The Weird, Chic, Instagrammable World of Branded Clothing
- $30 red clay bricks emblazoned with the Supreme logo
- $110 Dunkin’ Donuts-themed Saucony running shoes
- $850 platform Crocs decorated with Balenciaga pins
Trick question—they all did. Well, actually, the Crocs sold out before they ever officially went on sale.
These sell-outs probably don’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows contemporary fashion. Luxury apparel companies have played around with branding and corporate imagery on numerous occasions over the past few years. In fact, two of the brands above are notorious for it: on and off the runway, Balenciaga has taken inspiration from such far-flung places as IKEA and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, while Supreme collectors can add the bricks (which now go for hundreds on eBay) to their shelves of Supreme-branded crowbars, dog bowls, air fresheners, and inflatable rafts.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time until brands took the same concepts in-house. Take a look at a few recent campaigns from massive players in the food and beverage industry:
- KFC launched KFC Ltd., an online shop that sold exclusive, KFC-themed apparel, accessories, and home goods. Products included pillowcases printed with Colonel Sanders’ face, chicken drumstick-patterned socks, gold necklaces that spelled out the words “finger-lickin’ good,” and—you guessed it—a $20,000 statue of a Zinger sandwich carved from meteorite.
- Starburst collaborated with Project Runway season 15 winner Erin Robertson to produce an all-pink—and all pink Starburst-themed—clothing line tied in to the limited-time release of packages that only contained the pink variety of the candy.
- Taco Bell and Forever 21 teamed up to launch an apparel collection that featured, among other things, bodysuits that resembled blown-up versions of Taco Bell hot sauce packets.
- McDonald’s created exclusive threads to celebrate the release of a new Sprite flavor exclusive to McDonald’s stores. The line was limited to locations in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and customers had to enter a raffle to be eligible to buy the products.
- IHOP dropped its “PancakeWear” collection, with branded onesies, loungewear, socks, and more. In the words of Stephanie Peterson, Executive Director of Communications at IHOP, the collection “reflects the spirit of the brand and what we see in our restaurants all the time—people in pajamas enjoying pancakes.”
- Even Auntie Anne’s and Trolli have gotten into the branded apparel business, with lines of shirts, hats, sweaters, and fanny packs designed by leading artists, illustrators, and design studios.
Clearly, tie-ins are having a moment. I’m not only talking about mass-produced tote bags, mugs, or t-shirts. It’s a high-fashion, art-forward, kitschy, campy, conceptual, exclusive, limited-run moment. And it’s paying off for the KFCs, Starbursts, and Aunties Anne’s of the world in a major way. These branded lines of apparel and other physical goods are a hit among consumers, particularly those most active on Instagram: millennials and Generation Z.
According to a recent article in AdWeek:
“A Mintel research study found that 41 percent of 18- to 23-year-olds are excited to buy things they haven’t seen anywhere else, and 57 percent consider themselves ‘nerds’—playing right into the branded merchandise frenzy, explained Diana Kelter, senior trend analyst at Mintel. ‘Being a nerd means you can be a nerd about Taco Bell or KFC,’ she said. ‘It’s about representing what you like. Something unique is the new cool.’
Clothing lines also are a lower-risk way for brands to connect with fans without changing their products. ‘It’ll reach your core fans without disrupting the experience for the everyday consumer,’ she added.
Branded clothes create an emotional attachment to the brand, noted Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at Landor. ‘They have that hipster ironic thing,’ he said. ‘The brand transcends being a product; it becomes something people identify with.’”
It’s worth mentioning that although branded clothing is officially A Thing, it’s not an altogether new thing. Brands have shown up in novel places to subvert consumer expectations throughout our lifetimes, and perhaps since the moment marketing was invented. Many of us remember, for instance, the blatant examples of product placement in movies of the 80s (and the parodies of product placement in the 90s). Neither are branded clothing lines unheard of: consider the hip-hop-influenced Looney Tunes shirts and hoodies that were everywhere 25 years ago, or the concert tees that first showed up 25 years before that. And, after all, what is a baseball hat?
What is arguably new is the tone and scope of these campaigns. There’s an obvious self-awareness—and an absurd, memetic quality—to a Taco Bell hot sauce bodysuit or a KFC sandwich made of meteorite. Indeed, the all-pink Starburst campaign may have originated in a meme. These brands are in on the joke, so to speak, and they’re using their immense marketing resources to fully commit to the joke and push it to another level.
Imagine how lucky someone must feel to own a pair of just a few thousand Dunkin’ Donuts shoes ever made. If your brand can adorn a consumer’s prized possession, you don’t need to worry about reaching that person through traditional channels—particularly if they’re an “influencer,” as so many owners of these products are. Rather than “walking billboard,” we’re now in the era of “walking retweet.”
As with any marketing trend, however, the operative question is: Is this limited to the purview of big brands? Are we witnessing the inevitable marriage of fast food and fast fashion, or should everyone be thinking about launching their own branded clothing line?
Consumers do like showing their loyalty to their neighborhood coffee shop, ice cream joint, or bar with a branded t-shirt, hat, or bumper sticker. And while these items are relatively easy to produce, there are a number of reasons a sustainability-minded brand might want to stay away from apparel and collectible goods.
But there’s another reason I haven’t mentioned for why branded clothing is trending right now: many of these lines have benefited charitable causes. The IHOP pajamas raised funds for Miracle Network Hospitals. Sales from the Auntie Anne’s collection went toward the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for cancer research. And those Dunkin’ Donuts shoes were created in honor of the Boston Marathon.
All of which is to say that there’s more going on here than jokes, memes, and hype. From Balenciaga Crocs to PancakeWare socks, branding has the power to aesthetically and materially change the world. Then again, depending on your brands’ values, the best way to make a difference may be to tell your audience not to buy your branded jacket.