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The Branded Merch Revolution Happening Right Under Your Nose

HuluNetflixKFC. Little Caesars. Papa Johns. Chipotle.

What do they each have? 

Swag(ger). 

And lots of it.

The swag revolution is real. To wit: Aldi’s dropped a merch collectionAldi’s. The grocery store. The discount grocery store. 

And over the summer, Panera Bread wanted to increase soup sales in the off-season so they did what any self-respecting big brand would do, they wrote a press releasel aunched a branded swimwear line featuring … soup

From solo brands to indie brands to major brands—everyone is getting in on the merch game. 

And it’s not just the low-end of the food chain. Brands ranging from your once-a-day Dunkin’ to your once-in-a-blue-moon Ritz Carlton are raging about merch. 

Example? If you’re a Fortnite fan, you can play the game for free, but if you want a Fortnite+Balenciaga t-shirt, you’ll have to shell out $475 for it unless, of course, you prefer the $725 hoodie

And the collabs (oh, so many collabs):

Justin Bieber x Tim Hortons merch.

Chipotle x Carhartt merch.

Popeye’s x Megan Thee Stallion merch.

McDonalds x pretty-much-everyone merch (BTS, J, Balvin, Saweetie, etc.) 

Ten years ago, if you dropped someKFC crocs on your audience, you’d inherit a kingdom: pallets upon pallets of patriarchy who rule the warehouse forever because they ain’t budging a damn inch. But today, KFC merch flies.

And speaking of patriarchy, Taylor Swift broke records with her new album Red and the longest song to hit #1 (‘All Too Well’) as swifties flocked to buy out the stock of the famous “F— the Patriarchy” key chain mentioned in the lyrics (as well as virtually every piece of Red merch on her site). 

In fact, “band merch,” long a staple of the music business, has recently exceeded even its own bounds: Kanye’s ‘DONDA’ event broke records for the highest-grossing US tour in history based solely off of merch sales

And streetwear examples abound. Kith and Madhappy, two upstart streetwear brands eyeing the Supreme empire, both dropped branded “Curb Your Enthusiasm” collections

Let’s not forget gazillionaires like Elon Musk, who continues to use merch to provoke just about everybody (his latest: the Tesla Cyberwhistle). 

Authors are in on it too. Salley Rooney (hailed as the first great millennial novelist) announced her third novel through influencer kits, sent to folks like Lena Dunham and Lucy Dacus. Her new book included an entire merch roll-out campaign, complete with umbrellas, t-shirts, bucket hats, and tote bags. 

And speaking of totes: How about that New Yorker Tote bag? The one so hot it’s now in the hands of over half-a-million people (and counting), the tote that became more of a status symbol than a $10,000 Hermés bag, the tote so damn popular that it led Vice writer, Sam Wolfson, to pen this clever homage

“Famous tote bag company The New Yorker has become so successful that they also now produce a weekly magazine filled with investigative journalism, restaurant reviews and satirical essays.”

(Brilliant).

But perhaps most astonishing is how the worlds of streetwear and fashion have elevated branded merch to, not just a new level, but an entirely new game. When White Castle celebrated its 100th birthday, they enlisted Liberian-American fashion designer Telfar Clemens (whose brand Telfar is upending the fashion world for its inclusive stance and brilliant designs) to design their uniforms, which include all unisex designs of T-shirts, polos, aprons, visors, and do-rags. (Shout-out to our very own Telfar-obsessed Aly Brunton who noted this for us). 

Merch has become so popular that books are even being written about it. A24 films released a book celebrating a boom era of promotional movie merchandise, and the famous Japanese writer Hauraki Murakami, whose book sales exceed 2.5 million copies, recently released a new book celebrating his favorite t-shirts.  

If you haven’t noticed, the world of branded merchandise is in the middle of one of the biggest evolutions since Michael Vasilantone created a multi-color garment printing machine in 1960 to screenprint slogans on t-shirts. 

Over the past few years, virtually every major publication, from Forbes to The New York Times, has written about merch. Sometimes it’s negative, such as the Fast Company article written by our friend Liz Segran, It’s time to stop spending billions on cheap conference swag. (After Liz’s article, commonskuresponded and also asked Liz to join us for a podcast chat and as aguest speaker at skucon). 

Or, articles like The New York Times report, The Cotton Tote Crisis (“How did an environmental solution become part of the problem?”). An article published by the very same New York Times that sells not only one branded tote on their site but twothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelvethirteenfourteen different tote bags. 

[Sidenote: There are touchpoints in those articles we (and many conscientious sellers in the merch business) agree with, such as the abuse of wasteful, mindless spending and its harm to our environment, which we will address in subsequent posts].

But it seems we notice and react to negative news (understandably) more so than realizing the revolution happening right under our nose. 

Branded merch is not just ubiquitous, it has become a cultural staple evolving to a higher form of identity, self-expression, and art, commanding headlines and sparking brand obsession like never before. 

The positive news about merch vastly outweighs the negative. Articles abound, such as If You Notice Branded Merch Everywhere, You Are Not Alone—Here Is Why (Forbes); What Your T-Shirt Says About You (The Atlantic); How Supreme-Style Merch Drops Took Over Corporate America(Medium); Why Does This Simple Hat, Worn by Emily Ratajkowski and TimothéeChalamet, Keep Selling Out? (Vogue).

An exercise: Take a hobby of yours, any passion you have, and see if you can’t google a merch connection. Own a Peloton? Merch. Ted Lasso fan? Merch. Even a book-nerd like me can make a merch connection. Recently, I resubscribed to The New Yorker just so I could get the swanky new green tote bag, and I noticed that The Paris Review dropped a merch line just so this idiot could shell out ten times the cost for a T and a tote. See? Merch. It’s a brilliant exercise to see, not only how far merch has come, but how impactful merch is for every single brand

Anna PaczkowskaThe Branded Merch Revolution Happening Right Under Your Nose