Gen Zers and millennials today aren’t shy about telling you who, or in some cases, what they’re wearing. Even if the “what” happens to be fast food. Think: Taco Bell swimsuits, KFC sweatshirts and Auntie Anne’s fanny packs. It’s just the latest effort by marketers to engage younger consumers—and this hot new foodie fashion trend appears to be working.
Over the past year, marketers have launched Instagram-worthy clothing lines that embrace both fashion and kitsch. To promote its all-pink candies packages, Starburst teamed with Project Runway winner Erin Robinson on a line of T-shirts, sweatshirts, pink denim jackets and neon signs celebrating the “I am a pink Starburst” meme (to be referred to as a “pink Starburst” means you’re someone special). Taco Bell’s line with Forever 21 included swimsuits styled as Hot Sauce packets, while McDonald’s debuted Big Mac onesies and World Famous Fries jogging suits to promote its McDelivery program with Uber Eats.
A Mintel research study found that 41 percent of 18- to 23-year-olds are excited to buy things they haven’t seen anywhere else, and 57 percent consider themselves “nerds”—playing right into the branded merchandise frenzy, explained Diana Kelter, senior trend analyst at Mintel. “Being a nerd means you can be a nerd about Taco Bell or KFC,” she said. “It’s about representing what you like. Something unique is the new cool.”
Clothing lines also are a lower-risk way for brands to connect with fans without changing their products. “It’ll reach your core fans without disrupting the experience for the everyday consumer,” she added.
Branded clothes create an emotional attachment to the brand, noted Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at Landor. “They have that hipster ironic thing,” he said. “The brand transcends being a product; it becomes something people identify with.”
Auntie Anne’s sold more than 300 items from its “For the Love of Pretzels” collection, which raised $1,300 for the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for cancer research and included T-shirts, iPhone covers and fanny packs (or “Auntie packs,” the line’s most popular item). “It created a new vehicle for discovering the brand,” said Heather Neary, president of Auntie Anne’s. “Our fans had a lot of fun with it, and we’ve enjoyed seeing the reaction in the social space.”
In took just two hours for KFC to sell out of the Colonel Sanders pillowcases, chicken-patterned socks and “Fried Chicken USA” sweatshirts from its limited-time clothing line, reported Steve Kelly, KFC’s director of media and digital. “We toiled over the design for months to get it right because we didn’t want it to come off as hokey or as a stunt,” Kelly said. “We wanted to make sure it’s something fans are proud of and not just a walking billboard.”
IHOP’s line of clothing, PancakeWear, which raised funds for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals charity, embraced a natural pancake-eating aesthetic: pajama pants and socks dotted with breakfast foods.
“People come into the restaurants all the time wearing pajamas and slippers, so it was a fun way to bring that to life,” said Stephanie Peterson, head of PR and communications at IHOP. “It’s a piece of the brand that people can have beyond the four walls of the restaurant. It makes people feel more connected to the brand than other types of marketing might.”
Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, expects the trend to continue, buoyed by the decline of paid media and the rise of social media. “People want to be noticed, and it’s a good conversation starter. It screams, ‘Hey, look at me,’” he said. “The fashion business has been driven by wearing brand logos for years. Now, nonfashion marketers [are] taking a page out of the fashion marketing playbook. If it works for Nike and Ralph Lauren, why not KFC or IHOP?”