Ditch the branded vest? How companies are gifting now

Corporate gifting pros told us the most common mistakes employers make when it comes to recognition.

A gift box on a desk.

Gifts are now one of the most tactile ways that companies can connect with workers.

Photo: Aleksandr Zubkov via Getty Images

Corporate swag has always been the love language of the tech industry. But in our current world where managers might go weeks or months without seeing their employees in person, gifts are now one of the most tactile ways that companies can connect with workers.

But how can you avoid wasting money on another vest your team doesn’t need? At this moment of trying to build company culture in a hybrid world, corporate gifting providers have been finding ways to capitalize on the awkwardness of it all.

“We used to be able to take our prospects or employees out for lunch or happy hours — that all had to change,” said Temy Mancusi-Ungaro, CEO of the corporate gifting company Reachdesk. “We also saw that gifting got a lot harder. No longer was there an office where everything could be sent.”

Are gift cards the answer? “Yes and no,” said Mancusi-Ungaro. Digital gift cards were a popular choice over the holidays because supply chain disruptions made it more challenging to source physical gifts. But Mancusi-Ungaro saw other companies go for physical gifts like wine, chocolates or custom water bottles.

More often, employers hand out gift cards as a reward on a recurring basis, “maybe on a Friday,” Mancusi-Ungaro said. Once relationships start to build, more personal gifts — $20 to $40 for a box of sweets or a T-shirt — are more impactful.

Some companies are taking a more practical approach: COVID-19 tests have been a popular corporate gift in recent months, said Leo Friedman, founder and CEO of the branded merchandise seller iPromo. Friedman’s company sells them in a bundle with company-branded swag, like blankets and mugs. (The COVID tests themselves are not branded with company logos.)

“It shows that the customer actually cares about the employee, not just ‘here’s some free stuff,’” Friedman said. “But, ‘we also care about keeping you and your family healthy.’”

Since the world went remote, home decor items like candles and blankets have also gained popularity as corporate gifts. And food gifts “just absolutely exploded,” Friedman said.

So, what gifts are companies not buying anymore? Pens are dying, according to Friedman. IPromo still sells plenty of them, but there’s been a big drop-off over the years as more and more writing takes place digitally. Backpacks — once a commuter favorite — also took a back seat when most workers went remote.

Some companies opt for experiential gifts, like zipline tickets, skydiving or pottery classes. Customizable options here are key, said Allyson Tom, vice president of People and Culture at Blueboard. Blueboard sells experiential gifts that employees can pick out for themselves.

“It’s very difficult to find something that everyone is going to be excited about, and everyone is going to find meaningful,” Tom said.

Blueboard competitor Workhuman offers a similar employee recognition platform. Both companies tout their offerings as an answer to employee engagement and retention worries.

In the case of Workhuman, employees can thank each other with points that can be redeemed for gifts, gift cards and experiences. Having the recognition come from teammates — not just management — can boost employees’ sense of belonging, according to Chris French, Workhuman’s executive vice president of Customer Strategy.

“It adds to psychological safety, it adds to how you feel about working in that organization,” French said. “It’s a slog right now, especially in tech companies.”

How much do companies spend on gifts for employees? Many organizations spend between 0.5% and 2% of payroll, according to Blueboard, which spends 1%. Gift providers argue that this is a great way to spend 0.5% of payroll: After all, giving out 0.5% raises would make employees “extremely unhappy,” said French.

“There’s very few things that you could spend so little money on and actually get such a big impact,” French said. And at companies that have let go of office space and budgets for things like happy hour, it’s easy to repurpose those budgets in other ways, according to Mancusi-Ungaro, whose company spends $200 to $300 per employee on gifts.

“The money coming from real estate is now getting filed into employee happiness,” Mancusi-Ungaro said.

So, what mistakes are companies making when it comes to recognizing employees through gifts? The biggest is one-size-fits-all gifting.

“I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of this: When recognition feels very transactional or feels very impersonal,” Tom said.

Gifts that involve employees’ loved ones will resonate more, Tom said. Some Blueboard experiences allow recipients to bring their families or a friend, which Tom said multiplies the “emotional factor” of the gift.

Employers should also avoid letting the gift do the talking. The more personal, the better.

“A gift is a token, but what’s really important is how you personalize that,” said Mancusi-Ungaro.

Also important is timing. Sending a birthday present a week after someone’s birthday doesn’t have the same effect that it does if it arrives on the day itself, Mancusi-Ungaro said.

“Being able to deliver stuff quickly and on time is a really huge ‘wow’ factor,” Mancusi-Ungaro said.


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