts in action, and the rights to his soft drink were handed over for only $2,300 to another pharmacist named Asa Candler. Under his guidance, Coca-Cola started being offered in bottles rather than just in the fountain, a packaging change that made it more available to consumers around the world. Candler also dedicated an $11,000 budget toward advertising, namely with promotional products. The first items with the Coca-Cola logo were calendars featuring young female models and famous celebrities like singer Hilda Clark. These were followed by lithographed metal trays in a bold red color, the most famous of which was the “Menu Girl” tray from 1953. Over time, the marketing efforts expanded to include other novelty items including: dolls, coolers, water bottles, playing cards, aprons, clocks, bottle openers, radios, buttons, bookmarks, t-shirts, and more. Candler provided retailers with this logoed merchandise to not only decorate their stores, but also give away to customers. It became trendy to collect Coca-Cola merchandise, a tradition that still stands today!

#3: Coca-Cola’s Calendars Source: moas.org

From creating the modern Santa Claus to making Mean Joe Greene seem like the nicest guy in the world, there’s nothing Coca-Cola can’t accomplish. It’s no wonder the soft drink brand was named Marketer of the Year by AdAge in 2011 and still has a loyal fanbase for their logoed merchandise. In fact, there’s a Coca-Cola Collectors Club that has over 5,000 members in 28 countries!

Check out Coca-Cola’s “Put on a Smile” wearable movie from 2013!

#4: Pepsi’s Pens

Coca-Cola was leading the pop pack with their trendy bottles and eye-catching promotional products. As a result, Pepsi had to step up their game and offer items that resonated with their thirsty audience. By the 1940s, Pepsi started printing their own promotional products like customized pens. The unique Pepsi pens featured a fine ballpoint tip, a clip in the shape of a bottle, and the all-American red, white, and blue of the soft drink’s cursive logo.

#4: Pepsi’s Pens Source: munsonpens.wordpress.com

When Pepsi was first introduced in 1898, many other soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper were also hitting shelves and vying for the crowd’s attention in what the media deemed “The Cola Wars.” With all the competition, it was difficult for Pepsi to keep afloat, but they managed to bounce back from double bankruptcy thanks to Charles G. Guth. The first steps were changing the logo to the cursive print that later decorated the pens, reducing the cost to only five cents per bottle, and raising the capacity to 12-ounces, double that of Coke. At the same time, President Walter S. Mack pushed the marketing techniques to new creative heights, bringing promotional products into the mix. This included items that would appeal to all age groups including: logoed teddy bears, bottle openers, clocks, model cars, coffee mugs, and pens. Guth and Mack’s combined efforts helped Pepsi stand apart from other soft drinks.

Pepsi is now known for partnering with music stars like Michael Jackson and Britney Spears to promote their product. However, they haven’t left the promotional items behind. In 2018, the soft drink released a wide variety of branded merchandise they called “Pepsi Stuff.” This included fun promotional giveaways for the summer including: floating beverage coolers, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, trucker hats, t-shirts, towels, and even foosball tables.

#5: Pan Am’s Lunch Boxes

While flying on an airplane may not make you think of lunch, that didn’t stop National Airlines from promoting their brand with custom lunch boxes. In fact, many Pan Am air carriers used promotional products to bring more attention to their flights.

Pan Am got its start in Key West, Florida in 1927, and it didn’t take long for them to bring their branding to high altitudes. There was a big market for travel at the time, and as such, they reached a huge audience with promotional items like custom luggage, drinkware, backpacks, posters, apparel, and leather satchels. All of Pan Am’s logoed items were successful, but it was the lunch boxes and tote bags that generated the most buzz. The lunch box was created by the Ohio Art Company, a company that specialized in metal lithography. The tote bags, on the other hand, were given to first-class passengers during the airline’s golden years and became extremely trendy to wear. John F. Kennedy, The Beatles, and Judy Garland were even photographed with them on their shoulders! These promotional items put Pan Am on the map, making it one of the most recognized air carriers in the world. It was a lot better than complimentary peanuts and pillows!

#5: Pan Am’s Lunch Boxes Source: Allen Woodall, the Lunchbox Museum, Columbus, GA

Pan Am may have landed a long time ago, but you can still find many of their famous promo products online. If you want to see the lunch boxes in particular, be sure to visit Allen’s Woodall’s museum in Columbus, Georgia. You can also go to any Urban Outfitters and pick up modern versions of Pan Am’s tote bags. These items are an example of the brand transcending the company. People still have a special place in their heart for Pan Am, while their promos serve as time capsules for the heyday of air travel.

#6: McDonalds’s Kitchenware

Fast food restaurants, like every other business, need a recognizable way to stand apart from the competition. McDonald’s found their “it” factor by building a brand designed for kids in the 1960s. This included a tribe of mascots named Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese, Grimace, and the Hamburglar, all of whom made their debut in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kids became so enamored with Ronald McDonald that 96% of them were more familiar with his name than that of the president in 1973. Sorry Nixon! While the mascots have since retired, McDonald’s still found success building a brand with their “action series” merchandise, which included toys, movies, video games, and most notably, promotional kitchenware like plates and glasses.

#6: McDonalds’s Kitchenware Source: adventuresofthecrazytrain.com

The plates and glasses were first offered in the late 70s and served as a way for you to think about Big Macs and McNuggets even if you were having a nice dinner at home with your family. Through their action series, you could order a to-go cup for 49 cents and keep the glass as a souvenir. Aside from using this kitchenware to promote their brand, McDonald’s also featured Disney characters like Hercules, 101 Dalmatians, and Beauty and the Beast. Customers could spend an extra $1.99 with their purchase and get one of these exclusive plates. These were easily some of their more popular items, bringing a ton of traffic to their restaurants. McDonald’s had money to spend on advertising items like these since founder Ray Kroc allowed for a “creative idea budget.” The marketing team hit a stride with this budget that included Ronald McDonald merch, the introduction of the Happy Meal in 1979, and indoor playgrounds. The company even went on to rake in endless awards for their advertising efforts, while Ronald McDonald landed a spot on Advertising Age’s top ad icons.

In 2010, the Corporate Accountability International suggested Ronald McDonald’s retirement due to childhood obesity. No word yet if he’s receiving a good pension plan, but since his departure, the fast food restaurant has put the brakes on some of their early marketing efforts, including the custom kitchenware. Rest assured, you can still find promos for various shows, movies, and other pop culture releases in their Happy Meals. These items have worked wonders for the company. In fact, 20% of the sales at McDonald’s are due to Happy Meals and the toys that accompany them!

Did you know?

Some of the early Happy Meal toys included a “McDoodler” stencil, a “McWrist” wallet, an ID bracelet, a puzzle lock, a spinning top, and promotional erasers featuring McDonald’s characters.

#7: Dr. Pepper’s Lip Balm

Perhaps one of the greatest co-branding efforts in history occurred between Dr. Pepper and Lip Smacker. The promo lip balms were a great way to generate interest in Dr. Pepper, while at the same time bringing more attention to Lip Smackers. Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker was the taste of the 90s. The brand came in a variety of tubes, some even shaped like the bottle, as well as on promo keychains.

Bonne Bell, a cosmetics company based in Cleveland, introduced the popular Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker in 1975. Their Lip Smacker line was only two years old at the time, and while the strawberry flavor was a success, Bonne Bell still needed to align with a more familiar brand to bring attention to their new product. The cosmetics company wanted to work with Dr. Pepper specifically because they thought of it as the world’s most original soft drink. It was this originality that they wanted to bring to the forefront of their products. After all, it was uniqueness that was going to get people to buy Lip Smacker instead of any other lip care product. The team at Bonne Bell sent a request to chemists at Markwins International who used special lab equipment to examine Dr. Pepper’s ingredients and recreate them in the lip balm’s formula. Within a few short years, Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker became the best-selling flavor for the brand. It also inspired other soda flavored lip balms including Coca-Cola, Sprite, Root Beer, and Orange Crush.

#7: Dr. Pepper’s Lip Balm Source: buzzfeed.com

Bonne Bell may have stopped production of Lip Smacker in the United States, but there’s no denying their Dr. Pepper partnership will be on everyone’s lips for years to come. The product can still be found in select stores for around $2.50. You can also find vintage tubes on display at the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas.

#8: Starbucks’s Travel Mugs

The way to generate interest and to keep people talking about your brand is to be willing to make changes. Starbucks, a coffee chain with over 40 years in the brewing business, knows that all too well. Not only do they constantly create new flavors of their signature coffee, but they’ve also been offering new designs and colors for their logoed travel mugs for over 20 years.

Starbucks first started offering travel mugs back in 1997 when graphic designer Sandy Nelson was hired to create a fun look for the holidays. Since then, the coffee chain has released a new travel mug every year for their popular holiday collection. These mugs are typically in their signature red, complete with cutesy details that are meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy. While the holidays are a good time for coffee, Starbucks also sells other custom travel mugs throughout the year. Their line has included mugs inspired by almost everything and anything, including Disney, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. They’ve even gone all over the map with exclusive travel mugs featuring landmarks from all 50 states. People look forward to the release of these new mugs, with the excitement building on social media and in pop culture. For example, people went crazy in 2016 over the release of eco-friendly $1 reusable cups featuring their classic white with green logo. Customers can bring in these mugs and receive a 10-cent discount on their coffee. It’s a win-win for both business and the environment.

#8: Starbucks’s Travel Mugs Source: amazon.com

Whether the cup features a princess, wizard, or travel destination, it always also includes the recognizable mermaid logo. At this point, the Starbucks logo has become an icon, from Carrie Bradshaw taking a sip in Sex and the City to Meryl Streep getting a cup every morning in the 2006 hit The Devil Wears Prada. It’s no wonder nearly 5 billion of their custom mugs are sold every year!

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Starbucks cups have become part of the cultural backdrop, an unconscious reminder that the brand exists. It’s an extremely powerful piece of packaging.

– Can Akdeniz, Management Consultant & Business Speaker

Did you know?

Starbucks knows the value in product placement. You can see their trademark mug in every scene of the 1999 cult classic Fight Club.

#9: West Coast Rap’s Baseball Caps

A wide variety of industries and organizations turn to promotional products to advertise. Perhaps one of the largest is media, namely movies, TV shows, and music. In the late 1990s, West Coast rap, which includes record labels like Ruthless Records, Death Row Records, and Aftermath Entertainment, was no exception. The labels started printing their hip hop artists names on snapback baseball hats. 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and many others got additional publicity and attention thanks to these custom hats.

#9: West Coast Rap’s Baseball Caps Source: hatsandcaps.co.uk

At the time, boy bands and bubblegum pop like NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Aaron Carter were all the rage. West Coast rap was an anti-conformist sound unlike anything else. Important messages about police brutality, injustice, and emotional turmoil were heard by a larger audience. The snapbacks were a key part of this new sound and style, and with their wide brim and large logo, they brought a significant amount of attention to these artists and their work. Not only that, but they also brought attention to the areas were these issues were rampant, most notably Compton. Of course, the caps weren’t limited to just the West Coast. Many hip hop artists on the East Coast, like Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep, also wore these hats during concerts and promotional events. The hats were produced by the New Era Cap Company and were seen everywhere in the 90s, from Will Smith’s wardrobe in the hit show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to Tupac Shakur’s starring role in the movie Poetic Justice.

Today, the New Era Cap Company is still selling snapbacks, but they have expanded their audience. In 2017, they signed a deal with Disney to print Mickey Mouse snapbacks featuring the iconic mouse. These hats work as promotional products just as they did in the 90s, only this time bringing more attention to the Disney brand. Either way, these snapbacks show how powerful promos can be when it comes to establishing an identity and changing culture.

#9: West Coast Rap’s Baseball Caps Source: hatsandcaps.co.uk
Did you know?

The New Era Cap Company is the official hat manufacturer for the MLB. Their logo is on the side of every player’s hat in the league.

#10: Gatorade’s Water Bottles

If you sell a drink, especially one geared toward athletes, it only makes sense to offer promotional water bottles as well. That’s just what Gatorade thought in 1989 when they started making green bottles with orange lids featuring their trademark logo. The first squeeze bottles were used right where Gatorade got its start, with the Gators at the University of Florida.

#10: Gatorade’s Water Bottles Source: amazon.com

Less than 20 years after Gatorade was introduced, it became the official drink of the NFL. As a result, giant orange coolers were seen on the sidelines on national television. These promotional items came to be associated with professional sports, and aspiring athletes wanted to take their own drinks to practices and games. A new retail market was formed, and by 1989, Gatorade started printing their logo on water bottles. Throughout the next decade, they could be found in sports leagues across the country. Gatorade’s squeeze bottles became as much a part of sports as equipment, fantasy leagues, and sweaty socks.

#10: Gatorade’s Water Bottles Source: amazon.com

Gatorade has an incredible 77% share of the $8 billion sports drink industry, beating soda, Powerade, and even bottled water! The coolers are still seen all over the sidelines for not only the NFL, but the MLB, NBA, and other sports organizations as well. Meanwhile, Gatorade is constantly coming up with new designs for their squeeze bottles. In 2016, they released advanced versions with LED lighting that reminds athletes when it’s time to rehydrate.

The Power of Promos

It may seem like you have to be a Fortune 500 company to advertise with promotional products. However, the best part about these logoed items is their versatility and affordability. You can have the smallest budget in the world and still make a big impact with promo items. It’s all about offering something trendy, captivating, and memorable. It also doesn’t hurt to have a solid marketing team! No matter what, though, promotional products are universally loved by everyone.

Stats for Success

85% of people have done business with a company after receiving their promotional product.

48% of consumers wish they received promo items more often.

53% of people use a promo product once a week.

The Bottom Line

Promotional products have been incredible marketing tools for years. They’ve helped big companies like Coca-Cola and Pan Am become celebrated brands with a permanent place in pop culture. However, they have also generated business and new leads to smaller shops like Cantwell Shoes. All it takes is getting your logo out there on some nifty products to really get the world’s attention.

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world’s first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC’s logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

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