If you've worked in the corporate world, you know free t-shirts are a dime a dozen. At conferences, you're usually lucky if you can give them away. Same goes for stickers, buttons, USB drives, pens, notepads, mouse pads, iPhone cases and the endless array of cheesy swag circulated by most companies. 

This shouldn't really come as a surprise. Most company shirts, for example, are an afterthought. The materials are cheap. The colors clash. There's always a big, garish logo wrapped across the sleeve or pocket. It's no wonder so much swag goes direct from trade show to goodwill bin. 

But there's a deeper missed opportunity here. Everything you produce is, like it or not, an expression of your company's values. A free shirt might seem insignificant, but consumers and employees alike are judging it and, by extension, your business. Leveraged wisely, something as simple as swag can represent a real differentiator and way to build loyalty.

More than 10 years ago, when we were just starting out, I posed a challenge to our marketing team: create a shirt that you would wear even if you didn't work here. The resulting design was super minimalist -- no words, no aggressive branding. But we couldn't order them fast enough. Employees took them home to family members, and customers kept asking for more. 

We recently updated our shirts, and I'm happy to say they're as popular as ever. For other business owners out there, here are a few "golden rules of swag" I've come to embrace over the years: 

Ditch the huge logo (and the hard sell).

Slapping a huge logo on a t-shirt might seem like marketing 101. (You'll gain awareness, build visibility, etc.) But all it really does is tell your customers that everything's transactional. I'll give you a free shirt as long as you volunteer to be a walking billboard for my company. If you're going to give something away, really give it away -- with no expectation of an immediate return. 

We saw the power of this approach early on in the form of a plush toy. The fuzzy little owl with giant eyes had nothing to do with our product and only vaguely resembled our logo. But "Plush Owly" was so popular that we had to lock the cabinet where they were stored so employees wouldn't take them home to their kids. This three-inch-tall owl eventually became a feel-good icon synonymous with our product, even if it didn't have our name written all over it.   

It's gotta be something you'd actually wear.

Attractive swag is a cue to customers that you get it. You understand aesthetics and design -- not just in this t-shirt or scarf or temporary tattoo, but in your product itself. A well made piece of swag shows that creativity and careful execution are the hallmarks of your business, as a whole. 

With this principle in mind, we had our top graphic designer work on our swag -- even when we were a tiny startup with no revenue coming in and no extra capacity to spare. Coming from a consumer products background, she brought an eye for design and fashion to the t-shirts, stickers and even socks and hooded sweatshirts that we gave away. They were unlike anything any other tech company was putting out, and it helped us instantly stand out at events and trade shows. 

Good swag is like a secret handshake.

This is something that brands as diverse as Apple and Armani got a long time ago. People don't buy or use things for utility alone. They do so to belong to a club -- and all the better if it's an exclusive one. The product itself is a badge of membership in this club, speaking to a whole lifestyle, set of attitudes and world view.

For us, this approach yielded real returns. In the beginning, our biggest challenge was breaking into new markets. We couldn't afford a network of international salespeople, but we had the next best thing -- volunteer ambassadors all around the world. They agreed to share our gospel in exchange for "Hootkits" -- care packages comprised of stickers, plush toys, t-shirts and more. So loyal were our users, and so coveted our swag, that these ambassadors were happy to talk about our product for free.    

I don't want to make it sound like cool swag is the secret to scaling a successful company. But investing time and care into the stuff we gave away helped us stand out in a crowded marketplace. And it fostered an early sense of community among our customers and employees. Even with our new t-shirts, I still see employees walking around outside work with the original design -- proud to show-off their vintage threads.