Is a Brand Still a Brand If It's Not on a Tote Bag?

How to create merch that's low waste and high emotional connection

Merch. It's an addictive sport. Brands made real, by things. For creatives, it signals both "real" and "finished" after months of tweaking an identity. For employees, it can create a sense of proud belonging. And for everyone else, it's a dopamine hit that sometimes negates the need to buy pajamas.

Ultimately, the aim of putting merchandise out into the world is to create an enduring feeling that brings people closer to your brand. One that connects them to your values, as well as your personality and offer. 

But not all merch is made equal. Many items proudly sporting your logo may end up doing more damage than good to your relationship with customers and the planet. Brands filled with the best intentions can get it very wrong.

At the sadder, more tokenistic end of the merch spectrum lie flimsy yet practical conference pens and notepads of questionable textures. A canvas tote seems progressive, but they must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags. And so the quest for merch utopia continues.

On the classier (and paid-for) side, the goods are predictably more exciting. Hotels have been honing their merch strategy for years. Selling carefully curated items that convey the authentic feeling of the building and its locality. The Ace Hotels sell limited runs of signed art prints that are also displayed in the rooms—supporting local artists and building an opt-in connection with guests that endures every day.

Far more recently we've seen celebrities join the merch party in their droves—with Jared Leto, Brad Pitt, Ciara, Winnie Harlow, Hailey Bieber, Ellen DeGeneres, Harry Styles, Idris Elba (and more) all having released skin care brands in the past 12 months. This has caused an uproar in the industry, with Deciem exclaiming "Skin care is not merch," and many questioning the authenticity of their knowledge or interest in skin beyond profit.

But where do we draw the line between waste and worthy connection when making corporate and personal promotion physical?

Here's our advice on getting the balance right.

Start with your supply chain.

Almost every merch-making website has a "sustainable" tab. The problem is, the word itself is meaningless without understanding every element of an item's supply chain. This can be a faff, but is the foundation of the best merch stories.

The team behind Jurassic World Dominion made strides in the industry when they eschewed common cheap fossil-fuel trinkets for fair trade and low carbon products that focussed on supply chain clarity.

Artisan-crafted items such as wood carved bowls in the shape of dinosaur footprints and hand woven items including hooded kids' towels were produced in India and Nepal, supporting local communities and deepening understanding of the origin of the raw materials. 

Follow the need, not the novelty.

Branded goody bags are fun. Who doesn't love Post-its with inspirational quotes, or visors in hard-to-pull-off colors? Stuff created for that first, shiny moment.

In response to this broken approach to marketing, The Merchery was established with a simple strategy: make products that people actually want.

Its philosophy is refreshing: "If our products are beautiful and of high quality, people will keep them. And if those items last, so will your brand."

This has led to a considered, utilitarian range to choose from—think simple pen knives and tea bags—many with low minimum order quantities, ensuring brands only buy what they need.

When orders do get a little out of control, consider re-purposing—the band The 1975 printed over old merchandise with new logos to keep waste to a minimum.

Think longer term than long-term.

Creating merch that gets 10 years of use sounds substantial. But when you put that in the context of the thousands of years it takes to degrade any plastic-based components, suddenly it feels a little more than frivolous.

Embedding waste management into product design from the outset is the answer to this. That means considering the longevity, repairability and recyclability or biodegradability of every item.

Take Lorde, who decided early on that her "Solar Power" album's CD would be (fittingly) as low impact environmentally as possible. Her solution was not a CD at all, but a fully biodegradable music box filled with exclusive content and a download card—creating the special feeling of physical without the landfill-forever destiny.

Move beyond the physical.

If you're now wondering—why make things at all—then you're a candidate for experimenting with non-physical merch. That could include software, web apps or digital media like an NFT, ebook or even music tracks.

In 2021, Coca-Cola auctioned off a set of NFT merch that drew an eye-watering winning bid of $575,883.61, all of which was donated to charity.

The merch you produce is part of the story you tell—that's why its own story matters so much—from start to finish.

Creating this enduring connection can take many forms— most of which, in the most liberating way, have nothing to do with tote bags.

Profile picture for user Yolanda Mitchell
Yolanda Mitchell
Yolanda Mitchell is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins.

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