branded ugly holiday sweaters

Sources: Hidden Valley Ranch, Heinz, Planters

By Robert Klara

21 mins ago

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.

Hidden Valley Ranch

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.