This holiday season, don't be surprised to find your family cuddling by the light of a KFC chicken-scented candle, wearing Yule log sweaters from Burger King and silver Taco Bell rings.
Fast food and CPG companies have released a slew of such branded gag gifts this holiday season. And so far, the public has been eager to play along.
When Frito-Lay's Cheetos, in collaboration with creative agency The Marketing Arm, launched its first online merchandise store in November, the media treated it largely as a joke. But as Christmas approaches, nearly everything—from the $18.99 "Cheetau Perfume" (crafted from "cheese oils from the rarest Cheetos") to the $11.99 "Colour de Cheetos Bronzer" (it will color you an orange tint) to, yes, the infamous $20,000 18-karat yellow gold ring and earring set—has sold out.
"People love gag gifts," said a Frito-Lay spokesman. "And it's a fun way to promote our brand and enhance our sales." (Frito-Lay said only one set was produced. Due to privacy reasons, Frito-Lay declined to say who bought it.)
Last week, Taco Bell had a similar hit with $25 metal rings that spell out "Taco Bell" or "Live Mas." The items went viral thanks to infatuated Instagrammers, and have now been placed on backorder. The rings, which come in three colors, will not be available until Jan. 15, suggesting there will be some disappointed Taco Bell superfans come Christmas morning.
Part revenue stream, part publicity stunt, these items are helping advertisers in challenged categories cash in on the changing attitudes many consumers have toward their brands. Fast-food joints and junky snacks may be out of step with American dietary habits, but the brands themselves still hold a campy, lowbrow appeal that many consumers—possibly the same ones spending less on the actual products—are eager to identify with.
"Food is more than just fuel," said Jennifer Arnoldt, director of brand experience at Taco Bell. "It's an experience, and you're seeing a huge shift in the way brands want to be part of consumers' lives."
The fast food market in particular is motivated to find new ways to connect with consumers, said Bonnie Riggs, a food analyst at NPD Group. "The market has become so fragmented that it's become really challenging for restaurant operators to drive sales and traffic," she said. "These products are a reaction to that."
From 2008 to 2016, foot traffic at US fast food restaurants had been growing by about 1 percent annually, said Riggs. In the first two quarters of 2016, traffic was flat, and in the third quarter of 2016 it decreased by 1 percent.
In November, KFC received massive engagement online with its chicken-scented candle, largely from consumers wondering if it was real (it was, though it wasn't for sale). Planters worked with Leo Burnett to give away holiday sweaters for its cans of nuts. In France, Burger King partnered with retail site Rad.com to sell Yule log-themed sweaters, complete with pouches for smartphones.
Looking beyond the holidays, Taco Bell recently opened its first merchandise store in Las Vegas, where Tex-Mex lovers can find hot sauce towels, rainbow-striped hoodies and bikinis adorned with images of tacos.
These brands may have been inspired by Pizza Hut's online "swag" shop that the fast food chain launched last year during the holidays. This could especially be true for Taco Bell and KFC, which, along with Pizza Hut, are part of the Yum! Brands family. The shop featured some goofy items like pepperoni-covered hats, a pizza themed pillow case and a "pizza is bae" sweatshirt.
While these types of items might make the internet laugh for a little while, they are not likely to have much staying power, said Riggs. Only a certain crowd, she said, will be drawn to merch that tickles the funny bone. "It seems like a challenge and a long shot to me," she said. "Would you buy something this gimmicky and actually wear it around?"
Instead, these brands should take a page from Starbucks, a food brand that has found massive success selling merchandise, Riggs said. The coffee chain comes out with new branded tumblers every season, and has been selling them online since 1998. But the brand doesn't strive to be funny; it goes for class. "People don't mind walking around with Starbucks tumblers," said Riggs, "because it's a status symbol." Whether Starbucks could sell a $20,000 jewelry set remains to be seen.