Trend Report 2020: Brand Merch'

by Bill McCool on 12/18/2019 | 6 Minute Read

2020 is finally here, and it's that time of year where we get to play Nostradamus and tell you where the future of branding and package design is heading. 

This is the first installment in our 9-part Trend Report for 2020; to view the other sections, click on the following hyperlinks to read about White Claw SummerThe Rise of Non-Alcoholic BoozeMonochromatic PackagingPatternsThe Plant-Based WorldNon-Binary BrandingFlexible Logos, and Material Innovation.


At the unripened age of 16, my favorite shirt was a Domino’s polo, procured from a friend’s older brother who delivered pizza part-time. I wore it once a week, and I would have worn it more if it weren’t for the unwritten rules of high school laundry. I couldn’t tell you why it was my favorite. Likely, I was trying to be funny, although after the 10th time someone jokes about where their pizza is, you’re kind of asking for it. 

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It wasn’t because I loved the brand, nor did I hold feelings of ill will (incidentally, I worked at Pizza Hut, but their uniforms were a little more corporate, a little more bland). 

I could chalk it up the era. It was the mid-90s; it was “ironic.”

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Fast-forward 25 years, and you can’t help but notice that nearly every day brings news of a designer or retailer releasing a limited-edition collection of branded gear from the likes of Taco Bell or Cheetos. Even Arby’s released a 6-month subscription box containing swag like a roast beef bodysuit (confirming that they not only have all the awful meats but bacon scarves as well) while McDonald’s partnered with Uber Eats to give away some of their own branded merch like fry socks and golden arched onesies. If you had told my younger self that someone would wear a KFC bucket hat without a hint of irony because they loved the brand, I would have said, sure, and pot will get legalized someday and that I could hold all of my record collection inside a teensy white box without a cassette player.

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We love brands. We love them so much, in fact, that we’re willing to turn ourselves into walking billboards. I don’t mean the Tommy Hilfiger’s or Ralph Laren’s or Nike’s of the world; it’s your favorite dorm-room instant noodles or QSRs like Taco Bell and KFC who are transforming their cult-like devotion and quirky marketing into genuine fan romance. It’s food love, to the extreme.

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It’s that kind of reverence brands are tapping into. Taco Bell, more so than any other brand, gets that, and it’s something they’ve done for the past few years, digging into the deep reservoir of emotion their fans have. What other brands could whip up their customers into a frenzy for a Palm Springs Resort takeover, one where a design team can take over an entire hotel and fling a Bell-centric menu at guests, with rooms selling out in two minutes?

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“While there are no limits to what defines us, I do think you have to be self-aware and transparent as a brand,” says Christopher Ayres, Executive Creative Director at Taco Bell. “Not only in the product or design aspect but also in who you are and what you represent, because those core values will ultimately get imbued into that logo or symbol. “

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When Ayres joined Taco Bell back in 2015 so that he could help build their in-house design team (TBD), they wanted to be a part of a larger, cultural conversation. Yes, it’s tacos, but they’ve brought an art-pop sensibility to their work—be it Taco Bell gear or in-store packaging— that’s both fun and inspires a dogged devotion, and that’s just what they’re looking for.

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“When you say cult-like, I take it as a compliment, because you’re inspiring passionate loyalty on a deeper level. We’ve got your back, and you’ve got ours.”

Think of it as going to one to your favorite coffee shop or pizza joint and buying a t-shirt from them, but dialed up to 11. Everyone wants to talk about the food they love, and they don’t care that they’re flashing a LaCroix bathing suit

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There are even brand collaborations we can’t get enough of. Earlier this summer, Adidas teamed with bargain-bin iced tea maker Arizona for a pop-up shop in New York City selling—you guessed it—99-cent sneakers decked out like a can of Green Tea. Sneakerheads pounced on the event, and it was quickly shut down by the NYPD.  

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But that’s precisely the kind of pop-culture moment brands want to create. You take a near-iconic or memorable design from a 7-11 staple and slap it on a pair of trainers, and you have a moment on your hands. But could Wendy’s do what KFC does? Why Takis and Cheetos, but not Lays or Ruffles? 

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“Brands can help rep who you are because of your enthusiasm and interests,” Ayres says. “But beyond that, it feels sort of tribal, because it represents what you love as compared to others who may also wear that badge value. A shared bond—think sports teams, fashion labels, or philanthropic causes—lets the world know who you are, what you stand for, and, in turn, helps you find others that share those interests with you. 

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“We’re all finding our tribe out in the world without saying a single word,” he adds. “And any and all things—brands included—help us find that connection and self-expression. I wore a Taco Bell hoodie at Disneyland one day, and more passers-by called out my outfit than my friends’ Mickey shirts.”

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Ultimately, you’re communicating with an audience, and it’s one that wants to hear from you with regular Weather Channel-like updates. And brands recognize that into today’s hyperconnected world, one where we’re Instagramming KFC hoodies and Moschino Budweiser dresses—they need to do this, they have to be a part of the culture.

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“We like creating a dialogue with our fans,” Ayres says. “We love engaging with them in new, bold, and innovative ways. We get to learn about who they are, what they dig, and even things they don’t like. And that, in turn, helps us serve up what we do every day in a distinctive, more thoughtful way. Also, life is short, and tacos are awesome. Why not have some fun?”

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Food is something that connects us all—it’s our present and past, our culture, it’s who we are, and it’s something that makes our world just a little bit smaller and intimate. And if it comes in the form of a Taco Bell sweatshirt or a pair of Lucky Charms Nike’s, then I’d argue that’s a signal flare. It’s a wink and a nod, maybe a little laugh, but ultimately it’s about a shared experience.

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