As YouTube becomes more business and brand driven, more and more creators are turning to merchandise and products to make money. However, some YouTubers’ merch has fallen under heavy criticism for poor design, lacking quality, and ‘extortionate’ prices. What should viewers expect from content creators and their products? And when does merchandise become exploitative? We talk to Lex Croucher, Becky James, and Luke Cutforth to find out more.
The idea of YouTube being an ‘easy job’, with creators making large sums of money off the back of their videos alone couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to maintain a living wage many creators need to diversify their income streams; brand deals and sponsorships is one stream, patronage through crowdfunding platforms another, and merchandise and products can be one too.
This diversification has become even more important in the last year, following changes to the YouTube algorithm which has impacted the amount of revenue creators can generate from their videos. For content creators who use YouTube as their primary source of income, ensuring that they can make a livelihood off their job is understandably important.
“A lot of people make a good chunk of their income [from merchandise], along with sponsorships,” says Lex Croucher, who along with friend Jonny Eveson design and make pins for their etsy shop LexAndJonnyPins.
Luke Cutforth, who previously ran Fireflight Merch for various creators and has his own range of merchandise, agrees. “Having merchandise reduces your reliance on ad revenue to stay alive, allowing you to focus on creativity and fostering a great relationship with your audience,” he says.
“I wanted my community to get behind something bigger than me.”
As well as monetary reasons, merchandise can have other advantages for creator and viewer alike. “It’s the most exciting feeling to see people wearing something you’ve worked hard on,” says Becky James, whose ‘Not Famous’ merch was a massive hit amongst her viewers. “The idea that it would make someone who watches your videos feel as though they have something that is from you, a physical thing that they can keep – I find that really cool!”
Luke points out that having merch can also “make you feel like what youʼre doing is an actual thing rather than just being a weirdo on the internet!”
It can also be an amazing opportunity to do something for the greater good, with all the proceeds of Becky’s merchandise going to Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity providing care and support for young people who have been diagnosed with cancer. “In all honesty I wanted my community to get behind something bigger than me,” explains Becky. “It felt wrong to release something as such a small content creator with all proceeds going to me, and Teenage Cancer Trust are beyond grateful for this and it’s the best feeling.”
Merch does and can therefore have a massive positive impact on creator, viewer, and occasionally the surrounding community. However, this is not always the case. It’s important to remember that, in most cases, the creator is going to make a profit off the products they are selling. And while there is nothing wrong with this, there is also a power dynamic at play.
“If you just slap a logo on a t-shirt and sell it, people will tend to get mad about it.”
YouTube is an inherently emotion based business. It isn’t the same as a customer picking up a shirt they like in a shop and purchasing it, but more to do with how invested a viewer is in a creator. YouTubers seem like ‘friends’ who often reiterate how much they ‘love their viewers’, understandably making people more emotionally invested and want to watch more.
So when a YouTuber starts to promote products for viewers to buy, there is already an emotional investment. This is the shirt their ‘friend’, someone they admire, has made. This dynamic can be exploited, particularly if viewers are much younger, and some critics claim this has been the case with certain YouTubers who have released poorly designed, low quality, and overpriced products.
Upon releasing his new ‘What is up?’ clothing in March 2018, Oli White was criticised for just this. Most notably, Jack Dean responded on Twitter comically critiquing the merch’s quality and price.
“WHAT? Just 3 small words, in a font even worse than Comic Sans, and we’re still able to retail it for £25?” pic.twitter.com/bzNI8Sz9SL
— JaackMaate (@Jaack) March 9, 2018
Just checked my last 50 videos and I say the word "and" at some point in every single one. Does this justify me being able to slap it on a t-shirt with a RRP of £25? It's essentially a catch phrase now? Right? It's always been a dream of mine to sell "and" merchandise.
— JaackMaate (@Jaack) March 10, 2018
Caspar Lee came to the defense of Oli White, using the merch of several other YouTubers as an example of popular merch with similarly more simplistic designs.
Are you going to also be mocking these YouTubers then? pic.twitter.com/zPrxon6byu
— Caspar Lee (@Caspar_Lee) March 11, 2018
Is it reasonable to expect the same standard from YouTuber clothing as we do from professional retailers? While being a YouTuber requires several skills – being a filmmaker, writer, editor, business manager, and online personality all at once – for most product and clothing design is not their main creative venture. This lack of experience in that field can contribute to a product which some may deem lesser.
Design is the thing which makes or breaks a product, and is the most important part for the YouTubers we spoke to. “Me and two friends make sure we had full control over the whole [design],” says Becky. “It was so exciting to bring together a group that was as excited to make the merch as I was! We all got to have an input and put together ideas, I’d be lost without them both.”
Good design is ultimately a subjective thing – someone might like a design for its simplicity, while others may see it as lacking creativity. “If you just slap a logo on a t-shirt and sell it, people will tend to get mad about it, but honestly, if it’s reasonably priced and well-sourced, if you’re happy with it and the consumer is happy with it, that’s totally fine by me,” says Lex. “Not everything has to be a beautiful work of art to be valuable to someone. But the transaction has to be fair to everyone involved.”
Luke reiterates the importance of considering whether its an item you yourself would buy. “Is it a good product, regardless of how much the individual likes you?” he asks. “You should be proud of your output, and not just rely on the fact that some people are obsessed with you. And they, in turn, will feel proud to wear or buy your products!”
“There are occasions where you have signed up with a company who then produces poor quality product and it’s too late to turn back.”
The physical quality of the product is another consideration, especially since this is something that creators may potentially have less control over.
Lex describes how she has control over the design of her pins, but not as much the production. She does “outsource the actual creation of badges,” but this is for practical reasons. “We don’t have liquid enamel and stamping facilities, but we chose our supplier carefully and work with them closely to make sure the design and colours are right,” she says.
Becky undergoes a similar process: “The only part we don’t really have control over is the actual printing of the designs but we make sure we are 100% happy with the final outcome before releasing it!”
Sometimes content creator can be taken advantage of by the companies manufacturing their merchandise. “There are occasions where you have signed up with a company who then produces poor quality product and itʼs too late to turn back,” warns Luke. “That has happened to me once in the past, and when they refused to rectify it we went our separate ways!”
Products cost money to produce as well, so this needs to be considered, especially if the creator is actively trying to keep the price low for their potential buyers. This can be a difficult balance to strike, particular for creators without much experience in this field.
“People look up to YouTubers, they idolise them and their very existence, and to pretend that this doesnʼt influence their spending is ignorant and disingenuous.”
The final price of a product is, ultimately, the main sticking point that has led to creators being called out for exploitation. If a YouTuber’s audience is predominantly low income under-17s, they may be more susceptible and not understand the true value of the money they plan to spend. After all, £30 for a tshirt or £50 for a hoodie is a lot of money for most teenagers.
This seems to be the case with Zoe Sugg’s 2017 Christmas advent calendar released by Boots, which featured smaller products such as candles, a cookie cutter and a pencil case behind each door, and was priced at £50. It was heavily criticised online for poor quality; Yasmine Summan even went as far as to research the cost of each item included, adding the cost up and comping it to the selling price.
JaackMaate's video inspired me to see how much Zoella's £50 Christmas Advent calendar was worth.
After searching for each item on Amazon and Primark, buying each item individually would all together cost you £21.57 (roughly). So you're paying: £28.43 extra for her name on it. pic.twitter.com/uCXnNDUSzl
— 𝖊𝖒𝖔 𝖒𝖔𝖒 (@YasmineSumman) November 11, 2017
In her video Christmas Adverts & How We Met, Zoe explained the process behind the calendar and emphasised that she loved the product. “I’m all about getting it from a design to a product. Where my input ends is there. Once that product is done and I’m happy with it, the retailer can decide how much they sell that for. That’s completely out of my decision-making.”
However, when the branding of that product is attached to a creator’s name, if anything goes wrong, it’s hard to undo the impact it can have on people’s perception of the YouTuber.
Luke points out that nobody is forcing audiences to buy these products, but believes this can be used as an excuse. “It masks a much more subtle, devious form of exploitation,” he states. “People look up to YouTubers, they idolise them and their very existence, and to pretend that this doesnʼt influence their spending is ignorant and disingenuous.”
“But putting a huge price tag on something you had mass-produced as cheaply as possible is definitely exploitation.”
But there are creators who are getting it right. “My merch is pretty great. You should buy it all right now,” jokes Luke. “Honestly most of the people I know in real life have fantastic merchandise lines: dodie, Emma Blackery, Connie Glynn, Evan Edinger.”
“Evanʼs merch is great because itʼs all based on puns, which inherently makes it a better product,” he continues. “You donʼt have to know Evan to know that the joke is funny. I like that.”
While Becky is a fan of Nathan Zed’s ‘Good Enough’ line, with its “amazing quality [and] amazing message.” She also likes the merch of Byron Denton and the tours of dodie, Miranda Sings, and Dan and Phil, saying she was “completely blown away” by the latter.
“Fans should expect to be treated like a fellow human being, rather than a number or a dollar sign. Itʼs really as simple as that.”
The amount of control a YouTuber has over their merchandise varies from creator to creator. Therefore, how accountable a creator is has to be taken on a case by case basis. Nonetheless, the majority of creator merchandise is not considered exploitative. So what should creators always keep in mind when producing their own products?
Becky points out that “at the end of the day most people’s audiences fall into the category of teenagers who aren’t going to be able to fork out a lot of money.” Therefore, by making merch expensive “it can definitely come across as seeing the people who watch your videos as money bags and nothing else.”
“If it’s expensive to create, then it’s going to be expensive to buy, and that’s fine,” adds Lex. “But putting a huge price tag on something you had mass-produced as cheaply as possible is definitely exploitation, probably of both the people buying it and the people who made it.”
As long as creators strive to make the best product they can, and don’t jack up the prices for the sake of raking it in, then their merchandise will likely be successful. “Fans should expect to be treated like a fellow human being, rather than a number or a dollar sign. Itʼs really as simple as that,” says Luke.
Check out some of the following features by TenEighty:
- Ready Player None: Is YouTube Losing Its Gaming Community?
- Is YouTube Doing Enough to Support LGBTQ+ Creators?
- Dying of Exposure
- The Post Play Button Transition
- 10 out of 10: A Decade of Summer in the City