Meaningful Merchandise

What do mugs, wallpaper, stickers, pillowcases, makeup sets, clothes, and music have in common? They’re all products you’ll find in M&M’s merchandising store. There are five floors of it in the heart of Las Vegas. M&M’s has taken the concept of merchandising to the extreme, printing the famous logo and characters on almost anything you can think of, to build the brand.

The strategy is not far from what we’ve witnessed with Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Spider-Man — brands that began with a tight relation to one medium, then expanded to encompass a range of product relationships.

How far can, or should, brand builders go with merchandising? It’s a tricky balance to achieve, especially because we’re accustomed to the ubiquitous T-shirt merchandising culture. Consumers are trained to expect merchandise and know they can purchase “a piece of the memory.” Such is the function of merchandising.

Has merchandising’s branding value hit a brick wall?

Count the advertising pens on your desk. Without looking, do you know which brands they represent? No? We’re so accustomed to logo-emblazoned pens, T-shirts, baseball caps, and so on, we no longer see the brand names printed on them. Such items have become generic message carriers that blandly fill the landscape, without creating landmarks. They’re background.

Yet millions, if not billions, of dollars are spent yearly by corporations mass-producing what some see as an indispensable part of the marketing strategy. All this revenue, even when the process barely contributes to brand building.

Is merchandising — that stuff we get for free — dead? Far from it. But for it to be efficacious, ensure it passes one simple test: the “Smash Your Brand” test. If the logo’s removed from the merchandise, is the brand it represents still recognizable?

Some merchandising passes the test, such as M&M’s and Coca-Cola’s vending machines. They match the products and the brands. They make sense. In Internet bubble days, startup company Half.com (later purchased by eBay), produced half cups that were memorable and unique to the brand. You could “smash” the product and still recognize the brand even without blatant logos. The more relevant the merchandise to the brand, and the more authentic the merchandise to its function, the more we remember it — and the better it builds the brand.

I was in Berlin buying a postcard near where the Berlin Wall once stood. The postcard had a small plastic container built into it that held a fragment of the wall. Cute, authentic, and certainly memorable.

If you’re considering freebee merchandise production, check that it passes the “Smash Your Brand” test. Is the proposed vehicle truly different, relevant, and logical? Or is it another product everyone else, including your competitors, can copy instantly?

You’ll probably have to spend extra dollars on customized production. In return, you’ll have a piece of merchandise that uniquely tells your whole brand story. You won’t need a logo to explain its genesis.

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