Ugly Sweater Marketing

Jamie Richardson remembers the day, a little over a year ago, when one of his colleagues on the marketing team came to him with an idea.

White Castle, the burger chain for which Richardson serves as vice president, is a small, family-owned brand. It lacks the mega marketing budget of a Burger King or a McDonald’s. Richardson’s always looking for clever but cost-effective ways to get the brand name out there, and so he listened.

“You know what we really need?” Richardson’s colleague told him. “Nobody else in our category has a sweater.”

She wasn’t just talking about any old sweater. The suggestion on the table was for a holiday sweater—and an ugly one. Garish and gaudy Christmas sweaters have been a thing for long enough now that Richardson was pretty sure people would get the joke, so he gave his nod. Regardless, he had reservations. “Candidly,” Richardson said, “when you do something like this for the first time, you’re a little anxious.”

He needn’t have worried. Shortly after partnering with the Ugly Sweater Store to create its gaudy knit, the eye-stabbing affair of burgers, fries and wreaths actually began turning up on newscasts. Then online gift guides picked it up. Before long, White Castle had sold out of every sweater in stock—even the quintuple extra-large size.

So, for 2020, Richardson not only put another sweater out there (price: $45.99), he upped his game. “This year’s edition lights up,” he enthused. (The battery pack hides in the hem.) “It’s a story of hope. In a pandemic, we couldn’t just repeat what we did last year. We had to give people something to hope for.”

The jury’s still out on just how much hope any acrylic sweater can foster in people, but one thing is certain: White Castle has plenty of company when it comes to this ugly sweater thing. Popeyes, Whataburger and Taco Bell have garish yuletide knits this year, too, as do Bud Light, Heinz, Planters, Cheetos and Hidden Valley Ranch. Baby Yoda is on a Christmas sweater this year, as are Darth Vader and Rick and Morty. Any number of specialty websites will sell you a suitably tacky holiday sweater, as will Amazon, Target and Kohl’s.

It’s all good, tasteless fun, but for a company that goes to the trouble of designing and selling an ugly holiday sweater, there are legit branding and marketing advantages, too. Aside from the straightforward benefit of getting one’s brand name literally walking around out in the world, ugly sweaters provide an incremental revenue stream and are often deployed to serve brands’ charity initiatives. Perhaps most important, though, is a benefit that’s uniquely 2020: A brand with the humor to put its name on an awful sweater is showing a human side and, experts say, the sort of levity that’s very much needed right now.

Old idea, new awfulness

Ugly holiday sweaters are hardly a new thing. During the 1950s, men would don “Jingle Bell Sweaters” for Christmas parties to add to the boozy revelry. Synthetic yarns of the 1970s made the sweaters cheaper and, after uptight barrister Mark Darcy appeared in a Rudolph sweater in the 2001 rom-com Bridget Jones’s Diary, the garment staked itself in the holiday season forevermore.

And while once only hipsters dared to don the hideous holiday pullover, now it was OK for everyone to do it—and overdo it. Ugly is good, but awful is better. Which means that the brand that decides to offer such a sweater must be prepared to do ridiculous things.

And while once only hipsters dared to don the hideous holiday pullover, now it was OK for everyone to do it—and overdo it. Ugly is good, but awful is better. Which means that the brand that decides to offer such a sweater must be prepared to do ridiculous things.

“Sweaters have become a bit of seasonal tradition and, let’s face it, people wear them for the wow factor,” said Matt Donnelly, lead brand communications specialist at Amtrak, “[and] this is a bit outside of the box.” Amtrak’s holiday sweater features a diesel locomotive with a red nose hooked up to Santa’s sleigh.

“They think of new ways to create the ugly sweater every year to keep it innovative,” said Alaska Airlines brand activation manager J’Keren Sears, speaking of her house design team. Now in their third year of offering ugly sweaters, they’ve created one with ice blue and lime green geometrics ($30) that Sears likens to “what I wore in the early 1990s when I was skiing.”

Ugly holiday sweaters might be apparel’s equivalent of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. Asked what elements a sweater needs to qualify as ugly, White Castle’s Richardson hesitated, then ventured, “It has to create an atmosphere where you ask yourself, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ And then, in that moment of truth, the answer isn’t necessarily yes, but why not?”

But why now? If it seems there’s a more heightened interest in sweaters this holiday season than in the past, it’s because there is.

“We expected [sales] to be down, but we’re actually up,” said Fred Hajjar, who runs with his brother Mark. The site is one of several to have popped up since the 2002 emergence of National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day (Dec. 18), and Hajjar expects to sell some 100,000 ugly sweaters this year.

“In general,” he said, “we thought it would be down because there are less ugly sweater parties.” But TikTok videos and virtual office parties via Zoom have more than made up for that, he said. Of the 95 ugly sweaters he stocks, “our No. 1 seller right now is Baby Yoda,” Hajjar said. “We worked with Lucas Film and Disney, and we had 15 revisions before they approved.” He’s also seen a solid revenue stream from corporations commissioning sweaters. “They’re buying tons for their employees or to create press,” he said.

Loosen up that corporate tie

Good PR is just one of the reasons so many brands have put out homely holiday knits this year. According to Meghan Labot, consumer client director for FutureBrand, it’s also a valuable opportunity for a corporation to look less corporate. “This is an opportunity to show the personality of the brand and how they don’t take themselves too seriously,” she said, adding that ugly sweaters are a “demonstration that brands have a strong identity and an understanding of who they are and the role they play in consumers’ lives.”

That was the benefit for the normally low-key Hidden Valley Ranch, whose 100% acrylic sweater ($50) features bottles of its salad dressing dancing across a field of white and green snowflakes. (On the brand’s Hanukkah sweater, the bottles of dressing stand in for candle flames on a menorah.)

“We know it’s quirky and irreverent, and that’s sort of the point,” said the brand’s associate director Nadine Katkhouda. “The funnier or wackier the design, the more stories we see and more top-of-mind attention we can garner for HVR. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and love to have fun with our community.”

With a 49-year legacy of government ownership and chronic underfunding, Amtrak was looking to show its sense of humor, too. “We wanted to introduce some new products that would be fun and engaging, and also bring more of a personality to the Amtrak brand,” Donnelly said. “A few years ago, we started allowing front-line employees to wear an ugly sweater of their choice while on duty during the holidays, and we felt there would be demand for an Amtrak version.”

There was. At press time, the $54.75 sweater was sold out.

Knitting for a good cause

In 2018, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal pranked Ryan Reynolds into wearing an appalling Christmas sweater to a gathering they said was an ugly-sweater party—but wasn’t. True to the innate entrepreneur that he is, Reynolds turned the ensuing humiliation into a marketing effort. He also demonstrated another valid use for the holiday sweater: a vehicle for a charity drive.

Many brands announce their giving plans at this time of year, but pairing those plans with a sweater is a way to make headlines. (Being Ryan Reynolds doesn’t hurt, either.) After partnering with The Hospital for Sick Children, Reynolds proudly put his atrocious sweater back on in 2019, calling for donations and matching them dollar-for-dollar with his own money. “That campaign raised a lot of money for the hospital,” said Kate Torrance, vp of brand strategy and communications for the SickKids Foundation, which administers charitable giving for the hospital.

This year, Reynolds put his considerable sway behind the latest effort, a 20-foot version of his ugly sweater, rendered in lights, draping the hospital’s facade.

“It provided the perfect backdrop to get people thinking about how difficult it would be to be a kid in a hospital during the holidays, especially this year,” Torrance said, “and therefore want to join Ryan in supporting our cause.”

Charity also added some thrust to sales of Alaska Airlines’ ugly holiday sweater. Proceeds from sweater sales are going to the United Way, which in turn supports DoorDash’s program to deliver groceries from local pantries to those in need.

“It’s a different year,” Sears said. “We wanted to activate a little differently. Normally, we give away hundreds of sweaters to guests. This year, instead of just giving away sweaters, we wanted to take the proceeds and donate them to folks who are experiencing food insecurity, which is a huge problem right now.”

Smile, damn it

It is a different year indeed. And the enduring grip of Covid-19 might well be the most shared reason why so many brands are selling sweaters now: The country needs a laugh, so why not?

“Adding a little bit of levity to the holiday was something we thought was important,” said Shelly Hayden brand manager for Heinz, which introduced its first ketchup-themed sweater ($45.95) this holiday season. “We know that ugly sweaters have been a cultural phenomenon for many years now,” she said, but felt that 2020 was the time to add a little whimsy.

“Comfort means more than physical comfort,” White Castle’s Richardson said. “This is a sweater that gives you emotional comfort. And if ever there was a time when Americans want to feel free and express themselves, maybe the ugly sweater is the way to do that.”

For more information on OOH and DOOH advertising, and how we can help with your next campaign, contact us today at 210-610-5012 or email

Source: Adwwek

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