Corporate merch has never been hotter than it is right now. It makes sense. Drop culture and merch lines have been a game-changer for streetwear, and eventually, these things trickle down to even the least fashionable of brands.
Marketers are always looking for a way to say something more than just “buy our stuff.” With merch, they get to say “Buy our other stuff” and their audiences are mostly cool with it.
Savvy brands have taken full advantage of this. A prime example is Liquid Death, who markets their metalcore canned water with an invitation to sell one’s soul. Why let water remain as the vital resource without which man cannot survive, when it can also be a statement piece that says, “Yes, I am Satan’s favorite.” With this level of commitment, a can of water isn’t enough. A tee for you, a vinyl record for your home, and a bib for your newborn will be needed.
Much has been said about this growing merch phenomenon, but I want to offer something new: a practical grid for understanding, if you will, what works and what doesn’t within the worlds of corporate merch.
You’ve probably come across an alignment chart at some point. They were originally used for describing Dungeons and Dragons characters, but now they’re used for memes too. In an alignment chart, a matrix is formed to grade things on a scale from “lawful” to “chaotic” and “good” to ”evil”.
Here’s a good example:
In the context of corporate merch, I see lawful as practical goods that are representative of the product itself. Chaotic is really left-field ideas and objects that one wouldn’t expect from the given brand and offer the element of surprise. Good in this chart is... good. People might actually buy this stuff. Evil is the opposite. Evil corporate merch is nearly unwearable and has virtually no monetary value. If you got one of these items as a gift and decided you would just flip it on eBay and keep the cash, you’d be entirely out of luck because there is no chance of a secondary market.
Without further delay, here is my extremely rigorous corporate merch alignment chart:
Dunkin’ - Lawful Good
Dunkin’ merch is a whole phenomenon. Thanks to the help of Dunkin’ stan and super-influencer Charli D’Amelio, it seems like the kids are really wearing these things. People aren’t ashamed to run on Dunkin’. I was most impressed by the practicality of products like their customizable donut tee. A shirt like this would have really saved me from a lot of tense moments reaching for the last pink frosted doughnut.
Kum & Go Ampersand 1’s - Neutral Good
I have to be transparent. This shoe is mostly here because I’m a Kum and Go loyalist. With quality merch, presence for social issues, and a hilarious brand voice, Kum & Go has transcended from a midwest convenience store with an unfortunate name to a very lovable midwest convenience store with an unfortunate name. They’ve been on a hot streak with merch like their Busch Light Drinking Team caps and the HOMOCO shirts and swim trunks. Their latest drop was their first leap into the footwear game, where hypebeast legends are made. The shoes were pretty conservative, with a look that appropriately earned the nickname “Kummon Projects.” They clearly put in the work with some creative promo images, as well as custom labels and artwork for the boxes. When my pair arrives, I’ll be saving them for special occasions, not just trips to the pump.
Liquid Death Death Dispenser - Chaotic Good
Liquid Death is just water, but way more expensive. And yet, by the power of brand alone, they’ve made it worth it. I didn’t think there were any niches left in the water market, but Liquid Death found one: tatted, irreverent, gory, and well-hydrated. Their merch is really good. They always have high-quality artwork and their products are much more clever than just slapping the logo on a hoodie. The vending machine is a perfect example. It’s practical, in a sense, but so extremely over the top. For a disruptive software startup trying to figure out how to spend their enormous series B or a music venue wanting to still squeeze a few bucks out of their sober patrons, the $5,800 price tag is a small price to pay for the most metal drink dispenser on the planet: The Death Dispenser.
Fast Hoodie - Lawful Neutral
It seems like the broad consensus is that we’re pretty tired of the software company hoodie. I am at least. But it’s extremely important. Fast may be the first software company to use a blend of cotton and polyester to gain footing in a competitive product category. It’s a pretty lifeless piece of merch because the company never bothered to create a visual identity. But by selling them for $5, it’s sort of inevitable that they would gain traction. To their credit, choosing to take a $20-30 loss on a hoodie tens of thousands of times is not that bland of a marketing strategy. For that reason, I consider the product neutral.
Mucinex Sickwear - True Neutral
In the world of unnecessary and excessive brand merch, what is true neutral? I offer you Mucinex “Sickwear.” They’re overestimating how much people care for the Mucinex brand and their mucousy mascot, but it’s worth recognizing their quality of effort. This stuff looks really nice. Materials are high quality. Logo and mucus placement are tasteful. Photos are beautiful. If you’re gonna make merch you have no business creating, you should at least do it well.
KFC Firelog - Chaotic Neutral
KFC has occupied the chaotic column for quite some time with campaigns ranging from what I would call evil to some nearly being good. I chose the firelog because it’s totally left field in a way we expect from KFC, but it’s accessible and honestly seems kind of nice. There’s a shock factor, but it ends up being sort of appealing. Sometimes, when sitting around a fire pit on a brisk fall night or cozying up around the fireplace in the dead of winter, the smell of firewood alone isn’t enough to awaken the senses. When you need a little more firepower, a KFC Firelog might be just what you need.
Slack Sneakers - Lawful Evil
We are nearly a decade from the sporty Cole Haan thing being cool. We suffer each day at the Slack notifications assaulting us while we struggle to focus. We weren’t even 100% sold on the new logo. You didn’t have to do this Slack. These shoes end up having the vibe of a sponsorship logo on a sports jersey. Is this a warning sign of some weird dystopian future where growth marketing is a competitive sport?
There are so many shoes in the world, why choose these? If you bought these, I’m begging you to hang them up and put your Allbirds back on.
NFL x Ed Sheeran - Neutral Evil
This merch drop was so sad the social media manager was like “No, I can’t work with this”. They got a tweet from the official NFL account but the best they could offer was “it’s here.”
The question on a lot of people’s minds was “Who is this for?”
The obvious answer is Sheeran superfans who also love the NFL. No favorite team, though. Just fond of the organization. At super bowl parties, instead of just admitting they love Doritos commercials and buffalo chicken dip, they weave an elaborate story of how much they love football and hate the Patriots but have to respect Tom Brady’s talent or whatever. They sign up for fantasy football, pick a kicker in the first round, and disappear for the rest of the season.
Stouffer’s Let’s Canoodle Blanket - Chaotic Evil
Sorry Stouffer’s, I’m not that kind of guy.
It seems so easy. Every brand must have boundaries and Stouffer’s should know better than to present itself amidst the physical connection of two lovers. And yet here we are.
I don’t like thinking about who might buy a blanket like this. Is it the Etsy mom who has a quippy punchline on every t-shirt and coffee mug they own? Is “Let’s Canoodle” the next “No Talkie Before Coffee” or “May Contain Wine”?
Is it an anniversary gift for two Stouffer’s-obsessed lovers? Do they make a Stouffer’s love child under the cover of its sherpa lining? Is Stouffer’s mac and cheese their choice of aphrodisiac?
I shudder at the thought.
In the end, good or evil, these brands all got what they wanted: attention. No one wants to talk about Arby’s new smoked meats, but we can all have a laugh at the fools who thought we’d want to buy sweatpants smoked by a Texas BBQ pitmaster. We all had a laugh, some got a bland hoodie, I got the Kum shoes, hopefully, no one got the Slack sneakers, and nine brands got your precious, scarce attention.
In the game of corporate merch chess, I am merely a pawn.