Face Mask Merch Has, Inevitably, Arrived

Mickey Mouse face masks in Shanghai. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

It’s early April, 2021. After a frequently delayed and ultimately aborted Major League Baseball season, the first Opening Day in a post-coronavirus world is here. Having learned from the NFL’s follies in the fall of 2020 — turns out launching Clorox Wipes into the stands was a bad idea — MLB is confident it can hold games safely, with a limited crowd in attendance. As a part of that effort, every home team is giving away a commemorative face mask emblazoned with its logo.

“I could totally see that,” says Tim Andrews, president of the Advertising Specialty Institute, a trade group for the promotional-products industry. “Rally towels are a big thing in a lot of sporting events, and bobbleheads. I think masks could certainly be next.”

Four months into the coronavirus pandemic and four weeks after the CDC recommended wearing masks to “slow the spread of the virus,” Americans have largely accepted the necessity of covering their faces in public. A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans are wearing masks, and that was before states began requiring them as a condition of lifting lockdowns. It remains to be seen how long this state of affairs will last, but as images of a post-quarantine life around the world emerge, it’s not hard to imagine major American cities full of people with their mouths, faces, and chins obscured. And the more people get used to wearing masks, the more they’ll want some say over how those masks actually look.

“It’s all about brand identity,” said Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn. “People wear their brands. Sports identity is a big thing. You can imagine licensing opportunities, Disney masks for kids.”

The NBA and WNBA have already started selling licensed face masks featuring league and team logos, with a single mask running $14.99 and a pack of three going for $24.99. One mask is being donated for each one sold, with proceeds benefiting charities in the U.S. and Canada. Several women’s sports players’ associations have also licensed masks, with the profits going to front-line health-care workers. And a handful of bands, including Megadeth, Korn, and Thursday, have added branded face masks to their merch catalogs. But it was the April 10 launch of by Trevco, a Michigan-based licensing firm, that “opened the licensing floodgates,” according to Licensing International.

In just over two weeks, Trevco has launched more than 2,000 masks featuring recognizable superheroes, cartoon characters, and logos. The company is even offering a $9.99 monthly subscription for consumers who want a fresh face covering every month.

As states begin to loosen lockdown restrictions, many with face-covering requirements in place, businesses are also stocking up on branded masks, Andrews said. In the coming months, the UPS driver who drops off your package might be wearing a brown and yellow one, for example. From the company’s perspective, it will show employees and consumers that UPS is a responsible public citizen doing its part to support public health.

Over the past several months, the Advertising Specialty Institute has seen interest skyrocket, with masks going from a complete nonentity in January to one of the most in-demand items in the industry. “We haven’t seen anything like this since fidget spinners,” Andrews said. “Corporations, sports teams, entertainment, charitable events — I think you’re going to see logos on all sorts of masks.”

Some of these entities’ current charitable impulses may not last forever. “You don’t want to seem like you’re making money out of people’s hardships, and brands do have to be careful,” Kahn cautioned. But a business like the NBA, hurting for revenue from the lockdown, may shift into pure profit mode when the time seems right.

Then there’s politics. Around the world, political parties have already slapped their logos on face masks — but the trend hasn’t hit America yet, despite plenty of poorly Photoshopped images circulating among the MAGA horde. Will President Trump’s election campaign christen bright red face masks with his campaign slogan? “It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Andrews said.

Face Mask Merch Has, Inevitably, Arrived