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

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)?

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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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