Emotional Connection: What Merch Can Mean for Marketing

Available for a limited time, KFC offered merchandise ranging from pillows to sweatshirts for sale online, many of which sold out in just two hours of the product line launch.

Creating a connection with your consumers is not only a necessary practice in PR and customer service, but also is a means to create stronger marketing. But how exactly does one accomplish creating stronger connections with consumers without necessarily changing their product? Well, companies like KFC, Taco Bell, MacDonald’s, Starburst, and IHOP have tapped into the very answer: Merchandise.

Discussed in a recent article by Adweek, merchandise such as clothing lines are a cheap and easy way for companies to extend beyond their primary products and services and create stronger emotional connections with their consumers. But how so? According to Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at Landor, when decorating clothing with a specific brand, customers create an emotional attachment because, “The brand transcends being a product; it becomes something people identify with.”

The merchandise trend amongst brands is expected to grow as well, according to co-founder of Metaforce, Allen Adamson. The trend itself is in part due to the “decline of paid media and the rise of social media.” But then again, one might ask who would buy this? According to a study by Mintel, 57% of 18-23-year olds consider themselves “nerds” in the context being that a nerd is someone representing something they like. Whether it’s a Star Wars backpack or a pair of KFC socks, 41% of the same group surveyed said they would be happy to buy something entirely unique that they had never seen before.

Still not convinced? When KFC launched their limited time merchandise such as a KFC sweatshirt and a Colonel Sanders pillowcase on their website, the products sold out in just two hours. The catch was these were thoughtfully designed pieces; KFCs’ director of media Steve Kelly said they had, “toiled over the design for months to get it right because [they] didn’t want it to come off as hokey or as a stunt.”

Alongside KFC is IHOP, who recently released a pajama clothing line partnered with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals charity. Not only can customers enjoy wearing their very own “PancakeWear” to their local IHOP, but half the proceeds go to the charity to help raise awareness and support for children’s hospitals. The pajamas can be purchased on eBay, with varying styles for both adults and kids.

IHOP’s “PancakeWear” can be purchased on eBay, with half the proceeds going towards raising funds for children’s hospitals.

The best example of this trending strategy is Starburst’s recent product line You Are A Pink Starburst. The company partnered with Project Runway winner Erin Robinson to create a limited time release line of clothing and accessories. As stated on Starburst’s website, both the company and Robinson were, “inspired by the thought that Pink Starburst isn’t only a candy, it’s a lifestyle.” Going back to what Ordahl had said about clothing, brands, and identity, Starburst not only created products for people to “connect” to, but an ideology behind the product that transcends their candy line; not only does the line play off the majority-favored flavor, but taps into the very nature of those who might possibly purchase the product: the desire to be unique.

In partnership with Project Runway winner Erin Robinson, Starburst released a clothing and product line promoting uniqueness and expression based off the meme, “You are a pink starburst.”

From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to think about:

  • What other methods might marketing managers consider in order to create emotional connections with their consumers?
  • What mistakes might marketing managers make when attempting a project like KFC, Starburst, and IHOP?
  • How does this strategy address long term concerns for a brand?