Have you ever wished the greasy waft of a bucket of fried chicken could permeate your house? KFC has got you covered with a poultry-scented firelog. What about the ability to subdue the natural, evergreen scent of your Christmas tree with the faux odour of a Triple Double Crunchwrap? Too bad. You’ll just have to wait until next year — Taco Bell’s limited-edition, beefy-scented wrapping paper swiftly sold out earlier this month.
In what can only be explained as a recurring case of eggnog-fuelled one-upmanship, each holiday season seems to spawn more bizarre brand and restaurant merchandising. And while themed food promotions are nothing new, until fairly recently, they were more likely to deal in special menu items and nondescript prizes than outlandish apparel or other inedible seasonal curiosities.
This year’s spate of swag appears especially bountiful, with the launch of a McDonald’s online store in the U.S. — Golden Arches Unlimited — which offers more than 20 holiday items, accessories and apparel, including a Mickey D’s nickname t-shirt, sesame seed umbrella and socks with fry boxes.
“With the Instagram generation, people want really distinctive merchandise and particularly they want to deploy their fandom,” Colin Mitchell, McDonald’s senior VP of global marketing, told Ad Age. “We know people will pay for this and we have more pent up demand than we can meet. The question is just how big it will be.”
In this same vein, White Castle has added ugly sweaters and hamburger-scented candles to its lineup; Taco Bell started hawking onesies and hot sauce tree ornaments; and Red Lobster launched an online pop-up shop to sell branded fanny packs, tumblers, t-shirts and the aforementioned limited-edition cheddar bay biscuit “ugly” holiday sweater, featuring a sheathed pocket to keep your biscuits warm.
Not to be outdone by quick service restaurants, the Campbell Soup Company opened a Chunky Soup Swag shop where fans could snap up soup-holding gloves (sorry to ruin the suspense, but … they’re just regular gloves) and hats with spork holders attached. Oreo also added some seasonal products to its online store — including an ugly sweater depicting the classic cookie dunk — and Hidden Valley released a “ranch lover’s” holiday line complete with a blanket and pillow set, and dressing-filled stocking.
All this prompts a fairly straightforward question: Why on earth? And why do so many fast food restaurants seem to be joining the fray now?
“Food-inspired apparel is the greatest form of marketing for the brand itself,” says Jenna Jacobson, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, adding that getting in on this new stream of wares is a key strategy for brands to stay relevant. “The restaurants want to be a lifestyle rather than merely just a place to eat. So, specifically connecting with younger audiences, this food-inspired apparel or merchandise provides an opportunity to connect with customers in a quirky and fun way while also building brand loyalty.”
From the consumer’s perspective, food-branded swag is cute, lighthearted and relatively unique. Just like wearing any branded clothing, from Nike joggers to band t-shirts, it’s a means of self-expression. Sporting a Colonel Sanders onesie, Macca’s t-shirt or biscuit-festooned sweater is a way to communicate that you don’t take yourself too seriously, Jacobson adds. It also puts the concept of “you are what you eat” into a different context: “It says something about your personality, so it builds into your personal brand and is really part of this experiential culture, which really boosts authenticity.”
Social media, Instagram especially, has changed the game when it comes to the types of swag restaurants and food brands are compelled to sell. If they’ve poured resources into creating something that stands out, it can help boost their efforts. On the other hand, though, it can inflate “the perceived importance of just about everything,” says David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
In this sense, he highlights, it might seem like this year’s onslaught of holiday-themed food swag is remarkable in its scale, but it may just be that our awareness of it has changed. While the move to apparel over the past few years likely represents a marked difference in approach for restaurant and food companies, attempting to cash in on holidays is nothing new.
“It’s an interesting thing that companies may very well be moving towards things like logs that smell like (fried) chicken and things like that, because people will talk about them a lot more, and social media amplifies that,” Soberman says. “Whereas if you just have standard promotional rewards or standard promotional items that are being offered, you’re not going to get as much of the topspin on social media.”
The obvious Instagrammability of this new breed of swag is, naturally, it’s not-so-secret secret to success. “It makes for funny, quirky and visually appealing content that also speaks to the individual’s brand — who they think they are — and showing people your particular lifestyle,” says Jacobson. “The social media angle on this is certainly something that people who are purchasing will likely post — much like you see with the ugly Christmas sweater type of thing. People are going out to be seen and connect with family and friends, and this adds a playful nature to the holiday season.”
Selling merchandise online is a relatively low-risk endeavour, she adds, and cultivating a culture of voluntary brand ambassadors eager to express their fealty makes it more than worth it. As a means of building hype and staying top of mind, selling limited-edition seasonal products is an effective, and often creative, way to do it.
So, as we reflect on holiday-themed swag of years past — and its wondrous array of plushy fried chicken pillows, Pillsbury Doughboy ugly Christmas sweaters and Cheeteau Perfume — we can rest assured that a year from now, we’ll all be marvelling at a whole new crop of unimaginable merchandise as fast food restaurants and brands continue to grapple for our attention.