Where Brand Meets Culture: How to Create Sought-After Swag
Beth Wheatley, Gali Lucas & Tom Macpherson, Vault49 London
Beth Wheatley, Gali Lucas & Tom Macpherson, Vault49 London
First things first. This is not an article about why Supreme is the king of collabs, nor will we wax lyrical about every brand that jumped on the Barbie movie bandwagon. We’re getting serious about merch. Specifically, branded swag that has longevity and is more than just a fleeting PR moment.
Between the three of us, we’ve worked across multiple licensing, gifting, and merch projects and, honestly, they are some of the most fun briefs to work on.
So how do you create truly covetable branded items? Let’s dig in…
SEVEN CONSIDERATIONS FOR OPTIMISING YOUR LICENSING & BRANDED MERCH
This is not about visualising how your new brand identity could look on a tote bag (yawn). No, we’re talking about developing and designing impactful branded merch that people actually want, use, and care about. Here are seven key considerations before beginning on this journey:
1. Understand Your Audience
Don’t make a bucket hat/tote bag/Crocs (delete as applicable) for the sake of it. You need to get under the skin of your audience to understand what is right for them. What emerging trends and products resonate? How far are they really willing to go to show off your brand beyond just buying your core product?
Who’d have thought that Gen Z would covet clothing and accessories emblazoned with a budget supermarket chain’s branding? Lidl is clearly doing its research, catering perfectly to an audience beyond daily shoppers with regular drops of branded sports socks, sliders, belt bags, and beyond, spotted on festival goers throughout the summer.
We use our Back Alley Insights™ approach, which is all about getting real insights from real people at street level, to really understand the motivations of your audience to help determine the products they actually want.
2. Trend Alert
OK, so maybe a bucket hat IS right for your target audience. But don’t just make it in your brand colour and slap a logo on it. Take inspiration from the latest trends in fashion and culture to inspire your design direction.
Why not set yourself the challenge of designing said hat so that people who don’t even know your brand want to buy and wear it? And this takes us nicely on to our next point…
3. Stretch Your Brand Guidelines
When it comes to design, allow the space to experiment, flex your brand, and push it in new directions that might be considered ‘too far’ in the context of your core products. How can you remix your key brand assets (KBAs) in a playful, unexpected, edgy, and disruptive way? Lacoste is a great example of a heritage brand that constantly reinterprets its iconic crocodile for new collections and collabs to stay culturally relevant.
When working on the licensing brief for Guinness Open Gate Brewery Chicago, our challenge was to create a collection of ‘must have’ items that transformed Guinness from a much-loved beer into a lifestyle brand with an authentically local heart. We sourced quality, robust workwear materials that reflect the hardworking spirit of the city, yet still felt premium and long-lasting.
Our items were then customised by the wearer, allowing them to put their stamp on each piece. A considered ‘less is more’ approach to using our KBAs was key in connecting with younger, broader consumers beyond traditional Guinness drinkers.
4. Quality Assured
Don’t forget that your merch is a reflection of your overarching brand. If you produce cheap and fast, you’ll get low quality products, and nobody wants their brand to be perceived as low quality.
How do the materials you choose reflect your brand values? For example, sourcing a hard-wearing thick cotton or bamboo textile with sustainability credentials over a cheap polyester blend for a t-shirt represents superior quality, dedication to environmental goals, and longevity for both the item and your brand.
Now, embed this thought process throughout the consumer experience. Can you also make the price tags from recycled and recyclable materials? Do you include a handwritten note on the label about material provenance? The devil is in the detail, and taking time and care over these will further elevate your brand’s quality credentials.
5. Make It (Extra) Special
The ultimate goal is for your consumers to become walking billboards and micro-influencers for your brand, so what can you do to make your merch extra special so that they wear, carry, and display your brand with absolute pride? Do you buy premium deadstock to print your designs on for a super exclusive range? Can you experiment with variable printing to ensure that each piece is a one-off, or add a layer of personalisation so it becomes truly theirs?
When we were tasked with creating a collection for the launch event of Diageo’s Captain Morgan Rum rebrand, the most covetable items were our hand-painted sneakers. Only a handful of people were lucky enough to bag a pair of these unique shoes, and they’ve since become a talking point every time they are worn.
OK OK, we said this wasn’t an article about collaborations, but we have to mention the power of an awesome collab to extend brands into new audiences.
Collaborating with an appropriate artist, musician, or brand partner is a great way to create an exclusive drop that will generate hype and bring new people into your brand through the halo effect. The always-popular Guinness x Fatti Burke Collection is a great example of this, as is the recent Aries x Malibu Collection. Custom-fit gold grills with extra Caribbean flair, anyone?
7. Not Just An Afterthought
More often than not, the merch or licensing brief is tagged onto the end of a project as something that just has to get done quickly. But to maximize potential, consider it as part of the broader branding and campaign activity from the beginning.
Gather consumer insights during your discovery and brand strategy phases, and incorporate product inspiration and trends in design mood boards. Maybe you’re collaborating with an artist or craftsperson as part of your brand identity development – what could they bring to your merch design strategy? Keep this final piece of the branding puzzle in mind throughout the entire brand development journey so it’s not just an afterthought.
BRAND + CULTURE = RELEVANCE
Whether you’re creating a limited number of bespoke items for influencer kits to build hype around a product launch, or if you have a longer-term licensing strategy where your goal is generating new revenue streams, balancing brand consistency with an aspirational cool factor that is rooted in culture will ultimately ensure that your collection resonates with consumers. And generates profit.
Now we’re off to get fitted for those grills. Just kidding. Or are we…?
Got a merch or licensing brief? Get in touch, we’d love to discuss it with you.
anna Beth Wheatley, Gali Lucas & Tom Macpherson, Vault49 London