Swag helps tech firms spin products into gold

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View showcases an original Enigma cipher machine, an Apple I hand-built by Steve Wozniak and the prototype for Pong, the first arcade video game. Its vast collection also includes thousands of T-shirts, buttons, bags and other items emblazoned with names and slogans of bygone or current products and companies.

Branded promotional merchandise — colloquially called swag — ranks right up there with these groundbreaking products in capturing the technology zeitgeist.

“It shows the ecosystem in which all these objects exist,” said curator Chris Garcia. “Most of this swag is trying to sell people products by getting the name or concept into their head. If you can’t convince people to buy your system, you have no reason to exist.”

Swag has a long history outside technology, of course, especially in the worlds of sports and politics. But in the tech-centric Bay Area, where hordes of BART and Muni passengers sport a Silicon Valley logo on their shirts, hoodies or messenger bags, swag is both legendary and quotidian.

“Swag is an economic indicator, just like travel,” said Mark Weiner, a professor of practice at Santa Clara University and chief marketing office at Centrify, which makes identity and access-management software. “It shows an individual company’s health and the micro and macro economic environment.”

When tech was newer, in the 1980s and ’90s, T-shirts with company names were a status symbol — as some still are. During the dot-com boom, when companies were awash in cash, swag flooded the streets of San Francisco. Even during the crash, it never really went away.

By Carolyn Said - San Francisco Chronicle July 11, 2015