Investing in Dead Company Swag

Today, we’ve got a fun issue on company merchandise — specifically from companies that have gone bust.

Corporate swag is nothing new. But owning a Google hat or t-shirt isn’t especially cool. Anyone can get that.

You know what is kinda cool though? Owning an original piece of swag from the infamous FYRE festival. Or something from Lehman Bros. Or Silicon Valley Bank.

As it turns out, there is a substantial market for defunct company merch. The fact that the company no longer exists makes the collectible way more interesting, and creates scarcity.

People have a real attraction to novelty products like this. Once a company becomes controversial or folds, branded items become even more exclusive, and part of a larger joke within society.

So today, we’ll act like vultures; picking at the carcasses of failed companies to see what we find.

Let’s go 👇

Silicon Valley Bank goes kaput

There’s a lot going on in the world of finance right now.

The phrase we keep hearing is  banking crisis  — and everybody wants to be the first to declare one (they think it gives them social currency)

But what’s bad for some is great for others. From what I can tell, there are two big beneficiaries of SVB’s unfortunate collapse so far.

The first is crypto, which is  up 36% since SVB failed . And the second is eBay.

That’s right — over the past two weeks, the marketplace has been  flooded  by opportunistic scavengers selling old company merchandise.

And this stuff is expensive.

SVB corporate swag

First up, we’ve got this throw blanket. While it certainly looks comfy, it’s not exactly hand-crafted cashmere.

But it’s got an authentic SVB logo, which makes it an ironic collectible.  Asking price: $1,000 

It’s got the svb logo. Doesn’t matter that it’s used.

Another item that oddly keeps popping up is SVB-branded cheese boards.

Clearly, corporate thought it was a good idea to distribute knives to their employees, because a few of these bad boys are floating around now.

 Asking price: $150 to $250 

This cheese board is another listing from our throw blanket friend. Way to make the most of losing your job!

But perhaps my favorite is the “Authentic Legendary” SVB thermos bottle.

This item has  seen better days . Scratches all along the outside, and a logo that’s fading from white to a sickly grey.

But it can be yours for the modest price of $2,999.

The seller here is clearly having fun with the whole situation.

From the item description:

This water bottle is more than just a vessel for hydration. It’s a piece of history. Imagine sipping from the same bottle that survived the collapse of a failed bank, a true testament to resilience and survival. This water bottle is like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and you could be the lucky owner of a piece of its storied history. Made from the finest materials and infused with a touch of mystery, this water bottle is truly one-of-a-kind.

Other SVB merch that’s been floated includes:

There’s nothing inside the box.

Satirical swag

eBay has also been inundated with satirical swag. This unserious market is filled with shirts designed on Printful, that have slogans like: “SVB Risk Management Department” or “SVB 250k Bank Run 2023”

Seeing the funny side of SVB’s collapse is easy to do when you haven’t personally lost anything. (As such a person, I’m all for it.)

But back to the “serious” swag for a moment. Will all this defunct corporate merchandise actually appreciate in value over time? Or is this stuff a bit of a joke?

This got me thinking: What other companies have gone bust, and how’s their merch doing today?

Companies that went bust

Lehman Brothers

At $211 billion, SVB is the 2nd-largest bank failure in US history.

But the largest bankruptcy belongs to Lehman Brothers, whose $600 billion collapse kickstarted the 2008 global financial crisis ( or did it? ) and began a 14-year liquidation process that literally just ended  last year .

Lehman’s liquidation yielded plenty of swag that’s still around today.

One eBay seller in particular hoarded Lehman Bros items back in 2008, thinking they might come into vogue down the track.

Well, he was right. Today he sells through all sorts of Lehman merch:

Old Lehman Brothers hats bear a striking resemblance to MAGA hats. Come to think of it, you should consider stocking up on those too, since the phrase seems to get re-used  every 36 years .

Wearing Lehman Bros merch has become a way to flaunt “financial humor” and demonstrate a sense of irony.

The thing is, most of these items were  picked up for cheap  after the collapse, and are only just now becoming trendy amongst Zoomers who probably didn’t even live through ’08.

FTX

Sam Bankman-Fried is the modern-day Icarus. He flew too close to the sun (i.e., defrauded millions of innocent people) and deserves a nice, lengthy stint in prison with no peanut butter sandwiches.

SBF complained  he could only eat peanut butter sandwiches  while imprisoned in the Bahamas. For real, man? Those are delicious.

His company FTX was a massive sponsor of  stadiums ,  F1 cars , and anything else they could get their hands on.

The collapse left a lot of stuff behind. But very little of this stuff has made its way to public marketplaces. FTX “swag” is mostly meme-based clothes poking fun at the platform’s collapse.

The most unique thing I could find was this  FTX-sponsored bobblehead  of Golden State Warriors champion Jordan Poole, which is going for $70.

The thing is, Golden State bobbleheads without the FTX logo still sell for $40-70. So the FTX logo hasn’t done much to increase value.

Fyre Festival 🔥

Ahhh yes, you knew this was coming.

Fyre Festival is one of the most ridiculous events ever attempted. If you don’t know the story, there are two great documentaries you can watch.  The better one is on Netflix , and was produced by  30West  — a company we featured in our recent issue on  film financing .

TL;DR: Festival attendees were supposed to get set up in  luxurious villas .

In reality, they were shoved into tents:

In 2020, the  Feds seized and auctioned off  all the Fyre Festival merch they could to help repay some of the $26m owed to island laborers and other victims.

126 items were put up for auction, and collectors pounced on the opportunity like moths to a flame. FYRE hats sold for about  $500 each . (These are pretty tough to find now — there aren’t many authentic caps floating around anymore.)

This stuff is meant to be worn ironically. But I unironically love the FYRE design.

The most expensive piece of clothing was this sweatshirt that  reached $800 :

But no doubt, the best merch on offer was the wristbands and coins (complete with velvet box) sporting the Fyre Festival’s slogan: “A conspiracy to change the entertainment world.”

Well, they were right about the conspiracy part.

What about “alive” company swag?

Companies don’t have to die for their swag to be valuable! When companies rebrand, a market opens up for swag with the old logo.

Apple is a perfect example. Remember their retro  rainbow logo  straight out of the 80s?

Well, that stuff  goes hard . You have to swim through waves of knockoff crap, but boy, the OG swag can be super valuable.

This limited edition retro  Japanese Apple shirt , is listed on second-hand clothing site Gem for $440.
This Apple necklace with the OG rainbow logo sells for $200.

Even Apple merch from the 90s (when they had essentially the same logo as they do today) can  reach $120 for a tee .

90s Apple merch looks like something you’d find in the bargain bin at Salvation Army. But nope – fanboys collect it from  vintage tech t-shirt sites .

Twitter is another example. Of course, Twitter isn’t dead yet (though sometimes it feels like it’s on borrowed time).

But two months ago, they auctioned off a bunch of office supplies and branded assets through  Heritage , a marketplace for surplus and distressed assets.

Some of the cool stuff included:

That’s one way to make those  interest payments . Typically you’d have to wait for a company to go bankrupt to buy such authentic memorabilia. But not at Twitter!

Where are the best places to get company swag?

Your best bet is to work at the company in the first place. Corporate gifts feel like useless clutter, but over my career, I’ve tried to hang onto at least one item from each place I’ve worked (including this completely unauthorized  lynda.com shot glass  my co-worker made.)

All the SVB swag is rushing toward eBay, and Credit Suisse merch isn’t  far behind .

It hasn’t taken long for Credit Suisse merch to get plastered all over eBay. This beanie is listed for $150.

Another option is to embrace the “designer knock-offs” and head over to  Dead Startup Tees .

These guys sell shirts they’ve designed, paying homage to startups like Vine, HyperCard and GeoCities. May they all RIP.

Vine had to fail to make way for TikTok. The founders  regret selling , and now we’re left with a Chinese-owned addition machine on the  cusp of getting banned .

Finally, there was a merch startup called  Extinct Startups . But in a great twist of irony, this startup has also gone extinct.

(Hmm, I wonder if Extinct Startup Tees merch will ever become trendy? Nah.)

If you really want to collect this stuff, just ask around. Some people have so much merch that they’re looking to donate it all:

Is company swag a good investment?

Meh, I’m not convinced.

Look, some of the stuff out there is legit cool. But the real problem is that once an old logo gets trendy, marketplaces get overrun by copycats.

Authenticity is the difference between a rare $400 shirt, and one you find on  Canal Street . Scouring marketplaces is like sifting through a minefield of fake crap, and it’s not like there’s a licensing body to verify most of this stuff.

There’s also a certain element of schadenfreude embedded into this world. It’s easy to point and laugh when con artists like Elizabeth Holmes, Sam Bankman-Fried or Billy McFarland get what’s coming to them. But these collapses affect innocent people too.

Branding has become so detached from the people behind it that it’s hard to feel sorry for Twitter losing hundreds of millions, or Silicon Valley Bank going under. A decade later, ex-Lehman employees don’t mind anyone reppin’ company merch. But picking the corpse of SVB while it’s still warm feels a bit weird.

Defunct company swag can stay relevant for decades, but it’s not really a serious investment. It’s mostly for wearing and flaunting ironically.

Ultimately, you should treat swag like other collectibles. Buy it for the right reasons. Joy. Appreciation. Nostalgia. Design. Cool factor. Bragging rights,

If it goes up in value, great. If not? Doesn’t matter anyways.

Further Reading

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Author

Stefan von Imhof

Stefan von Imhof

As the CEO of Alts, Stefan lives and breathes alternative asset analysis and valuations. His alternative investing newsletter has grown into Alts.co — the world's largest alt investing community, with over 200,000 investors. His favorite alternative investments are holiday rentals, cash-flowing websites, and especially his collection of 300 vinyl records. Originally from Boston and Santa Barbara, CA, he now lives with his wife in Australia.

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