Avoiding the “Cool Merch” Trap

Avoiding the “Cool Merch” Trap

The “BFD” shirt successfully capitalized on a viral cultural moment. but kept the focus on the issue of health care reform.

Let’s get one thing straight. Having “cool” merchandise won’t single handedly turn your snooze fest of a campaign into Obama ‘08. It seems that every election cycle more and more campaigns experience major backfire through ill-conceived attempts at creating cool merchandise. To make sure you don’t fall into the cool merch trap keep the following principles in mind.

Be Authentic

The press and public mocked Ted Cruz’s posters for trying too hard.

Remember back in high school sex-ed how it felt when you watched that hip-hop video about how abstinence is actually the coolest thing ever? That’s basically the reaction everyone had when they saw Ted Cruz’s “Straight Outta Compton Congress” poster.  Forcing it can be smelt a mile away, especially by the young people you’re probably trying to target (meanwhile you’re causing Grandma to have second thoughts about who she trusts with her Medicare).

Now, remember that old sorta lame teacher who dropped a couple f-bombs. Yea he was pretty cool wasn’t he? Humanizing anecdotes are a great way to organically increase someone’s cool factor.  Anyone recall Biden’s “big f*cking deal” comment to Obama? And Grandma STILL has a crush on him!

Create brand assets,

not brand distractions
hillary's woman card

Campaigns are essentially about branding, and merchandise should always support that brand.  Many campaigns inadvertently create distractions away from what they want their brand to communicate to the public. A t-shirt that says “Netflix and Phil” for candidate Phil Somethingorother might seem temptingly witty. But it does nothing to communicate his message about affordable Higher Ed to sympathetic independents.

An example of using novel merch to reinforce a brand came when Biden was overheard swearing to Obama.  The Obama campaign quickly created a “Health reform…BFD” shirt that capitalized on viral cultural relevancy, but kept the focus squarely Obama’s health care policies. OK we used Biden twice, so here’s another example. Hillary’s Official Woman Card, sold after Trump publicly accused her of playing it, helped spur awareness around Women’s rights through earned media. 

Don’t ditch your brand

Many think that in order to make cool merchandise they need to go off brand. This is not necessarily true, as voters prefer to unambiguously display who they support with a campaign’s primary logo. Rather than focusing solely on new graphic design, smart merchandisers enhance their product through industrial design as well: printing techniques, fabric blends, art placement, button sizes, sticker shapes etc.

Novel designs can be commercially successful and earn media,  but it isn’t necessary that they completely break with your style guide. One Hillary campaign tee consisted of a vintage photo with the words “YAAAS HILLARY” printed on a bright yellow blank. But it maintained the campaign’s signature font, keeping the design anchored to the overall brand aesthetic.

Embrace tradition

Top selling Obama sticker used a retro design to connect with young and old voters .

Data is clear that voters remain attracted to traditional campaign design motifs. These are an excellent, and low-risk opportunity to contrast with your existing campaign logo. Ironically, using a retro design can actually convey modernity since pop culture perpetually embraces the re-discovery of vintage looks. Each generation has its own contemporary design trends, so your merchandise can target specific demographics through strategically selected retro designs.

We aren’t suggesting you avoid thinking outside the box – if your campaign is confident in an innovative idea it has, go for it!   But it is worth considering whether you can better meet your merch goals without having to totally re-invent the wheel.

Think it through from other viewpoints

Before doubling down on your cool merch think about it from different perspectives.  How might a persuadable voter in the electorate react : would they “get it”, be offended, or take action?  Is there something about the product that could unwittingly be used by your opposition? It’s important to take other viewpoints in advance to avoid potentially negative impact to the campaign.