New Museum Charts the History of Stickers From Art to Marketing

StickerYou's educational exhibit promises a tacky time

StickerYou's Toronto store (center) now features a museum and gallery dedicated to documenting the aesthetic and economic evolution of the sticker. Courtesy of StickerYou
Headshot of Robert Klara

Adhesive stickers are one of those things that are everywhere without being noticed. That price you’re checking on an item at the supermarket? It’s on a sticker. The coffee shop door that tells you there’s free Wi-Fi inside? Also a sticker. And once you’re seated inside the coffee shop at a long table full of laptops, odds are that most have at least one sticker on them. Oh, and don’t forget the Amazon box that just landed on your doorstep—sealed with Amazon Prime logo sticky tape.

Omnipresent as they are, however, stickers get surprisingly little recognition, though they’re about to receive a little more. StickerYou, a 12-year-old sticker company that in August opened the world’s largest sticker store Toronto, just cut the ribbon on a sticker museum and art gallery located in the same building. The thousands of stickers on display illustrate how adhesive labels function as everything from pop art to branding and marketing tools.

StickerYou's retail shop claims to be the largest of its kind on earth.

“The idea behind the museum and exhibition is to showcase StickerYou’s knowledge and expertise,” said a company spokesperson, “as well as to inspire customers as to the creative possibilities of stickers, as our primary product is offering customers the ability to create their own stickers online with our patented sticker maker.”

Does knowledge and expertise really matter when it comes to stickers? It does, actually.

The RePEELed exhibition sticker art features Shepard Fairey's iconic Barack Obama "Hope" work of 2008.

While some people might dismiss stickers as toys, they’ve long played a pivotal role in branding and marketing. After Englishman Rowland Hill came up with adhesive paper in 1839 (opening the door to the postage stamp), fruit companies began sticking decorative labels on crates to stand out from competitors. Chiquita became the king of the fruit importers by putting stickers right on its bananas.

In the United States, stickers took off in earnest after Stan Avery introduced the self-adhesive label in 1935. Starting in the late 1960s, Topps’ Wacky Packages—parodies of popular consumer product packaging that kids stuck on school notebooks—for a time sold better than baseball cards. And while Star Wars, My Little Pony and Michael Jackson would likely have become big on their own, their early marketing efforts owed much of their success to stickers.

Though kids may not collect them as much as they used to, the role of stickers continues to evolve.

“Stickers are still counted as a toy, but they are no longer the fad they were a decade or so ago,” said Global Toy Experts founder Richard Gottlieb. “Because they are so inexpensive, basic paper stickers have become a commodity item. In fact, companies will include stickers with a toy as a means of adding perceived value and very little cost.”

Meanwhile, despite the dominance of digital marketing, plenty of brands still use stickers as a cheap and battery-free way of spreading awareness. Trendy cosmetics brand Glossier, for instance, won its fiercely loyal fan base in part by including a sheet of stickers in its online orders—and clothing brand Brandy Melville still does. Skateboard-culture brands such as Supreme and Vans, meanwhile, continue to build a loyal following by selling or giving away stickers featuring their names or logos.

The museum charts the sticker's historic evolution, including its use as a branding tool.

Founded in 2008, StickerYou does a sideline in making stickers for businesses, though its store caters heavily to the hipsters who just wandered in from nearby Graffiti Alley. As one might expect, its museum delves into the history of stickers, but its new permanent exhibit called RePEELed, makes the case for stickers also being art. The gallery features walls’ worth of work by notable figures including Matthew Hoffman, whose 2012 “You Are Beautiful” project resulted in over 5 million stickers with that compliment being stuck all over the world, and graphic designer Shepard Fairey. Remember him? He’s the Chicago street artist who created the celebrated “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama.

Which got so popular, by the way, because they were stickers.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.