Jamie Richardson remembers the day a little over a year ago when one of his colleagues on the marketing team came up to him with an idea. White Castle, the burger chain that Richardson is vice president of, is a small, family-owned brand. The mega-marketing budget of a Burger King or a McDonald’s is missing. Richardson is always looking for clever but inexpensive ways to get the brand name out, so he listened.
“Do you know what we really need?” Richardson’s colleague told him. “Nobody in our category has a sweater.”
She wasn’t just talking about an old sweater. The suggestion on the table was for a vacation sweater – and an ugly one. Bright and gaudy Christmas sweaters had been a thing long enough since Richardson was pretty sure people would understand the joke, so he nodded. Still, he had reservations. “Honestly,” said Richardson, “the first time you do this you are a little worried.”
He shouldn’t have worried. Soon after they teamed up with the Ugly Sweater Store to create its gaudy knitwear, the high-profile affair of burgers, fries, and wreaths actually surfaced on news programs. Then online gift guides picked it up. It wasn’t long before White Castle sold out every sweater in stock – even five times that was extra large.
For 2020, Richardson not only released another sweater (price: $ 45.99), but also improved his game. “This year’s edition lights up,” he enthused. (The battery is hidden 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 isn’t sure yet how much hope an acrylic sweater can bring 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 Christmas knitwear this year, as do Bud Light, Heinz, Planters, Cheetos and Hidden Valley Ranch. Baby Yoda is wearing a Christmas jumper this year, as is Darth Vader and Rick and Morty. Any number of specialty websites will sell you a suitably sticky vacation sweater, as do Amazon, Target, and Kohl’s.
Hidden Valley Ranch
It’s all good and no fun, but there are real branding and marketing perks for a company that goes to the trouble of designing and selling an ugly vacation sweater. Aside from the direct benefit of having your own brand name literally floating around the world, ugly sweaters provide an additional source of income and are widely used for branded charity initiatives. Perhaps most importantly, however, is a benefit unique to 2020: a brand with the humor to name a terrible sweater shows a human side and, as experts say, the kind of ease that is badly needed right now.
Old idea, new horror
Ugly vacation sweaters are hardly anything new. In the 1950s, men donned jingle bell sweaters for Christmas parties to add to the damp festivity. Synthetic yarns of the 1970s made the sweaters cheaper, and after the staunch attorney Mark Darcy appeared in a Rudolph sweater in the diary of Rome-Com Bridget Jones in 2001, the garment was forever stuck in the Christmas season.
And while once only hipsters dared to pull on the terrible vacation sweater, now it was okay for everyone to do it – and overdo it. Ugly is good, but terrible is better. That means that the brand that decides to offer such a sweater has to be willing to do ridiculous things.