Fast food brands have moved beyond just serving up burgers and fries as a means to gain a loyal customer base. In the age of digital marketing and viral social content, a number of long-standing fast food chains are leveraging customized merchandise as a way to lure in new consumers, maintain existing fans and make an extra buck or two. Here are three standout brands that successfully combined their unique brand personalities, the power of social media and eye-catching merchandise lines to solidify their cult followings.
Taco Bell Is At The Forefront Of The Branded Merchandise Era
Taco Bell was one of the original fast food trailblazers to sell branded merchandise, and they have seen quite the evolution since. Dating back to 2017, Taco Bell first partnered with Forever 21 to create a custom collection of sweatshirts, t-shirts, bodysuits and more.
Following a positive reaction from consumers, the fast food chain moved onto a full-fledged online retail store. Named “Taco Bell’s Taco Shop,” the online site offers every option of merchandise you can imagine – from wedding accessories to clothing to holiday ornaments to a six-foot hot sauce lawn inflatable. The chain even joined in on this year’s back-to-school shopping craze with its campus-ready fall collection, including branded items like sauce packet-themed pencils and a Taco Bell “cravings” pencil pouch and backpack. Most recently, the Taco Bell shop teamed up with Tipsy Elves to bring Taco Bell fans the perfect holiday-themed clothing line, fully equipped with mild, hot and fire sauce onesies.
“The more eye roll-worthy style will no doubt do better than the styles that are more serious,” said Lauren Bitar, Director of Retail Consulting for RetailNext, in reference to current analytics on the retail industry. “With attire like this [Taco Bell merchandise], you go ridiculous or you go home.”
Today, Taco Bell continues to take the idea of brand merchandise to new heights. In their latest venture, the fast food chain refurbished an entire hotel into a Taco Bell mecca for its biggest fans. Upon launch, “The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort” – which sold out in less than two minutes – a hair and nail salon offering styles inspired by the brand, a gift shop selling exclusive Taco Bell merchandise and branded activities including yoga and live concerts.
KFC Expands Its Fan Base With Quirky Merchandise Offerings
KFC has fully embraced the branded merchandise frenzy, with no lack of creativity coming from the fried chicken expert. Between a KFC bucket hat (doubling as a bucket for your chicken, of course), Colonel Sanders Funko Pop, limited-edition Colonel-shaped pool floaties and the viral chicken-scented fire log, the fast food chain has effectively boosted brand awareness and created an item for almost every KFC fan.
“A key ingredient in KFC’s marketing strategy is continuing to make sure that the brand is connecting with its customers in really meaningful, new and unexpected ways,” said Andrea Zahumensky, KFC CMO.
Taking things one step further, KFC launched an online merchandise shop, KFC Ltd., with limited edition offerings including framed artwork, pillow cases, Colonel Sanders-inspired T-shirts and a $20,000 one-of-a-kind meteorite in the shape of KFC’s signature Zinger chicken sandwich. Following the online site’s launch, KFC shared plans to partner with more notable apparel and lifestyle brands to create one-of-a-kind merchandise in the future.
"KFC and Colonel Sanders have been American pop culture icons for more than 70 years," said Steve Kelly, KFC Director of Media and Digital. “Our fans were craving a way to embrace the fried chicken lifestyle, and KFC Ltd. gives them the opportunity to let their Colonel flag fly.”
McDonald’s Was Hesitant To Join The Online Merchandise Space… Until Now
Unlike many of today’s popular food chains, McDonald’s wasn’t as quick to leverage its widespread fan base and jump on the merchandise bandwagon. The reasoning for this, according to McDonald’s Senior VP of Global Marketing, Colin Mitchell, was because the company “held its brand trademarks in such high regard that it didn’t want to tinker with them.” Until now, that is.
McDonald’s joined the world of branded merchandise with the launch of its permanent online shop, Golden Arches Unlimited, just in time for the holiday season. The site offers McDonald’s lovers a variety of custom products including Happy Meal ornaments, sweaters, french fry socks, sesame-seed pop-sockets, umbrellas and Mc-Flurry journals.
“We know people will pay for this [McDonald’s merchandise] and we have more pent up demand than we can meet. The question is just how big it will be,” Mitchell added.
To help spread the word, McDonalds is beginning to rely on social media influencers and long-time fans to act as walking billboards and brand ambassadors, promoting the merchandise launch. “With the Instagram generation, people really want distinctive merchandise and particularly they want to deploy their fandom,” said Mitchell.
Taco Bell, KFC and McDonalds have shown marketers the benefits of pushing the boundaries to see just how far consumers will go to express their brand love and loyalty. Between adult onesies, backpacks, pop sockets and branded fire logs, these fast food chains are living proof that branded merchandise is a creative and impactful way to create buzz around a brand, receive free advertising from consumers and expand a cult following in a fun, authentic way.
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