If you’ve ever set an alarm for a product launch, frantically refreshing your browser every two seconds in a mad dash to get a coveted T-shirt, a new Funko Pop!, or a limited-edition Monster High Skullector doll, then you know the stress and the thrill of drop culture.
While supply and demand have always fueled shopping patterns, drop culture has grown into a beast of its own within fandom communities, especially with the rise of social media. Companies use drop culture as a marketing tool to launch new merch in extremely limited quantities, often releasing a “drop” at a specific time and date to create a sense of urgency — some might even call it panic — as shoppers rush to get their hands on the hot, new items.
This strategy began in the fashion world as streetwear brands like Supreme had people lining up in the streets throwing money at hyped-up merch ranging from branded T-shirts and parkas to suitcases and crowbars. Drop culture has since made its way into fandom communities, seen in the lines wrapped around booths at comic conventions as collectors empty their wallets on exclusive merch, or in theme parks where mayhem ensues whenever Disney drops a new character-themed popcorn bucket.
This marketing tactic means that shoppers don’t have the luxury to mull over their potential purchases for weeks on end. You used to be able to casually browse for and snag a Loungefly backpack that you wanted with ease, but now it seems like fans snatch up new drops quickly after the product listings go live online, as was the case with both the Lisa Frank AOP Holographic and the Spider-Man Triple Pocket Multi Logo Mini Backpacks. And while the early bird gets the worm with products sold at physical locations, when it comes to e-commerce, it is quite literally a race to get the products in your digital cart and complete the check-out process as quickly as you can before they sell out. Sometimes the merch might even be gone by the time you enter your credit card information.
“Limited-edition drops bring scarcity and urgency to an e-commerce world in which consumers can shop whenever and wherever they want,” says Mighty Jaxx’s Chief Strategy Officer Brian Tan. “When consumers do not succeed in securing a product, it leaves them wanting more. This enables brands to generate hype, nurture loyalty, and build strong relationships with their communities.”
Mighty Jaxx is a collectibles company that makes designer toys and NFTs. Eleven years after the company launched, it continues to find new ways to bring art toys to a wider fanbase through collaborations with popular brands and licenses across entertainment, sports, fashion, music, and gaming. Some of Mighty Jaxx’s recent buzzworthy drops include the Potato Head by Stella Peaches, a $159 take on Hasbro’s Potato Head designed by a 9-year-old girl; a $169 figure of SpongeBob SquarePants with artist Jason Freeny’s signature dissection treatment; and smaller, more affordable versions of half-skeleton pop-culture icons by Freeny that go for $12.99 each.
“Limited-edition drops go hand-in-hand with collectibles, as it adds to the mystique of the item through exclusivity,” Tan says. Fans feel extra-special when they can be a part of the elite crowd that owns something that not everyone was able to get — that’s part of the fun of collecting.
Drop culture obviously appeals to the sense of FOMO — or “fear of missing out” — but the high-stakes shopping experience also heightens the act of collecting as a whole. “Even if it’s a product you may not exactly want, the rush that comes with knowing you were able to hunt and secure a limited collectible is an experience that many in this space find worth it altogether,” Tan says.
While many companies used to rely on shoppers populating their stores to purchase new products in person, drop culture is evolving with the digital social scene. Livestream shopping platforms like Whatnot and NTWRK are changing the game to create ways for consumers to access new product drops via apps and to buy rare items through resellers with peace of mind.
Founded in 2018, NTWRK is built on a model of daily product drops, livestream shopping festivals, and exclusive partnerships with brands and creators. NTWRK recently partnered with DJ Steve Aoki’s streetwear brand Dim Mak for a Dungeons & Dragons capsule collection. Some other successful collaborations include a livestream giveaway with Hulu featuring set props from The Orville: New Horizons and custom Orville jackets from Free & Easy, an exclusive drop of the Misfit x Atari 50th — Artist Edition JK5 Wrist Watch, and a giveaway featuring limited-edition Atari VCS consoles and joysticks embellished with Swarovski crystals depicting JK5’s artwork.
“Our drops usually only last one week or so before selling out, while some of the rarer anime collab drops go even faster,“ says Dim Mak Creative Brand Manager Brandon Sun. “We love NTWRK because it allows us to directly communicate with our community and grow our brand among other adjacent brands.”
THE SECONDARY MARKET
Whatnot offers a little bit of a different experience than NTWRK, acting as a community marketplace where fans can buy, sell, and connect with fellow collectors. Whatnot got its start in 2019 as a social selling platform for Funko Pop! collectibles, and has since expanded to sell more than 80 different categories of product, including trading cards, comic books, sneakers, estate sales, and more, operating completely on live auctions.
Considering how quickly some Funko Pops! sell out at conventions and online, this platform gives fans a way to get their hands on rare collectibles that they may have missed during the official product drops. In February, Whatnot extended its partnership with Professional Sports Authenticator to include Funko Pop! figures. The partnership first began with trading cards, but now collectors who buy Funko Pops! through Whatnot can also get the figures authenticated and graded before the collectibles are shipped to make sure they are legitimate.
“I think the community and entertainment aspect of livestream shopping is what’s driving more people to shop on apps like Whatnot,” says Ryan Larson, head of collectibles at Whatnot. “For example, card breaks (where sellers break open a pack of cards and viewers can buy-in on the pack) are a big draw on the platform. When a rare or highly sought-after card comes up, it’s a moment when the viewers from different pockets of the country can all share in the excitement. It’s a shared experience that can’t be replicated,” Larson explains.
Whatnot is testing out a new feature, called Drops, which will make in-demand items more accessible to collectors so they can purchase hard-to-find items at retail prices. “Securing access to a limited-quantity product is part of the collector lifestyle, yet many authentic collectors are left on the fringes, pushed out by buyers only interested in reselling at a markup,” Larson says. “We’re always continuing to evolve and serve the dedicated collector community, and our Drops feature is one way we do that.”
Some companies are creating VIP membership programs to give collectors access to exclusive drops and members-only perks, like Mattel’s Hot Wheels Red Line Club and Barbie Signature, both priced at $9.99 per year. Not only do members get the chance to purchase exclusive merch, like Red Line Club Exclusive Selection Cars and Barbie Signature dolls, available only to club members, but they also get first dibs on other products through a priority window before they go on sale to the general public.
Love it or hate it, drop culture is revolutionizing the act of collecting and disrupting the market with new ways for fans to shop. This sales method draws on hype, exclusivity, and community to keep collectors pumped up for each new release, even if they aren’t quick enough to get what they want. Even as drop culture evolves, one thing will always stay the same: Fans will never stop collecting what they love.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 16 of The Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!