In this world of keto diets and smoothies, fast food chains are surviving by going absolutely bonkers with their branded merch. Everyone from KFC to McDonald’s is using this stuff to stay on people’s radars. You can find it all, from normal things like t-shirts and PopSockets to super weird things like shag rugs and inflatables.

This merch is innovative, and honestly a little goofy, but it actually seems to be working in pulling fast food out of its rut.

Here are the fast food chains that are using promotional swag to build their brands:

  • Taco Bell
  • Starbucks
  • Dunkin’
  • KFC
  • McDonald’s
  • Domino’s
  • Wendy’s

Taco Bell

Taco Bell has fully taken to the idea of offering branded merchandise to fans. Not only are they selling cool Taco Bell-inspired bodysuits and t-shirts at Forever 21, but they also have a full blown online shop with everything from bathing suits to Halloween costumes. These whimsical products, and other daring marketing moves, have made Taco Bell a favorite, especially with the millennial crowd.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source: amazon.com

#1: Plush Animals & Bobbleheads

Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua, was an advertising animal that made his debut in 1997. Bobbleheads and stuffed animals were created in his honor, and today, they are valued for anywhere between $5 and $50 on auction sites.

Source: ocregister.com

#2: Baseball Hat & Trading Cards

Taco Bell’s been doing the “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” campaign for years, but they kicked it up a notch in 2018 with exclusive baseball caps and trading cards for the World Series.

Source: tacobellshop.com

#3: Gift Shop Souvenirs

Palm Springs, California was taken over by Taco Bell via a pop-up hotel in 2019. The reservations sold out in less than two minutes, with the guests having access to a gift shop full of branded beach towels, coolers, patio umbrellas, and even taco-covered Hawaiian shirts.

“Between promotions and partnerships with everyone from Forever 21 to Cheetos, Taco Bell’s marketing strategy continues to draw customers into its restaurants.”

Rachel Taylor, writer for QSR Magazine

Does the Taco Bell Merch Work?

Taco Bell has experienced a ton of growth in recent years, and while it’s hard to tell how much of this can be attributed to their promotional swag, one thing’s for certain – their revenue has increased by about 10% since the Taco Shop opened in 2016. And with two billion customers every year, they’re clearly doing something right.


Starbucks

Are you drowning in work, but just want to take a nap? It’s in moments like these when you need a venti cappuccino from Starbucks! The coffee shop has been America’s “third place” since 1971, and from that point on, has been finding creative ways to market their company. The iconic travel mugs came into the picture 18 years after the first store opened.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source: amazon.com

#1: Compilation CDs

Before CDs weren’t a thing anymore, Starbucks released compilation discs with the music they played in their stores. They even had their own record label called Hear Music. You could listen to Elvis Costello or Norah Jones and suddenly really crave a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Source: adrants.com

#2: Magnetic Cups

Starbucks placed branded magnetic cups on top of taxi cabs in Boston to make it look like they were left there on accident. Passengers who told the drivers about the cups were given a Starbucks gift card in exchange for their good deed.

Source: poshmark.com

#3: Custom Tumblers

The color-changing Starbucks tumblers from 2019 were such a big deal, they completely sold out in less than a week. People then tried to sell them online for three times their worth. Starbucks releases a new tumbler every season, and fans completely drink them up!

“The Starbucks Siren can cleanly be presented across promotional and marketing materials. These products are a powerful way for the brand to have their message carried by their loyal customers.”

Joseph A. Michelli, author of The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary

Does the Starbucks Merch work?

Starbucks strategically places their custom drinkware on shelves near the registers. This allows people to see them while they wait in line, be enamored by the cool designs, and pick one up. It’s a strategy that’s totally working, and the proof is in the numbers. From 2012 to 2015, Starbucks saw a 55% increase in personal tumbler use, which is huge as the coffee chain wants to move away from their environmentally unfriendly to-go cups.


Dunkin’

Dunkin’ Donuts has shed the “donuts” and is now known as simply “Dunkin’.” It’s a fitting move. They are becoming less and less known for their delicious Munchkins and Long Johns and more known for their iced coffee, yummy breakfast, and of course, bold marketing moves. All of these efforts have helped this chain stay relevant and trendy for a new audience.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source: news.dunkindonuts.com

#1:  Holiday Pop-Up Shop

Dunkin’ got in on the pop-up trend for the holidays with an exclusive store in Massachusetts. The shop included such favorites as Dunkin’ hair ties, pajamas, phone cases, and even peppermint scented wrapping paper!

Source: runnersworld.com

#2:  Gym Shoes

Dunkin’ paired together with brand Saucony for a limited edition pair of running shoes that debuted right in time for the Boston Marathon in 2019.

Source: nh1.com

#3:  Munchkin Lip Balms

Dunkin’ hasn’t forgotten what made them famous. You can get not only Munchkin-flavored lip balms, but also ones shaped like their trademark coffee cups.

“Dunkin’ joins a list of consumer marketers that are trying to leverage their loyal fan base to evolve into lifestyle brands. In selling oddball, social media-ready merchandise, the company could turn customers into walking billboards.”

Barry Levin, author for Marketing Dive

Does the Dunkin’ Merch Work?

According to Dave Hoffman, CEO of Dunkin’ Brands, the “new branding is a clear signal that there is something new at Dunkin’.” Perhaps the biggest change has come in the form of all the promotional marketing. Overall, this has seemed to pay off for the donut company. Dunkin’ is projected to have an increased revenue by 3.8%, which will put them well over $1.37 billion in revenue in 2020.


KFC

Like Taco Bell, KFC is another restaurant under Yum! Brands that is using wild promotional strategies in order to sell more food. This has included life-sized pool floats with a chicken bucket cupholder, mobile dating apps where you can woo the Colonel, and even chicken-themed wedding giveaways. All of this has been in an effort to put the Colonel front and center in their marketing once again.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source: delish.com

#1:  Clothing & Accessories

Through online shop KFC Ltd., you could buy chicken-themed socks, art, clothes, necklaces, pillows, and other fun gear.

Source: mentalfloss.com

#2: Scented Candle

Fans who followed KFC on social media in 2016 could enter for a chance to win a chicken-scented candle simply by suggesting ideas for other KFC-branded merch in the comments.

Source: insider.com

#3:  Ornaments

This five-piece ornament set was only available in New Zealand, but it was a huge hit. KFC has since fully embraced the holiday spirit with limited edition ugly Christmas sweaters and even yuletide logs that feature 11 herbs and spices used in their chicken recipe.

“Fried chicken and merchandise – it might not make a lot of sense to you, but Kentucky Fried Chicken is doubling down on its new apparel and goods.”

Hannah Abrams, writer for Promo Marketing Magazine

Does the KFC Merch Work?

According to Steve Kelly, KFC’s Director of Media and Digital, “Our fans were craving a way to embrace the fried chicken lifestyle.” And embrace they have. KFC’s branded merch repeatedly sells out, and the restaurant has over 57,000,000 followers across their social channels. Not to mention, sales increased globally by 6% in 2018 after being the same for the previous twelve quarters.


McDonald’s

McDonald’s is the O.G. of branded merch as they are the creators of the Happy Meal. In 1979, these were filled with not only piping hot fries and nuggets, but also branded toys like “McDoodler” stencils, “McWrist” wallets, or erasers in the shape of a McDonald mascot. Today, the Happy Meal is still going strong and the toy is usually connected to a popular movie or show. For instance, Marvel superheroes came with the meals around the release of Avengers: End Game.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source:

#1:  Action Series

Ronald McDonald and his crew, including Grimace and the Hamburgular, were all the rage in the late 70’s to early 80’s. Their “action series” merchandise included toys, movies, glass cups, and video games.  

Source: pinterest.com

#2:  Disney Kitchenware

A deal with Disney had McDonald’s selling plates, glasses, and other kitchenware with popular characters from Hercules, 101 Dalmatians, and Beauty and the Beast. The merch cost only $1.99 with your meal purchase and was a huge hit with the crowd.

Source: amazon.com

#3:  Fitness DVDs

In an effort to shed the negative stigma about their food, McDonald’s unveiled “Adult Happy Meals” in 2004. These included a Dasani water, salad, branded fitness DVD, and pedometer.

“McDonald’s is the largest fast-food hamburger chain on Earth. It is also one of the world’s most well-known brands.”

Sara Green, author of Brands We Know: McDonald’s

Does the McDonald’s Merch Work?

Ronald McDonald has retired, but McDonald’s doesn’t need him to be successful with their merchandise. In 2017 alone, the restaurants generated $10 million a day in additional revenue just from their Happy Meals and the toys that accompany them. They’ve also opened an online shop for their fans called Smilemakers that includes Mickey D’s polos, sunglasses, and even beach towels.


Domino’s

Domino’s is no stranger to taking risks. After the company got complaints that their pizza tasted like cardboard with declining sales to show for it, they did a complete 180 on their recipe. Now their marketing is stronger than ever! Just look at the strength of their Paving for Pizza program, where they filled potholes in various streets, because you know, potholes ruin pizza.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source: thedrum.com

#1: Upcycled Notebooks

Domino’s went as green as a bell pepper with their “Second Hand Logos” program. This initiative had 10 artists take old pizza boxes and employee uniforms and upcycle them into wall art, scarves, notebooks, bags, and quilts. These were then sold by the artists to promote their work and Domino’s all in one swoop.

Source: adweek.com

#2: Adult Onesie

These fun pizza pajamas were on sale for about $32 at select locations in the United Kingdom. They were marketed as “the world’s first ‘wipeable’ onesie” since you could get sauce on them and easily clean it up without worrying about stains.

Source: dotshopdominos.com

#3:  Mountain Bikes

Fans can visit The Dot Shop and browse a wide selection of swag including hats, tees, lunch boxes, and of course, actual Domino’s sets. The craziest item in the bunch is a mountain bike that’s valued at over $250. 

“While Domino’s is known for some of their crazier stunts in the marketing industry, they are consistently driving promotions and growth.”

Matt Geary, writer for Autopilot

Does the Domino’s Merch Work?

This pizza chain, who singlehandedly invented the idea of “30 minutes or less,” is now #1 in the delivery game with $12.3 billion in global revenue in 2018. Growth has been above 20% for the past three quarters after being the same for years, and much of that can be credited to their creative marketing. The momentum on their merch still hasn’t slowed down. In fact, as of 2019 Domino’s has an online baby and wedding registry for their dedicated fans.


Wendy’s

The Wendy’s rise to fame has been two-fold. Like other fast food chains, they offer an online store called the Elk Catalog that contains cool merch, like pens, keychains, and Frosty-flavored lip balms. They also have hands down one of the strongest social media presences in the game with over 11 million followers across all their platforms. These combined marketing efforts have kept Wendy’s at the top of the burger pack.

Memorable Promo Moments

Source: pinterest.com

#1: “Where’s the Beef?” Merch

In 1984, Wendy’s hit an advertising gold mine with the catchphrase: “Where’s the Beef?” The TV commercial was such a hit, plenty of merchandise followed including t-shirts, buttons, and posters.

Source: asicentral.com

#2: NCAA Collaboration

In 2018, Wendy’s released limited edition streetwear as part of a March Madness promotion. This included game-ready gear like jerseys, hoodies, Snapback hats, and t-shirts. Today, Wendy’s is the “official hamburger of the NCAA.”

Source: shacknews.com

#3:  Roleplaying Game

Wendy’s, who is known for their digital marketing presence, trolled everyone on Twitter by releasing a 97-page roleplaying game called Feast of Legends where you fight McDonald’s and eat Wendy’s food in order to survive.

“In the battle royale for fast food supremacy, Wendy’s is using branded merchandise to promote its long-standing practice of cooking with fresh beef.”

Christopher Ruvo, writer for the Advertising Specialty Institute

Does the Wendy’s Merch Work?

Perhaps the biggest area where merch is coming into play is in Wendy’s social media. Aside from the aforementioned Feast of Legends, Wendy’s has ventured into other weird territory like releasing a hip-hop mixtape. All this isn’t for naught as they saw about 152% growth on Twitter alone in a little under two years. Conversions from these promotions, and a strong social presence as a whole, create new customers for the restaurant.


Final Thoughts

Fast food restaurants are feeding people’s appetites for something cool and viral, whether it’s a cool hat, mountain bike, or chicken scented candle. Sure, these items may be a little weird and unexpected, but they can really help increase growth, create positive brand associations, and get people talking on social media. What more could you ask for?

Here are some key takeaways from each of the restaurants featured above:

  • Taco Bell – Don’t be shy when it comes to big ideas. If Taco Bell can open a pop-up hotel, why can’t you?
  • Starbucks – Merch is better when it’s consistent. People get excited for Starbucks’ tumblers every season.
  • Dunkin’ – It’s never too late to get into the branded merch game. Look at all the efforts that Dunkin’ has been putting forth!
  • KFC – The weirder and more unique you are with your swag, the better your success rate. Three letters – K.F.C.
  • McDonald’s – Kids like promo items, too. McDonald’s has had nothing but success with their Happy Meals.
  • Domino’s – Being fast with delivery will set you apart from everyone else. And some branded swag isn’t bad either. Do it Domino’s style!
  • Wendy’s – Social media is your friend. Use it to build your brand a la Wendy’s

Follow in the footsteps of these fast food chains and you too will receive all that brand buzz. It’s about being clever with your marketing tactics and leaving your fans starving for more!

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About the author

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a promo expert with over three years of experience in the industry. Her passion for writing has led to a BA in English & Communications from Aurora University and work published for the Advertising Specialty Institute and The Bolingbrook Sun Times.