Prayer candles. Action figures. Temporary tattoos. Coloring books.
Elizabeth Warren isn’t just a progressive icon, she’s a merchandising industry unto herself.
The Massachusetts senator and presidential prospect is at the center of a sprawling business built around her appeal to liberals across the country — a reminder of the unabashed devotion she inspires on the left and the footprint she’ll cast in the 2020 Democratic primary.
"Elizabeth Warren is an increasingly popular brand that people want to associate with,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “She’s the Apple of politics."
It’s impossible to know the true size of the Warren merchandising-industrial complex. The bulk of it exists beyond the senator’s control on sites like online marketplace Etsy. And her campaign, which hosts its own online store, declined to disclose the exact amount of money it raises from merchandise sales.
But it’s safe to say no other senator has anything like it.
Warren’s campaign store has expanded beyond traditional political fare such as buttons, bumper stickers, tote bags and t-shirts to offer a line of products that capitalize on the “Nevertheless, she persisted” meme spawned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s much-publicized admonishment of Warren on the Senate floor earlier this year.
Several items are sold out at the moment — among them the $9.99 temporary tattoos. According to the Warren campaign, the tattoos were inspired by attendees to Warren’s home-state town halls this spring who showed up with permanent ink bearing the McConnell quote. The senator gave her blessing for the temporary tat, which uses her handwriting to spell out the quote in dark blue ink.
Her campaign team was quick to recognize the opportunity presented by the dust-up with McConnell. Less than 24 hours elapsed before designers were at work with Warren’s campaign staff trying to translate the viral political meme into product.
They settled on a T-shirt featuring the quote and a boxing glove motif, a theme associated with Warren since her 2012 campaign.
“We wanted to capture the energy of the ‘she persisted’ moment, but also incorporate themes that have been familiar to Sen. Warren’s brand for years,” said Frank Chi, a Democratic media strategist who has worked on designing the Warren logo, digital videos, graphics and web properties. “It’s incredibly exciting to see the energy from ‘she persisted’ continue to this day. But we also want to make sure folks know there’s official merch they can buy that will help her win re-election.”
The campaign says it has sold 20,000 of the t-shirts alone – and at $24.99 a pop, that comes out to almost a half-million dollars. It has already sold out of temporary tattoos and pink hats with white “Nevertheless, she persisted,” stitching, also priced at $24.99 and marketed specifically for Mother’s Day.
Warren’s campaign wouldn’t disclose the specific amount of tattoos and hats produced, but said together it was a “couple thousand.”
The widest range of Warren-inspired swag, however, is sold by private vendors. A quick search of “she persisted” yields roughly 5,400 results on Etsy and 33,000 on Amazon, with items for sale including bracelets, bodysuits, coffee mugs, laptop decals, signs, portraits, cross-stitch patterns, phone cases, coasters, and wine glasses, among other things.
Mike Espejo, a member of a San Diego-based team behind an Warren prayer candle on Etsy — there are multiple Warren prayer candle vendors — says they’ve sold “a couple dozen” candles with the senator depicted in a coat of armor in front of the U.S.Capitol at $12 a pop.
“People really seem to love it,” Espejo said in an email. “We feel that Ms. Warren is a champion of women’s causes, as well as standing up for the ‘little guy,’ so we thought that a prayer candle honoring her was a worthy endeavor and would also help to give her more exposure.”
Christine Molla, a 29-year-old resident physician from Ohio, has sold around 200 “nevertheless, she persisted” aluminum bracelets and donates 10 percent of her proceeds from each purchase to Planned Parenthood.
“I do follow her, I support her, and I own a book she has written,” Molla said of Warren in an email. “Truthfully, I hope to see her on the 2020 ticket and would volunteer to help elect her.”
As much as anything else, the thriving business surrounding Warren is a sign of the heightened engagement and commitment by her fans — some of whom tote Warren-related cross-stitches or hand-painted portraits of the senator to her Massachusetts town halls.
FCTRY, a Brooklyn-based product design company, discovered that when it marketed an Elizabeth Warren action figure earlier this year. “Right now, she is the most popular product on our online store, FCTRY.com, and we expect that popularity to hold strong for the rest of the year,” said spokeswoman Erica Chon.
Thomas Phillips, the director of e-commerce for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, says embracing a political meme like “Nevertheless, she persisted” helps build Warren’s brand on both a local and national level, in addition to serving as a campaign revenue source.
“What Sen. Warren is experiencing with DIY merch, we saw a lot of that on the campaign with Hillary, where people are mimicking something we’d already done or new idea. While merch has a function of fundraising, certainly when you see that stuff out in the field, the good far outweighs the bad in terms of revenue.”
Creative merchandise-based branding — like temporary tattoos and pink hats — also offers a way to appeal to potential voters with a softer, tongue-in-cheek touch, Phillips said.
“If some people are turned off to the political process but see something humorous and poignant, it’s a way to connect that you don’t always get through traditional ads,” Phillips said.
At home, Massachusetts Republicans scoff at Warren’s merchandising appeal, chalking it up to what they view as a cult of personality surrounding her.
“Perhaps Warren should focus less on selling silly slogans and more on delivering results for Massachusetts — otherwise it would make more sense for her to sell ‘inaction figures,’” said state GOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes.
Phillips insists that even when there’s not always a direct financial benefit, the message sent by the myriad of products can be extremely powerful. “Anytime you see people going through an effort to show their support,” he said, “it’ll have an impact.”
Gabriel Debenedetti contributed to this report.