Ask any true music aficionado about their most treasured item and it’s likely to be a T-shirt bought at a “transcendent” gig. The kind you really had to be there for. But luckily they were, and they have the tee to prove it. Merchandise used to be things like band shirts . Wearing one without knowing the band, let alone being at the gig? Deeply uncool. It was The New Yorker tote bag carried with pride to signal you were, in fact, the kind of person who reads The New Yorker. Or at least let them pile up while waiting for the time to sit down with a cup of tea and read them. They just keep coming! Perhaps you might also be the kind of person like my husband, and also former US president Barack Obama, who’s eaten at Washington institution Ben’s Chilli Bowl and has the baseball cap for a memento. Now, merchandise is everywhere. You’re as likely to buy a sweatshirt from your favourite podcast or Instagram account as you are the shampoo you swear has transformed your hair. Indeed the idea of “I consume, therefore I am”, has never looked quite so good on a tasteful font sweatshirt. Need proof? Here are but a few examples. Cult fashion watchdog Instagram account @ diet_prada slings regular drops of merchandise, including hats, T-shirts, key rings and that ultimate merchandise accoutrement, the tote bag. As does celebrity gossip account @deuxmoi, which publishes unverified and thus often juicy celebrity titbits. Then there’s Christina Najjar, better known as Tinx, who has more than 1.2 million followers on TikTok (and 436,000 on Instagram) for her pop culture takes, recommendations and her “Rich Mom” series. In February, Najjar launched a series of sweatshirts with Rich Mom printed on the front. She said on Instagram at the time, “Rich Mom Gear Vol 1. I can’t believe it’s finally here! I took my sweet time making this first drop because I wanted it to be a brand and not just a random T-shirt with Tinx on it. “I wanted to give you guys a cool piece of clothing that would mean something for years to come. That represented our relationship … and that represented you guys! The most fun, irreverent, smart, cool group of people I’ve ever known. I wanted to make something that you’d be proud to wear over sweatpants and low dunks or over jeans and boots.” Other outlets tapping into the cultural zeitgeist include the fashion and pop culture Instagram account and podcast Every Outfit on Sex and the City. The account’s founders, Lauren Garroni and Chelsea Fairless, sporadically create merchandise projects (and have written a book). This has included a T-shirt with the phrase “We Should all Be Mirandas”, a play on Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt from creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s first collection for the house . The phrase reflects one of the podcast’s central theses, and the one many of its fans now subscribe to: that Miranda Hobbes esq. was the real star of the cult series Sex and the City. Proceeds from this particular shirt benefited The California Women’s Law Centre and Cynthia Nixon’s (the actress who played Miranda) 2018 campaign for New York governor. It’s not just cult social media accounts and podcasts, either. Millennial mega-beauty start-up Glossier has had some of the shine taken off its July 2021 valuation of US$1.8 billion with recent news of lay-offs, “mistakes”, and TikTok “take down” videos. But the brand was ahead of its time in plenty of ways, including the Glossier sweatshirt it first started selling in 2014. Curated beauty retailer Violet Grey also sells sweatshirts, while haircare brand Ouai has a range of branded sweatpants, combs, dog toys and more. Anastasia Lloyd-Wallis, chief operating officer at Retail Doctor Group, a retail consultancy, says merchandise can be a good way for influencers and brands to foster community and connection. This is especially relevant in a world recovering from the global pandemic. “Post-pandemic customers are more interested in building a connection and being part of a community. Whilst it was previously mainly retailers and FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] brands that tried to build these communities as a way of building customer loyalty, this concept of a community is expanding,” she says. Lloyd-Wallis says a foray into merchandise, especially for a popular social media account or influencer , can provide ample opportunity for “emotional engagement” with a brand – so long as it’s done well. “When trying to establish your brand, it is important to understand who your customer is, as each customer has very different emotional needs … it may be the need for human interaction, trust, care. Or it may be more self-serving, for example to show they are ahead of the trend and stand out from their peers. So understanding what they expect to get out of the relationship is important,” she says. Creating merchandise that felt authentic to both the brand and the community around it was important for Anna Mackenzie. Mackenzie, along with Caitlin Judd, hosts the popular Australia-based podcast Lady-Brains. The business- and ideas-focused podcast runs interviews with female business founders and the duo also offer a series of online programmes. The pair, who have backgrounds in marketing, strategy and operations, launched the first drop of merchandise in August 2021. Mackenzie says it’s been a success well beyond the extra revenue stream. “We’re mostly an online business – on our podcast, we interview world-class founders about their business building journeys, and we teach aspiring founders to build their own brands through our online courses. Because of this, we wanted to find a way to bring our brand to life in a tangible, physical way. We wanted to give our listeners the chance to own a little bit of Lady-Brains,” says Mackenzie. The pair already had connections with the apparel industry, partnering with Australian Fashion Week to host live podcasts in 2021 and interviewing leaders in fashion. So the merchandise made sense that way, too. However, more importantly, the merchandise aligns with the podcast’s values in other ways too: it’s made consciously, available on pre-order to avoid waste, and the podcast’s community was involved in voting in products and colourways. The merchandise, which drops two to three times per year, is always made with a female-founded local brand. It’s also become an excellent advertisement for the podcast. “Apparel made sense, and it’s also what our consumer told us they wanted … not only has the merch been a great revenue generator for us, it has meant that the biggest champions in our community have become real-life billboards for our brand. We often receive DMs [direct messages] from people who have connected with others on the street because they’re both wearing Lady-Brains merch. We love to hear it!” Ultimately, Mackenzie says the merchandise works because it feels authentic and purpose-driven. “Any brand can create merchandise, but it’s hard to create merch that also has the intangible ‘cool’ factor,” she says. “There are a few factors that will help a brand get it right. “Firstly, the brand has to have a deep connection to their community … Secondly, it’s helpful to involve the community during the design development process to get their buy in … Thirdly, like any great marketing campaign, the range has to have some greater meaning or story behind it. “Our latest range of summer merch was built around the concept of ‘playtime’. We spoke about the fact that getting away from the desk and doing things just for the fun of it ultimately leads to a better life and a better business. This messaging landed with our community, and led to higher sales.” Actually, maybe someone ought to put that on a T-shirt.