Moving Beyond Generic Animation Merchandise

You’re already familiar with what I’m talking about. You know, the generic animation merchandise offered by just about every independent creator and small studio out there. The T-shirts, hoodies, mousepads (do people even buy those any more?), mugs, etc. etc. with a logo/character/catchphrase emblazoned across the front in glorious, exalted fashion. They’re a dime a dozen, and are worth about just as much. So why do so many creators continue to flog them ? How can they move ahead to things that will sell better?

Admittedly (and in full disclosure) the impetus for this post was curiosity as to whether anyone had created a pair of Sailor Moon Converse shoes and what form did they take. (Sailor Moon having a large, devoted, and creative fanbase.) What it came down to was whether they simply drew on blank canvas or did they take things further. Here’s one example I found:

Sailor Moon shoes in the more 'traditional' style. Via: Sailor Moon World
Sailor Moon shoes in the more ‘traditional’ style. Via: Sailor Moon World

Interestingly, Converse already offers the ability to customise their shoes and also offers themed shoes such as DC Comics and The Simpsons:

To be found on
To be found on

These exemplify two things: a high-quality product (the Converse shoe) and a well-known animated property (the Simpsons). Similarly, I pondered a while back why we don’t see any Adventure Time-themes Swatch watches. Again, one is a well-known animated property married to a high-quality product with a history of variety.

Obviously most creators face obstacles on two fronts: they won’t have a well known property, and they can’t shift a high-quality (and higher cost) product until they do. That’s a bit of a dilemma. So what are creators to do, and where should they focus their energies.

Product Quality is Key

A T-shirt is a T-shirt is a T-shirt. Everyone has lots of them in all shapes sizes and colours. All are not created equal however, and although it’s tempting to simply choose any type of cloth to sell, it’s all to easy to choose one that feels cheap and leaves the buyer wondering how it cost $10 to begin with.

In addition, simply slapping a character/logo on merch is a waste of time unless you’re the likes of Disney. They can shift millions of anything with their logo on it because they’re that large and they can. Independents and small studios don’t have that luxury but doesn’t seem to stop them from trying. Ideally, the buyer should be left with that warm fuzzy feeling that makes them feel they bought something not only value, but also didn’t waste their money on.

How Many Mugs do you Need?

It’s a funny question to ask, but it strikes at the root of the problem. Everyone offers the same stuff! People need clothes, but they aren’t going to only buy merchandised clothing. To that same end, they only need one mousepad and perhaps a few mugs. By offering only these products, the potential market becomes limited. When all merchandise is generic in form and function, it becomes a lot more difficult to convince a consumer that they really need a mug with that character/logo/catchphrase on it.

So what form should merchandise take? It’s a tricky question because it’s only thanks to cheap, mass-production techniques being married to customising technology that we are seeing small players being able to sell stuff to begin with. Coming back to the Converse examples, here is a standard object (a shoe) with the ability to customise it to both a large and small extent. It’s also a product that people are likely to have more than one of at any given time. The same goes for most items of fashion like watches, earrings, etc. The ability to customise all of these is increasing and will take off even more once 3-D printing becomes more widespread.

Desirability Is a Must

These Sailor Moon shoes illustrate a different approach. rather than simply including graphics, the creator goes a step further to create a much more elaborate product. Via: Etsy
These Sailor Moon shoes illustrate a different approach. rather than simply using graphics, the creator goes a step further to create a much more elaborate product. Via: Etsy

Is generic merchandise desirable? In most cases, the answer is no. Why is this the case? Well, consumers will purchase merchandise only if they feel particularly strongly about it. In the case of clothing, they also have to feel strong enough to display that feeling to others.

David OReilly’s range of Dumb Stuff T-shirts may be just that, but illustrate almost perfectly how desirability can encompass only what is on the shirts. The effect is enhanced by a large range. Via:

Instilling an aura of desirability can be difficult but not impossible. It’s important to remember that although scarcity create value, there also has to be a demand present for that to be true. Desirability is related to quality from the standpoint that poor quality merchandise is rarely desirable or sought-after. High-quality, scarce items are far more likely to be sought after and therefore valuable. For a large audience, that’s easy; just offer a limited quantity of something. But what if you have small audience or none at all?

In such instances, a bit of ingenuity is required. You probably can’t sell physical products, so why not sell digital ones instead? You may have a small audience, but you could easily take commissions for characters. Numerous web cartoonists offer such works and it creates a degree of goodwill between creators and fans. It helps to create something that is truly unique but does not require a lot of costs on the part of the creator. Digital items can fill that role.

Synergy Is Important

In all of the above, it’s important to remember that there needs to be some synergy between the content and the merchandise. It isn’t simply enough for one to reference the other. There are a couple of ways to reinforce the relationship but the most obvious is to feature the merchandise within the content itself. Besides the obvious choice of clothing; almost anything featured in the animation can be replicated and sold. That means that posters, signs, pens, paperweights, you name it, can be sold. While we’re not there yet, 3-D printing will be a huge boon for this part of the merchandising puzzle. Dumbing of Age creator David Willis has already tried this and sells sold physical versions of the clothing that characters wear in the strip. (Woops! They’ve been removed from the store, but here’s a sample)

Until then, consider simple things like the T-shirt a character wears, a reference to something, a phrase, a saying, anything that could potentially catch on with fans. Which raises another point.

How Do You Know What to Sell?

This entire post has hammered home the point that merchandise has to be something that fans want, but how can you really know what that is? Plenty of people take the push approach to merchandise; “if I make it, they will come”. That only works when your audience is sufficiently large. The pull approach is by far the more preferable alternative. It requires some effort (and patience) but if you listen to fans, they will tell you what they want either through actual communication or by creating their own stuff. If creators have their ear to the ground so to speak, they can learn how best to create and market merchandise. There’s no point trying to flog T-shirts if fans are clamouring for, say, wallets. And if that’s what one of them is making, why not offer to make it officially sanctioned? If that goes well, come up with a few designs of your own and sell those too.


If you take away anything from this post, it’s that there are so many ways to be creative with selling stuff! The easy ways are, well easy, but they’re also the ways that everyone else is doing. Standing out is the name of the game, and while kickass content can help, it won’t necessarily sell things. That’s why generic merchandise is everywhere; people figure they have half the equation down and that’s all they need. That isn’t the case, and it’s unfortunate that so many great animated properties out there have such poor merchandise to back them up.

1 thought on “Moving Beyond Generic Animation Merchandise”

  1. “How many mugs to you need?” I don’t know, but I keep buying them, for some reason.

    I agree that there should be more creative merchandise out there. I feel like creators with smaller audiences would benefit from communicating with their audience. Smaller content creators would probably benefit from ASKING what people want and then consider if the cost of producing it is worth the risk. I’ve often ended up with t-shirts I don’t really like (and never wear) because that’s all people sell, or ending up not buying anything because it didn’t seem worth it.

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