Colleges are turning to license partners to keep branding consistent, legal and on-trend
The Loyola University Ramblers’ march to the Final Four of the NCAA’s 2018 men’s basketball championship was a shock to many. Yet there they were, and fans in the Chicago area scrambled to buy maroon and gold merchandise to cheer on the team.
Thanks to some quick action by the school’s licensing agency, vendors and retailers, those fans were able to stock up on Loyola apparel—some of which even featured the popular Sister Jean, chaplain for the men’s basketball team.
“We basically had a mini office in Chicago,” recalls Ben Emmons, vice president of brand marketing at Learfield Licensing Partners. Emmons says his team rushed to provide in-store retail marketing, signage and bonus gifts with purchases. “The NCAA towel that you couldn’t buy at retail for the most part? We were getting those straight from the towel manufacturer and overnighting them. We couldn’t even stock them. The moment that Sister [Jean] gave her approval on using her image, we had a licensee in their truck driving from Minnesota with 10,000 shirts already being placed at a bookstore, Dick’s Sporting Goods and a bunch of other retailers.”
A licensing partner isn’t only for those schools bracing for a Cinderella story. The partnership can keep marks consistent, merchandise current and legal headaches at bay.
Why Find a Licensing Partner?
Emmons can list many reasons why a school would seek out a licensing partner, chief among them the opportunity to work with experts in promotion and protection.
“We have auditors, we have legal, we’ve got a good team that comes with varied backgrounds in retail licensee development,” Emmons says. “Some were former licensees, some were former bookstore buyers. Plus, we have brand managers.”
It’s not unusual for companies or individuals to hawk unlicensed merchandise, so many schools seek out a licensing agency to protect their brands. Unlicensed products result in lost dollars for universities, and unchecked marks can misrepresent schools. A licensing partner can help staunch the number of faux university T-shirts hitting streets or cyberspace. To counter online counterfeiting, Learfield uses third-party software to shut down online auction sites selling unlicensed products.
“One area that every brand, both college and elsewhere, deals with is counterfeiting online,” Emmons says. “But also, we’re present at game-day enforcement. Depending on the situation, we’re [looking for] those people with the bags of T-shirts and working with local law enforcement.”
Emmons notes that licensing various products in multiple categories ensures a university can protect classes when filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Having a licensing partner also places the school’s brand footprint in all the appropriate areas. Agencies can locate vendors where current or prospective students are located, whether it be local mom-and-pop bookstores blocks from a university or national retailers. A Badgers sweatshirt has an obvious home in a retail shop in Madison, Wisconsin, but it also has a less-obvious—and perhaps equally important presence—in a sporting goods store in Minnesota, a state where 2,630 University of Wisconsin-Madison undergrads hailed from in the spring 2018 semester.
Branded products are one of the most iconic ways to market a school, as evidenced by the recognizable white on navy Yale University apparel (which inspired a similar “Kale” sweatshirt popularized by Beyoncé) or the University of California, Santa Cruz Fighting Banana Slugs shirt John Travolta wore in “Pulp Fiction.” A licensing partner can keep those visuals consistent, remaining true to the school’s mission and identity.
“When Miami’s marks are displayed on merch and sold at retailers, we see this as basically a walking billboard for the university,” says Laura Driscoll, manager of trademarks and licensing at Miami University of Ohio. “It’s free publicity. With that said, we are very intentional when we’re licensing our marks because we want to make sure that … the products that our brand is being produced on align with the university’s brand.”
Driscoll says the school’s licensing partner handles administrative tasks that include processing licensing applications and renewals and managing high-level relationships with retailers and vendors.
A licensing partner can open up relationships with national and regional vendors to carry products that feature colleges’ marks, but it can also present some unusual opportunities for schools.
Learfield partnered with sports cap company New Era, four Latino artists and six universities in Texas, New Mexico and California for the Hispanic Heritage collection. The art featured on the caps was influenced by street art that included hand-drawn letters and Mexican Day of the Dead iconography. The project is now entering its second year, during which Learfield is expanding into additional apparel and partnering with new artists and 20 schools.
“We strategically chose these artists not only for the Hispanic demographic but also for lifestyle,” Emmons says. “Not everyone wants to necessarily wear [traditional college apparel]. The student body is so diverse, we wanted to be sure we could design different types of product.”
One of the greatest benefits of this nontraditional college apparel is how it’s appealed to a new audience—both students and retailers. Emmons says the caps were sold at traditional retailers (LIDS, Fanatics and on-campus bookstores), along with some local streetwear boutiques, where it opened a new avenue for marketing to a fan base the school otherwise might not have reached.
Learfield has also worked with country music stars on product partnerships, and other unique relationships have bloomed between colleges and brands like Victoria’s Secret PINK. Some schools have tapped their own student experts. Driscoll says Miami University’s fashion and design student organizations help the school create on-trend jewelry lines that were produced by some of its licensed vendors.
Having a licensing partner can be beneficial whether a college is rebranding or simply trying to organize and promote its marks.
“Make sure you’re working with partners that align with the university’s brand, and don’t go at it alone,” Driscoll says.
She recommends taking advantage of on-campus resources and knowledge, as her school did with its fashion and design departments, to gain better insights on customers. She emphasizes the importance of a solid administrative foundation. Once partnerships are in place and branded products are available, it’s time to place them in front of the audience in marketing materials.
“We hadn’t ever integrated licensed merchandise into the equation for some of our photoshoots,” Driscoll says. “Now we’re being much more intentional and making sure we’re highlighting Miami’s brand, versus whatever just shows up in the photos. We’re partnering with our retailers to ensure the brand is there.”
Prior to reaching out to a potential licensing partner, Emmons says schools should spend time understanding their brand and their goals—and that means across all departments so the college-wide marks are cohesive. He also makes one simple request: “Have your colors consistent. We’ve had schools with five different shades of green.”