How Supreme-Style Merch Drops Took Over Corporate America

Why are massive brands and startups selling Tesla shorts, McDonald’s chicken nugget pillows, and Stouffer’s hoodies?

Illustration by James Clapham for Marker

In May 2020, confronting a raging pandemic, fierce competition from a slew of new entrants in the alternative-beverage category, and a limited marketing budget to support the launch of three new drink flavors, Ben Witte, CEO and founder of Recess, a maker of CBD-infused sparkling water, did what the head of any up-and-coming direct-to-consumer brand might: He dropped a merch line.

Featuring a “last two brain cells” hoodie ($65), a “cool your horses” T-shirt ($35), an orange “on recess” beanie, and a pair of $18 “around the block” socks (“for going nowhere in particular”), the line was designed, says Witte, with Instagram and Gen Z “creatives” in mind, a way to diffuse the brand’s pastel-minimalist aesthetic and the “tongue-in-cheek social commentary on millennial existence” on social media and beyond. Generating hundreds of tagged stories and posts a month, the merch did exactly what the brand had intended: For a CBD company operating in an advertising gray area, hoodies and beanies presented a way to cut through regulation and a saturated social media landscape and broadcast the brand’s chillness on Insta. Oh, and they managed to pull off the seemingly absurd — selling socks at $18 a pop with the company’s name splashed on it.

Remember when companies would practically beg you to front their branded gear? Show up at a conference and you’d come home loaded with swag that ended up padding the back of your closet. Open a bank account and you’d be prized with a branded blanket for the dog to sit on in the backseat. But now, it seems, the tables have turned, and in a bizarre twist in the ever-evolving power dynamic between brands and consumers, people are now not only willing to adorn themselves in branded merch, they actually go to great lengths to seek it out — and want to pay for it. Dunkin’ Donuts joggers and McDonald’s chicken nugget pillows are selling out within hours. Nerdy fintechs are hawking brand-adjacent wares — Acorn sells logo hats and tees, Betterment’s cheeky investing-themed tote bags have sold out, and in December, Square’s digital wallet startup, Cash App, dropped a streetwear collection featuring a $100 limited edition “holiday” sweater and a $180 reversible bomber jacket.

Companies using clothing and accessories to pimp their brands is hardly a new tradition. From Coca-Cola’s trademark Spencerian script logo that has graced everything from clocks to red-and-white checkerboard bell-bottoms since the early 1900s to Harley Davidson’s $200 million-a-year merchandising empire, brand extensions have always been a component of the corporate playbook. Even Mountain View’s Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley houses a collection of some 6,500 T-shirts, mugs, buttons, hats, tote bags, and other tech company brand ephemera. Just in the past few years, merch sales have been on the rise: global sales of licensed retail merchandise grew to $292.8 billion in 2019, a 4.5% increase over 2018, according to the trade group Licensing International.

The same boredom economy that has driven skyrocketing sales of cannabis, baking supplies, gardening gear, Etsy crafts, and meme stocks also gave us the KFC-branded Crocs that someone just bought on StockX for $100.

What’s changed, though, is the brashness with which companies are evolving their swag game into a merch play, embracing the hype model of limited drops, big-name collabs, and higher price tags, as everyone from giant consumer brands to up-and-coming TikTokers tries to mimic Supreme, the upscale streetwear brand acquired in November by VF Corporation for $2.1 billion. As Americans did their online holiday shopping late last year, they were able to choose from one of the most impressive arrays of high/low branded merch ever offered: How about a Peloton “kitchen sink tote” by Oliver Thomas ($150), or a collectible bottle of Tesla Tequila ($250)? Too bougie? Consider the shelter-in-place comforts of Stouffer’s mac-and-cheese sweatsuit ($95), a McDonald’s blanket ($30), or a KFC-scented fire log ($40). Too basic? How about a hoodie from a makeup startup ($45) or enterprise software-branded Cole Haan sneakers ($120)?

To some marketers, this is just an extension of consumers treating brands as a badge telegraphing part of their personality. “At the end of the day, when you wear a shirt of something, whether you realize it or not, you are trying to communicate something about yourself to the outside world,” says Mike Cessario, the CEO and co-founder of the Liquid Death, the venture-backed canned water startup that sells “Hydrate or Die” T-shirts. But there’s also something more complicated going on. In the past year or so, a perfect storm of factors has unleashed a veritable Merchmaggedon.

On the supply side, there’s been a revolution in the means of production. Thanks to the proliferation of print-and-ship-on-demand services like Teespring, Fanjoy, and Crowdmade, merch has never been easier, or cheaper, to make and sell. Couple that with a generation of consumers weaned on social media and conditioned by Supreme, Nike, and YouTube to “shop the drop.” And toss in one worldwide pandemic, which has driven consumers of all ages to seek comfort, security, and novelty wherever they can find it, be that booze, the Great British Baking Show, or a branded adult onesie. “Lots of people had already mastered the SNKRS app [Nike’s app for limited edition shoes] and other ways to purchase goods in limited drops,” says Dan Runcie, the founder of Trapital, a media company that covers the business of hip-hop. “By the time we switched to quarantine world, they were ready.” The same boredom economy that has driven skyrocketing sales of cannabis, baking supplies, gardening gear, Etsy crafts, and meme stocks also gave us the KFC-branded Crocs that someone just bought on StockX for $100. And it looks like there’s no end in sight.

Before you understand Merchmaggedon 2021, before you even get to Supreme, you have to begin amid the palm-studded landscape of Miami, Florida. Modern merch originated when a handful of 1950s printing businesses here discovered a new market in screen-printed T-shirts and towels splashed with names and logos of resorts, which were booming in the post-war economy. But today’s merch boom wouldn’t be possible without the technical breakthroughs of Philadelphia-based entrepreneur-inventor Michael Vasilantone. In 1969, his textile printing company began selling the first equipment specifically engineered for producing multicolored designs on garments. The screen printing revolution happened to coincide with the late-1960s cultural revolution and the commercialization of sports. The Bay Area became ground zero when promoter Bill Graham spun out a merch arm of his production company and helped launch the first music T-shirt printing company in the country, featuring designs by artists like Bill Kelley and Stanley Mouse for the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile, around the same time in the sports world, uniform makers jumped on the emerging, unregulated industry of team logo-ed pennants and shiny jackets, eventually cutting deals with the newly created licensing arms of the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL.

By the ’70s, the Hard Rock Café began testing the audacious idea that merch could actually be as big or perhaps bigger than the business itself. The eatertainment co-founders first printed the brand’s logo on T-shirts in 1974 — a decade later they would become one of the most popular graphic T-shirts in the world. By 2016, when the chain had expanded into 164 cafés, 22 hotels, 11 casinos, and five concert venues in 68 countries, Hard Rock’s merch business accounted for as much as 40% of the brand’s annual revenue, according to AdAge. In 1977 Milton Glaser debuted his “I<heart>NY” public branding campaign — the iconic logo appearing on a gazillion white T-shirts, hats, and souvenir paperweights — which to this day earns the original client, New York State Department of Economic Development, some $30 million a year. (And decades later, helping spawn what New York Magazine just coined as “Zizmorecore” — a new strain of NYC merch that obsessively reps neighborhood joints.)

The 2010s put a new spin on merch, with the arrival of swag as tribal signifier. Notable for both its simplicity and its exclusivity, the New Yorker magazine’s tote bag launched in 2014 as a new-subscriber gift. With the magazine’s Art Deco typeface logo on oatmeal cotton canvas, it became a status symbol, telegraphing sophistication and good taste even on a crowded subway. The cheapest way to get it was with a 12-week trial subscription for $6, which jumps to $120 for a one-year renewal; the most expensive was on resale sites like Poshmark and eBay, where they would sell for quadruple the price of a trial subscription. By 2017, the tote had its very own Instagram hashtag, and a London fashion editor declared it the year’s “it bag.”

The most influential player in the modern art of merch, Supreme introduced a new paradigm: If your brand is strong enough, there’s really nothing you can’t slap a logo on and sell at a premium with the aura of exclusivity.

But it was Supreme that changed everything. The most influential player in the modern art of merch, the streetwear brand introduced a new paradigm: If your brand is strong enough, there’s really nothing you can’t slap a logo on and sell at a premium with the aura of exclusivity. Founded by James Jebbia as a skateboard and streetwear shop in SoHo in 1994, Supreme started with hoodies, jackets, and shirts, and continued tacking Supreme’s logo onto everything from hammers to NYC metro cards and even bricks (which fetch over $100 on resale sites). Over time, the wordmark “set in white Futura type against a red background in a style appropriated directly from artist Barbara Kruger,” as described by Logology columnist James I. Bowie, served “a secondary function as a sort of modern-day Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, allowing Supreme to confer its imprimatur of coolness on its lucky collab partners.”

Supreme’s deliberately small product runs — and small retail footprint of just 12 stores worldwide — helped ensure that brand loyalists (“hypebeasts”) would wait in line, and online, for hours on release days. “Drops” were often sold out in minutes, with new merch surfacing on resale sites like StockX or Grailed on the same day, priced multiples higher. Supreme would spend almost nothing on marketing, earning hype from high-profile collaborations with artists, musicians, filmmakers, and brands ranging from Nike to Louis Vuitton.

Today, Supreme’s impact on the way companies approach product launches and brand extensions is evident everywhere. You see it in how insulated water bottle brands S’well and Yeti release high-end, annual limited-edition design collections to encourage more frequent purchases; in Burberry’s monthly “B Series” drops, with items available for 24 hours only. As Vox put it recently, companies manufacture artificial scarcity to “turn people into animals, forcing them to scramble to grab one of the few.”

If Supreme was the visionary, then YouTubers became the proselytizers who indoctrinated the masses into the rituals of the drop — and proved that even the thinnest of brand premises (video pranks!) can be spun into a multimillion-dollar merch empire. Any teen can tell you when the pitch for merch is coming at the end of the video, a beat or two after the request to “smash that Like button,” and many popular YouTubers, including the NELK Boys, MrBeast, Danny Duncan, David Dobrik, and Ethan and Hila Klein of H3H3, are estimated to bring in upward of $1 million annually in merch sales. Controversial vlogger Logan Paul has said that his Maverick Clothing line made over $30 million in its first year, 2018. In September 2020, TikTok partnered with Teespring on an integration that lets fans buy merchandise from “creators” without ever leaving the app. In a press release announcing the TikTok partnership, Teespring said that in a previous deal with YouTube it had already paid out over $80 million in profits to creators over the past two years.

As brands once copied rock bands and rappers in their approach to merchandise, they’re now looking to internet stars — and harnessing the same means of promotion and distribution. It is only logical, then, that a new generation of direct-to-consumer e-commerce companies — adorned with Helvetica fonts and an innate understanding of how to make people clamor for everyday basics — would jump headfirst into the merch game, too.

You don’t just drop some hats and hoodies in a vacuum. You deploy them as part of a coordinated campaign to create an “event,” explains Recess’ Witte. “We looked at the drop from the perspective of what a streetwear brand would do,” he says of the CBD beverage startup’s second merch campaign, which debuted in October 2020. The Reccess “Walk Collection” taps into an Insta obsession — pets — with CBD-infused dog treats (a collab with pet-food company Maxbone), sandals (“slides”) and caps with the slogan “off leash, on recess,” and fuzzy pink socks with clouds and dog bones printed on them — all aimed to get customers to chill with their dogs and post about it on Instagram, where the company has over 80,000 followers including singer Harry Styles. “We also worked with a really cool dog influencer to amplify the experience,” Witte says.

To the outsider, it can all sound kind of insufferable. But for direct-to-consumer startups — many of them born in the Instagram age, run by Gen Z founders, courting Gen Z customers, and trying to outsmart snowballing customer acquisition costs — it’s not surprising that merch has become a favorite tool for building brand awareness and creating community on the cheap. Whether or not they are actually buying your core product, merch with a point of view can resonate with people who are somehow finding it to be a form of self-expression. And even if it doesn’t generate significant revenue on its own — not usually the point, anyway — it’s essentially free advertising. “If you can monetize brand marketing, it means you can do endless marketing,” says Witte. “That is a competitive advantage.”

Perhaps no direct-to-consumer startup has so deftly managed the product-merch-and-Instagram tribe-building strategy as Glossier, the cult beauty brand launched by blogger Emily Weiss in 2014 that popularized minimal makeup for people who don’t really need any. The company’s first merch, a gray crewneck sweatshirt with “Glossier” in collegiate lettering, was handed out to employees and selected influencers starting in 2014. But once customers saw it on their social feeds, they started clamoring for it, prompting the company to release a limited line of clothing and then, in 2019, formally launch Glossiwear, a brand-within-the-brand featuring limited-edition merch and a “permanent collection.” The majority of items in its first drop sold out within hours or days; the company’s popular millennial pink hoodie — spotted on celebrities like Timothée Chalamet, Amy Schumer, and Iris Apfel — had a prelaunch waitlist of 10,000 people. Another 10,000 signed up for a restock, which got permanent-collection status this May. A back-of-envelope calculation shows that those first 20,000 hoodies alone added nearly $1 million to the top line.

Newer DTC startups are building entire merch arms from day one. Cessario, the CEO and co-founder of Liquid Death, a Santa Monica-based startup that sells water in a tallboy can with the promise to “murder your thirst” approaches merch like a musician might. The three-year-old company, which sells online and is also the fastest-growing water brand at Whole Foods, raised a total of $32 million in VC funding in 2020. Part of that funding has gone to 50-plus Liquid Death-branded products now being sold on its website, including “skull warmers,” an Eternal Death hoodie ($54), a Koozie Death Pack ($16 for a 4-pack), stickers, onesies, and bibs. “A band’s core product is music, but they know that apparel is a huge part of building their audience loyalty,” he says. “Bands have multiple revenue streams and take every part seriously. That’s our approach.”

Cessario, a former creative director and copywriter at companies like VaynerMedia, sees Liquid Death’s apparel — with its over-the-top heavy metal aesthetic — as a walking billboard, a point-of-sale dealmaker, and a tribe-builder. “If they’re wearing the shirt, what do you think the chances are that when they wander into 7-Eleven, see Liquid Death, they buy it because they’re wearing the shirt. It builds an emotional connection.” It’s only apt that the brand has taken it one step further — now also selling its Chainsaw Massacre trucker hat at select 7-Eleven stores too.

If all of this seems like some kind of obscure commercial performance art created by the youngs in startupland, then you haven’t been paying attention to what is simultaneously happening inside the biggest consumer packaged goods companies. On November 17, just in time for mid-pandemic holiday shopping, the Nestle subsidiary Stouffer’s dropped its first collection of merch, catering to folks whose idea of a good time involves donning a mac and cheese hoodie ($50), a Lasagna Dreams adult-sized onesie ($65), or “Catching Some Mac & Z’s” in a $95 sleeping bag. (The Annals of Merch 2020 will have a striking overrepresentation of pajamas, loungewear, slides, “hotel slippers,” blankets, and puzzles — a weird reflection of human priorities during the Covid shutdown.) All these items “perfectly align with our brand values,” a Nestle spokesperson tells Marker in an email. “Fans,” she says, are encouraged to keep an eye on Stouffer’s social channels to look out for “drops and re-stocks.” Reminder: This is a multibillion-dollar Swiss multinational, the largest food and beverage company in the world.

Arizona Beverage Company — the 99-cent-a-can iced tea maker that you might have thought peaked in the ’90s — has been in the obscure merch game for nearly a decade. The 28-year-old company has grown to over $1 billion in annual sales while forgoing traditional ad spending, relying instead on the design of its oversized cans, brand legacy, social media, and merch. Its massive e-commerce shop, launched in 2013, currently sells everything from skateboard decks ($44.99) and skimboards ($59.99) to silk blossom-print pajamas ($120 for full set).

Arizona also understood earlier than most that if there was a gateway drug to creating brand hypebeasts, it’s sneakers.

“By not spending a ton of money on billboards and commercials we have been able to keep our price point [at 99 cents] for as long as we have,” says CMO Spencer Vultaggio. “Apparel has become such a huge part of our identity that we create supporting merchandise for almost all our brand initiatives.”

Arizona also understood earlier than most that if there was a gateway drug to creating brand hypebeasts, it’s sneakers. Analysts predict the global sneaker resale market will reach $30 billion by 2030; last summer investment bank Cowen estimated the U.S. resale market was worth $2 billion in North America alone. Apart from Supreme, the hottest merch “collab” (usually indicated with an “x,” for example, Supreme x Comme des Garçons) a brand can score is with Nike (Adidas comes in second). Unworn Jordans, Airs, and Dunks — called “deadstock” — are the gold standard of the resale economy — and, really, as liquid and versatile a global currency as a U.S. dollar or a euro, “a bona fide asset class” as Bloomberg Businessweek put it recently. In marketplaces like StockX — founded in 2015 and now valued at over $1 billion — Stadium Goods, and GOAT a valuation of any given shoe can be obtained instantly.

After creating a super-limited run of Air Jordan 1 high-tops decorated like its iced tea cans to give away as part of a 25th-anniversary promotion in 2018, Arizona doubled down on sneakers through its 2019 collaboration with Adidas. When the resulting Continental 80s and Yung-1s were launched at a July 2019 pop-up event in New York City — at a special price of 99 cents — crowds started gathering the night before, the event becoming so unruly that police had to shut it down. Re-released online later, along with additional styles, the two limited-edition models can sell for $300 and up on resale sites today. (Arizona and Adidas launched another collab in February 2021.)

“There’s almost nothing as powerful in the world of brand engagement and marketing as nostalgia,” says Sam Ewen, managing director of experiential marketing firm DotDotDash. “People have been drinking out of the same can pattern for over 20 years. Did you ever imagine it would end up on a sneaker one day? Merchandise can help people reimagine things they love in new ways that refer back to a better time in life.” Combine that nostalgia with a scarcity model that says there are only 10,000 of these things in the world, and a collector culture of young people keenly aware of the opportunity to flip a limited drop on the secondary market, and you can see why the sneaker collab floodgates have opened. “To make two and a half to five times what you paid for something on StockX — if you’re a 15-year-old, that’s a business,” says Ewen.

Last November, to mark the launch of its new Ritz Cheese Crispers, Ritz unveiled a pair of custom “crunch-activated” high-tops, which put on a multicolored light and smoke show when the wearer dances.

“Putting a sneaker on it” has become the gold standard for marketers looking to celebrate a brand anniversary or new product launch. In May, Unilever-owned ice cream behemoth Ben & Jerry’s collaborated with Nike on a Chunky Monkey-inspired limited edition “Dunk Low SB.” (The aesthetic: faux spotted cowhide, a tie-dye lining, and a Nike Swoosh that’s melting “like a scoop running down a cone on a sweltering summer day,” per the press release.) Priced at $100 when they dropped, Chunky Dunkys now sell for $1,500 and up on resale sites. Even more ridiculous, Planters’ $170 Mr. Peanut “Crunch Force 1s,” dropped in June 2019, and sold out its limited run. Last November, to mark the launch of its new Ritz Cheese Crispers, Ritz unveiled a pair of custom “crunch-activated” high-tops, which put on a multicolored light and smoke show when the wearer dances. And that same month, hot-sauce brand Hot Ones dropped a footwear and apparel collection, with three styles of branded Reeboks priced from $100 to $160.

The bad taste is kind of the point, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and the author of Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture. Sneakers and streetwear are the only fashion categories where men make up a significant percentage of shoppers, and Semmelhack says, “sneakers are the most baroque thing in men’s wardrobes. They’ll take more risks. You see this in streetwear, too, playing with color, cut, and shape to express individuality.” Streetwear is essentially a mashup of hip-hop, skate, and sportswear styles, which often feature exaggerated styling and provocative slogans and graphics. It was only a matter of time until brands would appropriate it.

Meanwhile, in fast food, the merch madness is palpable. It was just a few years ago that Taco Bell launched an apparel line with retailer Forever 21 and then decided to open up its own e-commerce site, the Taco Shop, offering “sauce packet” bikinis and swim trunks ($60), pillows ($40), tracksuits ($70), and more. KFC quickly sold out its first limited-edition drop of fried-chicken sweatshirts, drumstick socks, and “fingerlickingood” necklaces in 2017; the company’s spring 2020 collab with Crocs on a fried-chicken clog was also a hit (originally $60, unworn pairs now sell for $100 plus on StockX), and its 11-herbs-and-spices-scented fire logs have been a bestselling seasonal item at Walmart. This August, Chipotle got in the game with the Chipotle Goods collection, featuring “Chips and Guac” sandals and “sustainable” apparel dyed with upcycled avocado pits.

But it was the flawlessly executed Travis Scott meal-and-merch drop this fall that proved McDonald’s had thoroughly studied the Supreme playbook — breaking through pandemic numbness and getting young customers hyped on the chain.

For these brands, merch is less about being exclusive than semi-ironically harnessing some streetwear mojo to speak the common language of a diverse young demographic. What’s that worth? Ask McDonald’s.

The chain has done limited clothing releases since the 1980s, but the fast-food giant didn’t launch its first dedicated e-commerce merch site, Golden Arches Unlimited, until August 2020. The winter collection flaunted branded mittens ($15) and a plush burgers and fries blanket ($30). But it was the flawlessly executed Travis Scott meal-and-merch drop this fall that proved McDonald’s had thoroughly studied the Supreme playbook — breaking through pandemic numbness and getting young customers hyped on the chain.

The collaboration with the rapper and producer was McDonald’s first celebrity partnership since LeBron James walked away from an endorsement deal in 2015. During the Scott promotion, customers could order the “Travis Scott Meal,” enter a Twitter contest to win a limited-edition Travis Scott action figure, and of course, shop weekly drops of merch sold on Scott’s site. The collab produced some 100 McDonald’s themed items, including the wildly popular “Burger Mouth” T-shirt (a collab with the hotly traded streetwear label Cactus Plant Flea Market), slippers, keychains, and home goods including rugs, blankets, and a giant chicken nugget body pillow. Many of these items sold out within days, or less, and secondhand items generated wild bidding on sites such as Grailed, where Nugget pillows were selling for $600.

Scott made an estimated $20 million from the deal, and it was “a hugely successful campaign for McDonald’s,” says McDonald’s spokesperson Morgan O’Marra. The promotion helped boost same-stores sales by 4.6% year over year in the fiscal third quarter — not entirely shocking, given the overall pandemic surge in fast food (though rival Burger King had declines of 3.2% during the same time period). But it also sparked record levels of engagement on McDonald’s social platforms, and even boosted the appeal of a McJob. “Anecdotally and online,” says O’Marra, “we’re seeing conversation and enthusiasm for working at McDonald’s.”

While merch sales aren’t expected to generate tons of revenue on their own, it’s sort of beside the point when it comes to merchonomics, says DotDotDash’s Ewen. “You have to look at the amplification value. A 1% change in Q-Rating or Net Promoter Score can ripple into giant transformational change at purchase,” he says. “If McDonald’s can change a few points of perception [that’s a big deal].”

We may well look back on November 2020 as the month we hit Peak Hype. The acquisition of Supreme that month by the VF Corporation — the $31.8 billion corporate parent of brands including Vans, JanSport, and North Face — was at once a validation of the streetwear marketing model and, for some, a sign of its impending irrelevance. Analysts were intrigued by the potential to tap brand synergies and opportunities in global streetwear sales, especially in Asia. But there were also concerns from analysts that bringing Supreme into VF’s portfolio “creates tension between strategic undersupply and expansion” (Credit Suisse) and could impact Supreme’s “ability to manage growth and brand perception” (Wells Fargo).

When brands as disparate and unlikely as Stouffer’s and Ben & Jerry’s are hijacking the hype model of streetwear brands, it’s reasonable to wonder when customers will get bored by an increasingly crude formula. According to the 2019 Streetwear Market Impact Report by Hypebeast and consultant Strategy&, 81% of industry insiders say authenticity is the most important factor for companies to succeed in the streetwear market, second only to strong design.

When brands as disparate and unlikely as Stouffer’s and Ben & Jerry’s are hijacking the hype model of streetwear brands, it’s reasonable to wonder when customers will get bored by an increasingly crude formula.

Consumers have shown that they have limits — that execution and originality matter. Consider McDonald’s follow-up to the Travis Scott promotion. Its second meal-and-merch drop, launched in mid-October, with Colombian pop star J Balvin, also offered a special meal and the typically ridiculous line of merch — co-branded bucket hats, aprons, chairs, house shoes, rings, bling, watches, and bedsheets — big on loud color and geometric patterns. Yet nearly everything on Balvin’s merch site was still available weeks after launch, an eternity in streetwear time. (And this January, Balvin’s management announced that all orders would be canceled due to quality issues with suppliers.) “The concepts aren’t anything new,” says Brandon Ruddach, founder of ID Supply, a Southern California manufacturer of merch for e-commerce brands and music artists including the late Juice WRLD. “I’m also curious if Balvin’s audience is tapped into the resale market the same way Travis’ is.” Says Liquid Death’s Cessario: “Anytime something’s successful from one company, 15 companies just want to try to copy it. And it never works as well. There’s a lot of nuance to these things.”

Look at poor Slack, the maker of collaborative work software, which launched a branded sneaker with Cole Haan this fall. Initially priced at $120, the Slack sneakers — featuring mesh white uppers, with soles and topline available in all four colors of the company’s logo — are far from the worst branded shoe collaboration out there. They are inoffensive enough. And maybe that’s the problem. “I don’t think that this shoe, or a hypothetical Amazon shoe, would be purchased out of sincere interest,” says Sneaker Culture’s Semmelhack. “It can either be used in a tongue-in-cheek way and make millions of dollars. Or it lands on a lead balloon.” All colors of the Slack shoe are currently selling on resale site Lyst at a 50% markdown.

Rory Sutherland, the copywriter-turned-vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, famously said, “Sometimes the opposite of a good idea can be a good idea.” Put another way, says Ewen: “The first person who said that making KFC Crocs was a good idea probably got some funny looks. But at the heart of so much marketing that breaks through, is just the willingness to do it.”

I write about business, science, and things that people do for fun. Work published in Fast Company, Inc., Men’s Journal, Proto, Marker. Vermonter by choice.

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