How even the most uncool brands swag with swagger

Brands are adopted shortcuts to an expression of our personal selves. We might not like to admit it, but they are.

A beer brand might provide a clue to my identity for the duration of a drink or two. My choice of hand soap might tell a story if you happen to visit my bathroom. My preferred extra virgin olive oil, my favourite go-to-restaurant, my car, my suitcase, my watch – they all paint a picture of who I am – my class, my education, my politics, my pretensions. But nothing is quite so enduring and evident for everyone to see as what I wear – because it’s difficult to disentangle how I present who I am from … well, who I am.

Is that why so many mainstream brands, from search engines to ketchup, and from beer to fried chicken, are jumping into bed with the fashion fraternity? In the last few months, we’ve seen Coca Cola’s collab with Hype, NYC ice cream brand Mikey Likes It Ice Cream’s collab with streetwear brand Ewing athletics, and the never-ending popularity of the hipster pin. Even emerging brands like Ugly Drinks are thinking like the big dogs to make merch for their brand loyalists right from the very get-go.

For food and drink brands, tapping into the cred of a streetwear brand is an instant formula for renewed brand relevance. And the novelty of an unexpected collaboration responds to a thirst for experience that one-dimensional brands can no longer satisfy. Is a fashion-fluent partner a prerequisite? Not at all. McDonalds created their own range of merch (Big Mac Onesie, anyone?) to drop their recent collaboration with UberEats.

So how do you know if your brand needs a co-pilot with cred, or has enough kudos to fly solo? What’s the formula? Who knows. The fact is, all of this stuff takes a supernatural understanding of the nuances and shifting sands of what is ‘cool’ and what is not. Just to prove my point, it may surprise those of you older than 25 to learn that people younger than you think this is a cool t-shirt:

Okay, so tech brands are the new cultural influencers. No longer do we need Pablo or Purpose tour merch – they’re our new rock stars. Fair enough – they’re changing culture and changing the world. Why shouldn’t they be our new KOLs? Throw me a Tesla t-shirt!

But what if you’re not Elon Musk? What if you’re a purveyor of universally reviled fried chicken? Apparently, this is not a barrier to street cred success. Witness this fabulous work from KFC, which pulls off the unique trick of making the brand irresistible to even those who find it repellent:

In my opinion, KFC gives us a masterclass in branded merch. It treats its swag with a light touch – no big logos, just a playful deployment of the brand’s equities, but also a clever harnessing of brand perception. I’m looking at that yellow sweater and I’m filling in the blanks with cultural references that the KFC could never convey with logo wallpaper. “We know we’re trailer trash”, it says to me “And we know you want it”.

I do.

So how can brands navigate the treacherous quicksand of Gen Z approval? How can supermarket staples acquire the know-how to become objects of desire? It’s not easy. Just knowing where the line is between ‘so uncool you’re cool’ and ‘okay but not cool enough’ is a fine line to tread. Either be really cool, or don’t be cool at all, but there’s a death sentence in the vague middle ground in between.

So to help us all figure out where we sit on the bell curve of cool vs. post-modern irony, here’s a handy diagram:

What a challenging generation to reach.

Maybe. Maybe not. “The young now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise”. So said Socrates in the 4th century BC about his Gen Z.

Plenty has changed in the span of a generation. But people haven’t. We still use brands as badges. It’s just we want those badges to be more sophisticated – to deliver novelty, creativity and experience. We want to be part of ‘movements’ that signal our allegiances, not purchasers of brands that betray our preferences. We don’t want merch that turns us into walking billboards. We want stuff that weaves brand ethos and street culture together in fashion that is genuinely desirable.

In an age where the rise of digital and convenience are forcing brands and consumers to drift further apart, cool fashion merch is an opportunity to stitch them back together. Pun intended.

Katie Ewer is strategy director at Jones Knowles Ritchie Singapore and can be found tweeting at @KatieEwer.

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